Content – Tell a powerful and meaningful story
Here you are, you’ve studied your audience carefully and you’re in command of your nerves. Now what?
The power of stories
Audiences like a strong storyline. They are comfortable with stories. After all from a very early age they learnt about the world by listening to stories from their parents. Just because they are now sophisticated adults makes no difference. Of course you may be addressing children or adolescents, it still makes no difference, we all love a good story into which we can immerse ourselves fully. We like the chance to imagine what comes next, and be surprised. We like to be thrilled, scared and challenged emotionally and intellectually. But first, What makes a great story?
How do stories leave an impact on the listener or reader? There are many good ways to deliver a great presentation as a story but I am a believer in the power of the “3 I’s”.
It’s vital that your opening makes your audience sit up and take notice. Great openings are essential as the impact of your talk depends on this. Start dull and that is what you will end up with, a dulled audience. If you aspire to mediocrity you will certainly achieve it (Harold Coulton).
Let’s look at some great openings to stories.
The first comes from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Another from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
And finally from the master of descriptive writing Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
All these openings were voted into the top ten greatest first lines in written history by the editors of American Book Review http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0934311.html.
Go to this site and discover which is your favourite opening and why? Which one intrigued you the most and why? Which one made you want to read further and why? Which one plucked your emotional chords and why?
Now let’s look at your presentation and the story behind it. What is there about your story that is a bit quirky, shocking, funny or unusual? There are many different ways to start for example, you can go for the “shock and awe” approach I used successfully when presenting to an audience of pharmaceutical company executives a few years back. Briefly my challenge was to give a talk describing my views on how to redesign the drug development process. I can sense you are already yawning – Please stay with me
See I almost lost you because of a sloppy and boring opening to this bit of my story. What I actually said at the time was…………
“Ladies and gentlemen you are all colluding to kill hundreds of thousands of people each year because of your drugs toxic side effects”
Wow! That sure got their close attention.
Now before you panic and throw all your drugs away or consult a lawyer it is true that deaths due to drug toxicity are too high globally but I then went on to say………..
“This is what will be said of you in five to ten years time if you as an industry do not revolutionise your procedures for developing and marketing new drugs.” “Your process as it stands is no longer fit for purpose.” “How are we going to work together to change this prediction?”
See what I did there? I transported the audience to a truly uncomfortable future where they were threatened but then rescued them by saying “All is not lost you can save yourselves.” “Now listen to my story about how I think we can work together to change the future.” I toyed with their emotions before I approached their intellect. For this talk I was not trying to be liked, the topic is far too important for me to worry about being loved by my audience. What I wanted was for them to engage in an honest dialogue, to treat them like adults that can sort this problem out if they chose to do so.
The coffee break was to say the least interesting and I was in constant demand to explain further. My objective to create impact was achieved as was my position as someone deemed to have an opinion worthy of consideration.
How to structure your content and delivery
There are numerous ways to deliver good presentations. You need to master a few and change them around to keep you fresh and your audiences on their toes. The following ones are by no means the only ways. They are intended to get your creative juices flowing.
- Signpost talks – here you tell the audience the general structure and content of your talk right at the outset. The flavour is that this is a talk with no surprises but rather is designed to inform. These talks tend to go along the lines of “I am going to tell you about A, B & C”. Then each section is delivered and finally the speaker gives a conclusion describing what they have just talked about in sections A, B & C. This type of talk is very standard in science and business talks. This is a strong reliable style is fine but can be predictable especially if you are presenting in a conference where everyone adopts the same style. If you are at the end of the day the audience is dull and ready to go home. Any impact you hoped to elicit can be dissipated by audience tiredness if you are not careful.
- Mystery Tours – For this style of talk an attractive title is essential, as is a great opening that describes a question or challenge to be faced by the audience. The talk is not revealed upfront. The story tells itself with each chapter or section ending in a cliff hanger, “We were left with the question do we buy or sell?” After a suitable pause (maybe to take a drink in order to build tension and allow the audience to answer the question in their heads) the next Chapter begins with. “Turned out selling was not such a good idea because ——–.” The presenter continually creates situations, questions and then provides answers that allow a description of the next situation until finally, the fog clears and the finale can be delivered. The strength of this approach is that it challenges the audience to try and guess what is coming next. This keeps them active and engaged in the process of the presentation.
- “How I/We achieved greatness” talks – If you are famous for achieving something, giving talks is an opportunity and a challenge. This is because everyone already knows what you did so why do they need to hear you tell them about something they know? Of course you have to start with the achievement. Lance that boil, get it out there in the open else the audience will feel cheated. Then consider why the audience are here. It might be that they simply want your autograph and photo, a signed copy of your new book or a chance to chat after your talk. More likely is that they need to understand how you overcame adversity or how you worked with difficult people or situations. They want you to describe the gory details so that they can measure themselves against the same challenge but from the safety of their seats. This is why “127 hours” was such as hit. There is no avoiding this you have to give them what they want. It is a pretty straightforward task but you will need to smatter it with powerful description, especially your emotional rollercoaster and drop in occasional gallows humour if appropriate. Ending this kind of talk can be a little tricky but I will deal with ending strategies in a later blog post.
- Interactive presentations – In this group can be grouped workshops, master classes and sand-pits. In some ways these can take the heat off the main presenter but it will be your job to set the scene and tone of the sessions. You will also probably act as a facilitator required to reboot the session with new insights or story elements every so often during the session. This kind of presentation will have you dancing in the moment rather like dramatic improvisation or stand-up comedy. Great fun but can be a stressful thrill ride for the inexperienced.
Of course this is not meant to be an exhaustive list but it should get you thinking about even more structures you can construct for your presentation style repertoire.
You have the audience’s attention, what do they demand next? One option is that you could deliver your red-hot information in a perfectly honed way, close and walk out but if you were in that audience how would you be feeling? Remember, we discussed in the first of this series your aim is to leave the maximum intellectual, emotional even spiritual impact on your audience and you want them to do something different when they leave. You must inspire them!
For a moment think of someone in your life who truly inspired you. Not someone you read about but someone real; maybe a parent, a relative or a teacher; you chose. Take a moment to concentrate and remember them. Remember what it was that inspired you. I have been lucky to have a several such people in my life. Mel my wife is a constant inspiration because of her humanity, patience and constant support. Paddy Swan was a college teacher whose humour and enthusiasm was brilliant. Finally, Prof Roger Mason once my Head of Department at Charing Cross Medical School was my talisman. He believed in me, he challenged me and he showed me by example what it was to be a good scientist. The thing that unites them all is their deep and overt belief in me and my ability to find my own way in my professional and personal life. They did give me signposts but encouraged me to discover my own routes, to develop self-reliance and mastery of my own destiny. You have to motivate, thrill and be there for your audience. You need to be their talisman for the duration of your presentation supporting them in their adventure.
An audience will connect with you if they believe that you are on their side, you want them to succeed and most of all that you see they are mature enough to handle what you are telling them. If you can do this with humour and humility along with an obvious command of your subject they will come with you on the journey. If you can show enthusiasm for your subject and most of all how it impacts on your audience then you will have the tools to inspire.
The key to developing an inspirational technique is to think about them and not you and do this from honest expression of your core values married with authentic delivery.
A criticism of some “motivational” speakers is that they trigger emotions in their audiences during the presentation but rather like recreational drugs the highs are followed by a disappointing and rapid downer. How can this be? After all they have pushed all the high impact emotional buttons, why doesn’t it last? If you inspect this carefully, it’s a bit like being a footballer who is shouted at by their coach and during the game they get angry and play above themselves. This is fine when playing in the lower divisions but when you are promoted up the league anger alone is insufficient, it can even be used by opponents to win penalties and get you sent off the field. Great coaches give players the tools to improve themselves; to be able to use their heads as well as their hearts. To be a great speaker you must also be a great coach. It is also really difficult to maintain a high state of emotion no matter what flavour.
A great presenter provides the audience with opportunities to create their own intellectual and emotions constructs and strategies. They lead them along paths of adventure by informing them about aspects of the subject that make sense. They follow a logical pathway and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions even ones that do not match the speaker’s. Remember, just because you believe passionately in one answer to the problem it does not mean that anyone else has to buy into it. What you should want at all costs is that they care enough after hearing you that they seek an answer and that they find their own. It’s a bonus if you end up agreeing!
At all costs never forget the audience are in some respect already experts and you must treat them accordingly. Even if your subject is completely new to them they remain experts in their own lives and how things impact on them. What they seek is for you to present information that allows them to become yet more expert and for you to widen their horizons. If you do that you will have succeeded.
You have intrigued them, inspired them and informed them – What have you really achieved?
You have extended mature trust to your audience. You have trusted them to receive your information. You have trusted yourself to deliver your information from the real you. When it all works there comes a moment in the presentation when, if you have your senses all working maximally that you can feel that you and your audience are together sharing trust, sharing insight and sharing a desire to change the future. Finally, how do you embed this so that this feeling cannot slip away in the final two minutes? The ending is just as crucial as the opening. Your aim is to leave an echo of your voice and your inspiration with your audience. It must linger when you are no longer with them and it must be re-ignited when they meet new challenges that remind them of your message.
Now design your title
I hope this seems strange to you, it was meant to be. See what I did again? I included a surprise. This time it’s a surprise ending. Surely you ask don’t I need to decide a title at the beginning of this process? No, for me the title is a punchy and powerful expression of the final product, the final message. Once you know what that message will be why not create your title from that? If we go back to my talk to the pharmaceutical executives what in fact was my title? It was “A new industry-led solution for drug development based upon drug safety”. I wanted them to have a clear message from the outset that I expected them to contribute to the work during and after my talk. I wanted them to leave me with the inspiration to take charge of the challenge and do the work, not me.
Talking of endings — see you on my next “Winning them over – Power Presentation” post.