author of Slide:ology and the
HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations
The best stories become etched on our hearts, igniting information and giving it the ability to withstand the test of time. Duarte melds the power of story with striking visuals to turn ideas into powerful presentations that help you activate your audience, and leave them forever transformed.
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The play icon signifies video, audio, or animations that elaborate on a point discussed in the text.
The clapboard icon denotes areas where the author has shared behind-the-scenes facts and stories from the making of this book, Duarte, Inc., and life.
The Presentation Form™ is used as an analysis tool throughout the book and is visually expressed as a sparkline (a term developed by Edward Tufte). Touch the Presentation Form to expand it and reveal an interactive analysis of the presentation. Some Presentation Forms come with additional features, like transcripts and audio.
The light blue pages at the end of each chapter contain a quiz, which covers the information discussed in the previous section. To answer the questions, select one of the multiple-choice options. Then, touch “Check Answers” to see if you’re correct. For each correct answer, the selection will be highlighted in green. For each incorrect answer, your selection will be highlighted in red and a green border will appear around the correct option. The quiz will tally the final score and calculate your percentage. “Try Again” will clear all the answers.
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Movements are started, products are purchased, philosophies are adopted, subject matter is mastered—all with the help of presentations.
Great presenters transform audiences. Truly great communicators make it look easy as they lure audiences to adopt their ideas and take action. This isn’t something that just happens automatically; it comes at the price of long and thoughtful hours spent constructing messages that resonate deeply and elicit empathy.
Throughout the book you’ll learn from some of the greatest communicators. Each is different and yields a unique insight, yet they share a common thread: they all create a groundswell of support for their ideas. These communicators don’t have to force or command their audiences to adopt their ideas. Instead, the audience responds willingly with a surge of support.
Presentations are most commonly delivered to persuade an audience to change their minds or behavior. Presenting ideas can either evoke puzzled stares or frenzied enthusiasm, which is determined by how well the message is delivered and how well it resonates with the audience. After a successful presentation, you might hear people say, “Wow, what she said really resonated with me.”
Resonance is a well-known phenomenon in physics. You can cause an object to vibrate without any physical contact—if you know its natural rate of vibration. When an object responds to an external stimulus that has the same frequency as its own, that’s resonance. The video you see here is a beautiful visual illustration of resonance. My son connected a metal plate to an amplifier so that the sound waves would travel through the plate. Then he poured salt onto it. As he raised the frequency, the sound waves tightened and the
grains of salt jiggled, popped, and then moved to new places, reorganizing themselves into beautiful patterns as though they knew where they “belonged.” Haven’t you often wished you could make customers, employees, investors, or students snap, crackle, pop, and move to the new place they need to be in order to create a new future?
Wouldn’t it be great if audiences were as obedient and united in thought and intent as the grains of salt? They can be. If you tune yourself to the frequency of your audience, your ideas will resonate deeply, and your audience will demonstrate self-organizing behavior. Your listeners will understand where they must move to collectively form something beautiful: a groundswell.
The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to fit them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there. Your audience will be significantly moved if you send a message that is tuned to their needs and desires. They might even quiver with enthusiasm and act in concert to create beautiful results.
Presentations are about change. Businesses, and indeed all professions, have to change and adapt in order to stay alive.
Organizations pass through a life cycle from start-up to growth to maturity—and eventually to decline—unless they work to reinvent themselves. Businesses are usually founded because someone had a clear vision of a future world that was an improved place. But that improved world of tomorrow quickly becomes the ordinary world of today. When an organization reaches maturity, it shouldn’t get too comfortable or it will decline. To avoid that, it must change strategy so it can continue to be at the right place at the right time in the new future. Otherwise, it will eventually wither. Each strategy change in the reinvention process must be communicated to all the stakeholders, both internal and external.
Moving in the direction of an uncertain future with unknown risks and rewards takes guts and intuitive skill, yet unless businesses make these moves they’re not likely to survive. Companies that are able to flourish in the never-ending alternation and tension between what is and what could be are healthier than companies that can’t. It’s often impossible to quantify the future based on statistics or make predictions that have the trustworthiness of proven facts. Leaders must sometimes follow their gut into uncharted regions where no statistics have ever been generated.
Organizations must continually shift and make improvements to remain in good health. That converts even the most ordinary presentations at staff meetings into platforms for persuasion. Your team needs to be motivated to self-organize at new, specific places in the future to avoid the possible demise of your organization.
Getting ahead of the next curve requires courage and communication: courage to determine the next bold move, and communication to keep the troops committed to the value of moving forward.
Rallying stakeholders to move together in a common course of action is all part of the innovation and survival process. Leaders at every level in an organization need to be skillful at creating resonance if that organization is to control its own destiny.
“Progress is impossible without change; and
those who cannot change their minds cannot
George Bernard Shaw
Presentations have become the common language of business activity because no other communication tool is as effective for transforming an audience—yet many presentations are boring. Most fail dreadfully as communication tools, and the rest are just not interesting. How could these corpses be resuscitated to the point that they not only show signs of life, but actually engage audiences and evoke rapt attention?
If you’ve been trapped in a bad presentation, you recognize the feeling almost immediately. You can tell within minutes that it’s just not good; it doesn’t take long to recognize a corpse! To make matters worse, it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep an audience’s attention as global cultures become media-rich environments.
So why then, if presentations are so bad, are they scheduled? People inherently know that connecting in person can yield powerful outcomes. We crave human connection. Throughout history, presenter-to-audience exchanges have rallied revolutions, spread innovation, and spawned movements. Presentations create a catalyst for meaningful change by using human contact in a way that no other medium can.
Many times it isn’t until you speak with people in person that you can establish a visceral connection that motivates them to adopt your idea. That connection is why average ideas sometimes get traction and brilliant ideas die—it all comes down to how the ideas are presented.
To move closer to the pulse of entertainment, presentations must have an ebb and flow, and what provides that movement is contrast—in content, texture, and delivery. Just like you tap your toe to a good beat, your brain enjoys tapping along with a good presentation, but only if something new is continually unfolding and developing.
Breathing life into an idea requires a lot of effort. Creating a presentation that’s interesting is a thoughtful process that involves a lot more than simply throwing together the kind of blather that we’ve come to call a presentation. You have to make a serious commitment to the time, discipline, and energy it takes to understand your audience and craft a message that will resonate with them.
There is a simple way to determine whether it’s worth putting this level of commitment into a presentation…
The presenter’s job is to make the audience clearly “see” ideas. If your ideas stand out, they’ll be noticed. The enemy of persuasion is obscurity. You can learn what attracts attention by examining the opposite—camouflage. The purpose of camouflage is to reduce the odds that someone will notice you by blending into an environment. When is blending in appropriate for a communicator? Never. The more you want your idea adopted, the more it must stand out. If the idea blends with the environment, both its clarity and chances for adoption are diminished. An audience should never be asked to make decisions based on unclear options.
Don’t blend in; instead, clash with your environment. Stand out. Be uniquely different. That’s what will draw attention to your ideas. Nothing has intrinsic attention-grabbing power in itself. The power lies in how much something stands out from its context.
If you go hunting with your college buddies and
don’t want to be confused with their prey,
you’d be advised to wear safety orange.
Since there’s nothing in the woods that
particular color, you’ll stand out.
In communications, standing out from the “environment” means standing out amongst your competitors or even contrasting within your own organization. You must show how your idea contrasts with existing expectations, beliefs, feelings, or attitudes if you want to gain the audience’s rapt attention. It certainly feels safer and easier to conform to the well-worn groove of sameness than to stand out and be vulnerable. But being buried in a sea of sameness does not yield greatness or solve big problems.
It can be scary running around your bland organization with a safety orange target on your back. It’s risky, and it takes fortitude to be different amongst friend and foe. But it’s important for your message to stand out, or it won’t be remembered.
While you don’t necessarily need to rebel against the current messages and content, you do need to lift them out of the drab traditional way they are communicated. Identify opportunities for contrast and then create fascination and passion around these contrasts.
There’s truth in the cliché, “Just be yourself.” Showing your humanness when you present is a great way to stand out. It’s a quality that’s totally lacking in most presentations today—even though the entire audience consists of humans! In many organizations, employees are conditioned to string together meaningless words, put them on slides, and then repeat them like a robot. The accepted norm is for presenters to hide behind slides, as though hiding were a form of effective communication.
Presenters think they can hide behind a wall of jargon, but what people are really looking for when they sit down at a presentation is some kind of human connection.
When two people share common beliefs and connect based on those beliefs, the result is the most human, transparent, and relational form of communication that can occur. Presentations are ideal opportunities for this level of communication, because they are one of the few types of interactions where people connect in person, and it’s deep connections that make great presentations stand out. Forming connections is an art, and when it’s practiced well, the results can be astounding.
Being human and taking risks are the foundation of creative results. Taking risks shows you’re willing to tap into something your gut is telling you will work, and then not letting your head talk you out of it. That’s creativity and humanness at its best. Unfortunately, many cultures stifle risk-taking, and many workplaces constrain human connectedness.
“Being true to yourself involves showing and sharing emotion. The spirit that motivates most great storytellers is ‘I want you to feel what I feel,’ and the effective narrative is designed to make this happen. That’s how the information is bound to the experience and rendered unforgettable.”
It’s easier to rattle off jargon and keep communication emotionally neutral. But easiest doesn’t always mean best.
Even with mountains of facts, you can still fail to resonate. That’s because resonance doesn’t come from the information itself, but rather from the emotional impact of that information. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon facts entirely. Use plenty of facts, but accompany them with emotional appeal.
There’s a difference between being convinced with logic and believing with personal conviction. Your audience may agree with the thought process you present, but they still might not respond to the call. People rarely act by reason alone. You need to tap into other deeply seated desires and beliefs in order to be persuasive. You need a small thorn that is sharper than fact to prick their hearts. That thorn is emotion.
“The problem is this: no spreadsheet, no bibliography and no list of resources is sufficient proof to someone who chooses not to believe. The skeptic will always find a reason, even if it’s one the rest of us don’t think is a good one. Relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission—which is emotional connection.”
So today more than ever, communicating only the detailed specifications or functional overviews of a product isn’t enough. If two products have the same features, the one that appeals to an emotional need will be chosen.
Aristotle said that the man who is in command of persuasion must be able “to understand the emotions—that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.” And that “persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.”3
As consumers, people are hardly strangers to emotional appeal, and there’s little doubt that they’re prepared to respond emotionally to a presentation. So why aren’t presentations more emotional? The answer is, it’s an uncomfortable style for presenters, and especially for analytical professionals. At work, most people think, “They’re not paying me to feel, they’re paying me to do.” Of course that’s true. But if you can’t motivate your team to move forward or convince your customers to buy, then you are in trouble.
Including emotion in a presentation doesn’t mean it should be half fact and half emotion. It also doesn’t mean there should be boxes of tissue under each seat. It simply means that you introduce humanness that appeals to the desires of the audience. It’s not that difficult to evoke a visceral reaction in an audience if you use stories.
“The public is composed of numerous groups that cry out to us: ‘Comfort me.’ ‘Amuse me.’ ‘Touch my sympathies.’ ‘Make me sad.’ ‘Make me dream.’ ‘Make me laugh.’ ‘Make me shiver.’ ‘Make me weep.’ ‘Make me think.’”
Henri René Albert Guy De Maupassant4
Ever since humans first sat around the campfire, stories have been told to create emotional connections. Stories have also served as containers of information. In many societies, they have been passed along nearly unchanged for generations. The greatest stories of all time were packaged and transferred so well that hundreds of illiterate generations could repeat them. Our early ancestors had stories to explain day-to-day occurrences in nature like why the sun rises and falls, as well as more overarching, meta-narratives about the meaning of life. Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form.
People love stories because life is full of adventure and we’re hard-wired to learn lessons from observing change in others. Life is messy, so we empathize with characters who have real-life challenges similar to the ones we face. When we listen to a story, the chemicals in our body change and our mind becomes transfixed.5 We are riveted when a character encounters a situation that involves risks and elated when he averts danger and is rewarded.
If you’re like many professionals, using stories to create emotional appeal feels unnatural because it requires showing at least some degree of vulnerability to people you don’t personally know all that well. Telling a personal story can be especially daunting because great personal stories have a conflict or complication that exposes your humanness or flaws. But these are also the stories that have the most inherent power to change others. People enjoy following a leader who has survived personal challenges and can share her narrative of struggle and victory (or defeat) comfortably.
“The best way to unite an idea with an emotion is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”
Information is static; stories are dynamic—they help an audience visualize what you do or what you believe. Tell a story and people will be more engaged and receptive to the ideas you are communicating. Stories link one person’s heart to another. Values, beliefs, and norms become intertwined. When this happens, your idea can more readily manifest as reality in their minds.
Whether you’re trying to connect with your audience through stories or some other way, you must remember that your presentation isn’t all about you. Audiences react very badly to arrogance and ego. These traits call up the same feelings you’ve probably had when you find yourself cornered by some dreadful, self-centered know-it-all at a cocktail party. He’ll tell you about what he is interested in, how hip he is, and imply that you are lucky to have met him. Meanwhile you’re thinking, “What an asshole!” and searching for any chance to escape. Why is that? It’s because his monolog doesn’t include you, your thoughts, or your point of view. Self-focused people don’t make connections. No one wants to date, work with, or sit through a presentation given by someone like that. So why is it that presentations are so packed with self-centered content?
Most presentations start with “me-ness.” Somewhere in the front of the slide deck is the dreaded “it’s all about me” slide that typically looks like one of the slides below.
It is important that the audience know something about you and your company. There are ways to communicate this information (like a handout) so you can focus on the people in the audience right at the onset and focus your presentation so it resonates at their frequency instead of yours.
When you present, it’s natural to believe your product or cause should be more important than anything else to your audience. You may even feel like you’re their hero, there to rescue them from their helplessness and ignorance. You may think, “If they only knew what I know, the world would be a better place.” But if you get up in front of them and rattle on about yourself, your ideas, and your products, you’ll be just like the self-centered jerk at the cocktail party, and your audience will want to flee.
Instead, embrace a stance of humility and deference to your audience’s needs. Begin the presentation from a shared place of understanding. Make it about the audience.
You need to defer to your audience because if they don’t engage and believe in your message, you are the one who loses. Without their help, your idea will fail.
Screenwriter Chad Hodge points out in Harvard Business Review that we should “[help] people to see themselves as the hero of the story, whether the plot involves beating the bad guys or achieving some great business objective. Everyone wants to be a star, or at least to feel that the story is talking to or about him personally.”7 Business leaders need to take this to heart, place the people in the audience at the center of the action, and make them feel that the presentation is addressing them personally.
When you show up to give a presentation, your attitude shouldn’t be an arrogant, “It’s all about me.” Instead, it should be a humble, “It’s all about them.” Remember, your success—and the success of your firm—both depend on them, not the other way around. You need them.
If you’re asking yourself, “What’s my role?” the answer is, you’re the mentor. You’re not Luke Skywalker. You’re Yoda. It’s the audience that’s going to do all the hard work so that you can attain your objectives. You’re just a voice that can help them get unstuck on their journey.
Mentors are usually depicted as sources of wisdom. Modern examples of mentors are The Oracle in The Matrix or Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. As a mentor, your task is to support the hero with guidance, insight, training and advice, instill confidence, and even provide magical gifts so he can get past his fears and begin a new journey with you.
If you alter your stance from seeing yourself as the hero to accepting the role of mentor, your viewpoint will change. You’ll feel more humility as your audience’s aide de camp. Remember, the nature of a mentor is to be selfless and willing to make personal sacrifices to help the hero obtain his reward.
Most mentors have the experience to teach others about the journey because they were once heroes themselves. They can share the knowledge they gained about special tools and powers they picked up on their own life’s journey. Mentors have traveled the hero’s road before and they can pass on the skills they acquired to the hero.
You may well be the smartest person in the room where you’re giving your presentation, but you must wield the power that knowledge gives you wisely and humbly. You should never view a presentation as a chance to show how brilliant you are. You want the audience to leave thinking, “Wow, spending time in that presentation with (your name goes here) was a true gift. I’m armed with insights and tools to help me succeed that I didn’t have before.”
Changing your stance from hero to mentor will clothe you in humility and help you see things from a new perspective. Audience insights and resonance can only occur when a presenter takes a stance of humility.
Review what you’ve learned so far. Each question has one right answer.
Presentations have the power to change the world. The nexus of almost every movement and high-stakes decision relies on the spoken word to get traction, and presentations are a powerful platform to persuade.
But presentations are broken; they are considered a necessary evil instead of a tool of great power. That power springs from the presenter’s ability to make a deep human connection with others. Instead of connecting with others, presentations tend to be self-centered, which alienates audiences. The opportunity to transform is diminished when audiences don’t feel a connection.
Changing your stance from that of the hero to one of the wise storyteller will connect the audience to your idea, and an audience connected to your idea will change.
All types of writing, including presentations, fall somewhere in between two extreme poles: reports and stories. Reports inform, while stories entertain. The structural difference between a report and a story is that a report organizes facts by topic, while a story organizes scenes dramatically.1 Presentations fall in the middle, and contain both information and story, so they are called explanations. In many organizations the norm is to default to writing reports instead of telling stories. But a presentation isn’t a report.
Some people seem to think that using a presentation application, like PowerPoint, will magically turn their report into a presentation. It won’t. Reports are meant to be distributed. Presentations are designed to be presented. Documents all too often pose as presentations, and in many organizations these “slideuments”2 are now the common mode of communication. It’s not that reports aren’t valuable; they just shouldn’t be projected on a screen so an audience can participate in a “read-along.”
The primary purpose of a report is to convey information, while stories are told to produce an experience. The middle area between the two is where explanatory presentations belong. A blend of the two is ideal for your presentation, so that facts and stories can be layered like a cake. Navigating back and forth between fact and story creates a pulse and builds interest. When report material is mixed with story material, information becomes more digestible. It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Presenting dull, data-driven reports may be more comfortable and require less presentation time, but static reports don’t establish a connection between people and ideas. As soon as you know your task is to create a presentation rather than a report, shift your goal from simply transferring information to producing an experience. This will be the first step in shifting your mindset from the report end of the spectrum to the place where stories belong.
There are plenty of opportunities to use dramatic story structure in presentations. But how do you create a dramatic experience? Creating desire in the audience and then showing how your ideas fill that desire moves people to adopt your perspective. This is the heart of story.
This chapter will draw insights from the best story methods available today: mythology, literature, and cinema. Once you understand their power, you’ll see why great presentations move away from reports and closer to stories.
Presentations have the potential to hold an audience’s interest just like a good movie. You might be thinking that it takes years to write a successful screenplay, and you have a real job to do. But isn’t part of your “real job” to communicate ideas well, help people understand objectives, and persuade them to change? Building your presentations with some of the attributes from myths and movies will help your ideas resonate with others.
In great stories you meet a hero you can relate to. This hero is almost always likeable. He also has an intense desire or goal that is threatened in one way or another. As the story progresses, you root for him as he successfully confronts his trials and tribulations until he is finally transformed and the story is resolved. As Author Robert McKee explains in his book Story, “Something must be at stake that convinces the audience that a great deal will be lost if the hero doesn’t obtain his goal.”3 If nothing is at risk, then it’s not interesting.
One reason presentations are so boring is that they lack recognizable story patterns. The following pages analyze two story models that are considered by the film industry to be basic for creating a good screenplay. When you apply them, they’ll help you develop your message and discover the potential for storytelling in your presentations. These forms work! Rather than relying on set formulas or rigid rules, they focus on structure and character transformation. Because they’re flexible, they don’t stifle creativity.
Once you’ve been shown these story forms from Hollywood, you’ll be introduced to a form that’s similar, but designed specifically to help presenters: The Presentation Form.
The most simplistic way to describe the structure of a story is situation, complication, and resolution. From mythic adventures to recollections shared around the dinner table, all stories follow this pattern.
Screenwriters use tools to create a solid structure and story. Syd Field is considered the father of Hollywood’s story template. In his book Screenplay, Field uses concepts from the three-act structure first proposed by Aristotle to create the Syd Field Paradigm, shown below. Field noticed that in successful movies, the second act was often twice the length of the first and third acts:
All stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a defining point in which the beginning turns into the middle and middle into the end. Field calls these plot points. A plot point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that spins the story around in another direction. Each plot point sets up the story for a change.
A great presentation is similar to a screenplay in several ways:
This is a form, not a formula. It’s what a screenplay would look like if you could X-ray it and examine its structure. The movie Shawshank Redemption is shown in the diagram on the previous page with the acts and plot points annotated.
Field’s model makes sense as a template for scripting movies; however, it is only partially applicable to presentations. Next, we’ll examine an additional story form that will supply some of the missing pieces.
Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, has worked in Hollywood for many years as a story analyst. When Vogler was at Disney, he began to apply Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey to his work. Campbell had travelled the world studying culture’s mythological stories and discovered an 18-part story structure they all had in common. Vogler pulled insights from Campbell’s work and simplified the steps for screenplay analysis to 12.
Campbell traditionally displayed The Hero’s Journey in a circle. In the chart on the next page, starting at the top of the wheel, move clockwise through each step. Vogler’s stages of The Hero’s Journey are as follows: (1) The journey begins with the introduction of the Heroes in the Ordinary World, where (2) they are presented with the Call to Adventure. (3) Their initial reluctance may lead to Refusal of the Call, but they (4) receive encouragement from a Mentor to (5) cross over the Threshold and gain entry into the Special World. (6) There, they encounter Tests, Allies, and Enemies. (7) They Approach the Inmost Cave where (8) they must endure an Ordeal. (9) The Reward is seized and (10) they are pursued as they follow The Road Back to the Ordinary World. (11) They are transformed by the experience of a Resurrection and (12) return triumphant with the Elixir—an item of great value that will benefit the Ordinary World.6
Heroes endure physical activities (outer journey), but also experience internal transformations to their hearts and minds at each stage. Then, the outermost ring uses Star Wars: Episode IV as an example, showing the outer journey in gray text and the inner journey in green.
An important insight emerges when The Hero’s Journey is represented in a circle: it creates a clear division between the ordinary world and the special world (signified by the gray dotted line). There is a moment in every story where the character overcomes reluctance to change, leaves the ordinary world, and crosses the threshold into an adventure in a special world.
In the special world, the hero gains skills and insights—and then brings them back to the ordinary world as the story resolves.
Presentations use insights from myths and movies in several ways:
Crossing the threshold is an important moment, because it signals that the hero is making a commitment. Let’s look more closely at that turning point.
If the audience is the hero in your story, then the objective during your presentation is to get them past the fourth step in the wheel. Your presentation takes them to the threshold, but it’s their choice whether to cross it or not.
At the heart of your presentation there’s an idea, and when you’re presenting you’ll ask the audience to adopt it and shepherd it into the world. It might involve recasting the shape of an organization, or explaining how your product fills a customer’s needs. It might involve helping students internalize certain subject matter or perform well on a test. Whatever it is, adopting this idea will require the audience to consciously step into something new.
You need to acknowledge that no change you request from your heroes will be made without a struggle. Making a change is not easy. Convincing people they should commit to change is probably the greatest challenge an organization can face. The time the hero meets the mentor is exactly the time that he or she
needs to make the decision to cross the threshold—and enter the special world. The parallel to making a presentation is lovely. Your ideas will help the audience commit to making a change. If you do a good job, they’ll voluntarily cross the threshold and enter the special world. But you can’t force them.
If the audience sees your presentation and then makes the decision to cross the threshold and adopt your perspective, they will start out on the rest of The Hero’s Journey (stages five through twelve) as soon as they leave. Since you’re their mentor, you should prepare them as well as you can for what to expect as they continue the journey, and equip them for success along the way. In movies, the stages of The Hero’s Journey usually take place in a chronological sequence. But in a presentation, you aren’t bound by the constraints of time and place. The presentation medium gives you the freedom to move around in any order you want as you address insights into how your audience can accomplish steps five through twelve.
Let’s remember that there is one indisputable attribute of a good story: there must be some kind of conflict or imbalance perceived by the audience that your presentation resolves. This sense of discord is what persuades them to care enough to take action. In a presentation, you create imbalance by consciously juxtaposing what is with what could be.
What is versus what could be. Drawing attention to that gap forces the audience to contend with the imbalance until a new balance is achieved.
The Presentation Form
Presentations should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Two clear turning points in a presentation’s structure guide the audience through the content and distinctively separate the beginning from the middle and the middle from the end. The first is the call to adventure—this should show the audience a gap between what is and what could be—jolting the audience from complacency. When effectively constructed—an imbalance is created—the audience will want your presentation to resolve this imbalance. The second turning point is the call to action, which identifies what the audience needs to do, or how they need to change. This second transition point signifies that you’re coming to the presentation’s conclusion.
Each presentation concludes with a vivid description of the new bliss that’s created when your audience adopts your proposed idea. But notice that the presentation form doesn’t stop at the end of the presentation. Presentations are meant to persuade, so there is also a subsequent action (or crossing the threshold) the audience is to do once they leave the presentation.
Let’s look at the form in more detail on the following pages.
The Hero’s Journey begins when “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.”7 Your presentation may not offer “supernatural wonder,” but you are asking the audience to leave their comfort zone and venture to a new place that is closer to where you think they should be.
The beginning of your presentation is represented by the first flat line of the presentation form. This is where you describe the audience’s ordinary world and set the baseline of what is. You can use historical information about what has been, or the current state of what is, which often includes the problem you’re currently facing.
You should deliver a concise formulation of what everyone agrees is true. Accurately capturing the current reality and sentiments of the audience’s world demonstrates that you have experience and insights on their situation, and that you understand their perspective, context, and values.
Done effectively, this description of where your audience currently is will create a common bond between you and them, and will open them up to hear your unique perspective more readily. Audiences are grateful when their contribution, intelligence, and experience are acknowledged.
Additionally, describing their existing world gives you the opportunity to create a dramatic dichotomy between what is and what could be. Proposing what could be should throw the audience’s current reality out of balance. Without first setting up what is, the dramatic effect of your new idea will be lost.
The beginning doesn’t have to be long. It might be as simple as a short statement or phrase that sets the baseline of what is. While it can be longer, it should not take up more than ten percent of your total time. The audience will be anxious to know why they came and what you are proposing. So, although the beginning is important, it shouldn’t be long-winded.
The first turning point to occur in a presentation is the call to adventure, which triggers a significant shift in the content. The call to adventure asks the audience to jump into a situation that, unbeknownst to them, requires their attention and action. This moment sets the presentation in motion.
“A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Euripides8
The call to adventure should present your big idea of what could be in a way that’s clear and memorable. This is the first time the audience will see the glaring contrast between what is and what could be—and it’s imperative that the gap is clear.
The call to adventure in a presentation plays a role similar to the inciting incident in a movie. Story author Robert McKee says, “The inciting incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance.”9 That imbalance is what elicits the audience’s desire for a reality different from the current one. Pose an intriguing insight that your audience will want the presentation to address. It should stir them up enough (positively or negatively) so that they want to listen intently as you explain what is at stake and what it takes to resolve the gap.
This turning point should be explicit, not muddled or vague. The remainder of the presentation should be about filling that gap and drawing the audience toward your unique perspective of what could be.
“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” William Hazlitt10
The middle of a presentation is made up of various types of contrast. People are naturally drawn to contrast, because life is surrounded with it. Day and night. Male and female. Up and down. Good and evil. Love and hate.
Building highly contrasting elements into a presentation holds the audience’s attention. Audiences enjoy experiencing a dilemma and its resolution—even if that dilemma is caused by a viewpoint that’s opposed to their own. It keeps them interested.
The audience wants to know if your views are similar to or different from their views. While listening to a presenter, audience members catalog and classify what they hear. Having come into the room with their own knowledge, and biases, they are constantly evaluating
whether what you say fits within their life experiences, or falls outside of what they know.
It’s important to know your audience so that you can understand how your views are both similar to and different from theirs. There will usually be some disparities. A rather obvious business example would be that you want them to buy your product, and they don’t want to spend the money.
But differences aren’t a problem. The polarity between similar and dissimilar concepts creates a force that can be put to good use. In fact, both extremes are necessary in a presentation. They allow you to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar—and to cover several points of view. They create observable distinctions between your perspectives and your audience’s perspectives—this helps keep their attention. Though people are generally more comfortable with what’s familiar to them, conveying the opposite creates internal tension. Oppositional content is stimulating; familiar content is comforting. Together, these two types of content produce forward movement.
There are three distinct types of contrast you can build into a presentation:
Contrast is a motif woven throughout this entire book, and is at the heart of communication because people are attracted to things that stand out.
“As the polarized nature of magnetic fields can be used to generate electrical energy, polarity in a story seems to be an engine that generates tension and movement in the characters and a stirring of emotions in the audience.”
The second transition, the call to action, clearly defines what you’re asking the audience to do. Successful persuasion leads to action, and it is important to clearly state exactly how you want the audience to take action. This step in the presentation gives the audience discrete tasks that will help bring the ideas you convey in your presentation to fruition. Once this line is crossed, the audience needs to decide if they are with you or not—so make it clear what needs to be accomplished.
Whether a presentation is political, corporate, or academic, the audience consists of four distinct types of people capable of taking action:
People have different temperaments, but all the audience members will have a tendency to prefer one type of action over another. Offering each audience member at least one action that suits their temperament lets them choose the action that makes them most comfortable. When they see ways to help that are appropriate to their type, it builds momentum and speeds the way to results. Virtually everybody in your audience will be able to effectively perform one of the four types of actions. A truly passionate revolutionary who supports the ideas you present could very possibly perform all four.
You can ask the audience to take more than one action per category—but make sure to identify actions that are simple, straightforward, and easily executed. The audience should be able to mentally connect their actions with a positive outcome for themselves, or for the greater good. Present all the necessary actions and make sure the most critical tasks for success are highlighted.
Many presentations end with the call to action; however, ending a presentation with a long to-do list for the audience is not inspirational. Neither is asking the audience to act on small, seemingly trivial tasks. So it’s important to follow up the call to action with a vivid picture of the potential reward.
Notice that the presentation ends on a higher plane in the presentation form than where it began. The ending should fill the audience with a heightened sense of what could be and make them feel willing to be transformed—to either understand something in a new way or to change their actions. The goal of persuasion is to transform the audience. If you skillfully define their future reward, you will convince them they should be on board with your idea.
The ending has two parts: repeating the most important points and delivering inspirational remarks encompassing what the world will look like when your idea is adopted.
The principle of recency states that audiences remember the last content they heard in a presentation more vividly than the points made in the beginning or middle. So you should create an ending that describes an inspirational, blissful world—a world that has adopted your idea. What will the audience members’ lives look like? What will humanity look like? What will the planet look like?
In order to get the most out of the audience, describe the possible future outcomes with wonder and awe. Show the audience that the reward will be worth their efforts. The presentation should conclude with the assertion that your idea is not only possible but that it is the right—and better—choice to make.
“Getting the audience to cheer, rise, and vocalize in response to a dramatic, rousing conclusion creates positive emotional contagion, produces a strong emotional takeaway, and fuels the call to action by the business leader. The ending of a great narrative is the first thing the audience remembers.” Peter Guber12
Let’s say you pulled off an incredible presentation. You used the principles in the presentation form with grace and ease to convey your ideas and the audience made a commitment to transform. Sounds like a huge victory—but it’s not over yet.
The human ability to accept new insights creates room for people to become something different. As indicated by the final dashed line at the end of the presentation form, the audience starts becoming something different from what they were at the beginning of the presentation.
But when you are done delivering your presentation, the adoption of your idea is still inconclusive. The audience will determine the outcome. Some presentations end with the audience leaving full of support, some don’t. Your idea could end as a comedy or tragedy—the two forms of dramatic resolution proposed in Greek literature. If they don’t adopt your idea, it could end as a tragedy. Tragedy is the downfall of a once admirable hero—a good person whose demise comes as a result of some personal error or mistake. Or it could resolve as a comedy. Comedy doesn’t mean it’s funny; it’s defined as a rise in the fortune of a sympathetic hero. The hallmark of comedy isn’t laughter, it’s the satisfaction felt when a deserving person succeeds.
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Elliot13
The analytical tool used throughout this book to represent presentations graphically is the sparkline. Viewing a presentation’s contour helps you clearly see the contrasts. The line moves between what is (the lower position) and what could be (the higher position) to show contrasts in content. It changes colors to show contrasts in emotion and delivery. Every presentation has a unique sparkline. No two are alike, because no two presentations are alike.
Using a tool like the presentation form to achieve great results isn’t new. Movies and myths all have a form, and they all yield beautiful and unique results.
Similarly, presentations that follow the Presentation Form will all be unique. The presentation form isn’t a formula, because it has enormous flexibility; rigid adherence to it could become predictable. So, it’s equally important to embrace its versatility.
Above is an annotation of how to read the sparklines in the book. The case study on the following pages will show the first use of the presentation form applied as a sparkline. Videos of all the presentations analyzed are available online along with additional annotations to the transcripts.
Tryst with Destiny
Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian politician, political heir of Mohandas Gandhi, and India’s first Prime Minister of independent India. He was a charismatic leader who pushed for complete independence from the British Empire. After India suffered during a hundred years of non-violent struggle against the British Empire, Nehru delivered a speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947, the eve of India being freed from British rule. The speech, Tryst with Destiny, is one of the greatest speeches of all time. It is beloved in India, similar to how Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is beloved in the United States.
Above is the shape of his speech. You’ll notice he starts off with what is and moves back and forth between what is and what could be in almost perfect frequency. The speech ends high and to the right by describing the new bliss. He created a perfect cadence of contrast.
Review what you’ve learned so far. Each question has one right answer.
Stories have been told for thousands of years in order to transfer cultural lore and values. When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds. Can that same power be leveraged for a presentation? Yes. The timeless structure of a story can contain information that persuades, entertains, and informs. Story serves as a perfect device to help an audience recall the main point and be moved to action. Once a presentation is put into a story form, it has structure, creates an imbalance the audience wants to see resolved, and identifies a clear gap that the audience can fill.
It’s official: The guidance you got from your high school speech teacher, to imagine the audience in their underwear, is now obsolete. Instead, you should imagine them wearing bright stockings and tunics emblazoned with superhero emblems—because the people in the audience are the heroes who will bring your big idea to fruition.
To genuinely connect with your audience, you need to know what makes them tick. What strikes them as funny? What makes them sad? What unites them? What will cause them to rise up and act? What is it that makes them deserve to win in life? So how do you get to know them and really understand what their lives are like? It’s important to figure this out because according to the former AT&T presentation research manager, Ken Hamer,
In this chapter, you’ll learn how to build empathy for your audience by exploring the elements of the hero and mentor archetypes.
Though your heroes might be lumped together in a room, you shouldn’t view them as a homogeneous blob. Instead of thinking about the audience as a unified clump when preparing your presentation, imagine them as a line of individuals waiting to have face-to-face conversations with you.
You want to make each person feel like you’re having a personal exchange with him or her; it will help you speak in a conversational tone, which will keep them interested. People don’t fall asleep during conversations (unless your conversations are boring, too. If so, you need help beyond what this book provides).
An audience is a temporary assembly of individuals who, for an hour or so, share one thing in common: your presentation. They are all listening to the same message at the same moment; yet all of them are filtering it differently and gleaning their own unique insights, points of emphasis, and meaning. If you find common ground from which to communicate, their filter will more readily accept your perspective.
You need to get to know these folks. You are their mentor! Each one has unique skills, vulnerabilities, and even a nemesis or two. The audience must be your focus while you create the content of your presentation. They are so important, in fact, that the next two sections of the book will revolve around the audience. So, stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about connecting with them.
One way to get to know your audience is through a process called segmentation. By partitioning a large audience into smaller sub-segments, you can target the segment that will bring the most additional supporters. Determine which group is most likely to adopt your perspective—the group where you can make the greatest impact with the least effort. It’s tricky to appeal to the broader audience and simultaneously connect deeply with the subset that will play a key role in helping you—but it’s worth the effort.
The most commonly used segmentation method is to segment by demographics. Most conference organizers can provide only limited information about the audience: where they work, their title, geographical location, and company. You can make some assumptions from this information, but it’s limited to just that—assumptions.
When I presented to top executives from a national beer manufacturer, I needed to spend time thinking about how to connect with them, because based on demographics alone, we did not have much in common in this arena.
I’m a middle-aged female who drinks fruity cocktails because I imagine beer might taste like fizzy pee. That’s a pretty big gap.
I didn’t receive enough information from the event organizers to feel like I really knew what’s important to them.
|Job Title||Executives with
titles like director,
|Entrepreneur and CEO|
|Geography||They flew in from
|I drove 3.6 miles up
Collecting their gender and country of origin isn’t enough information to communicate with them meaningfully. Audiences aren’t moved solely because they are old or young, from Kansas or California. Their demographics are only part of the story.
Truly communicating effectively takes research. That can mean sending out your own survey that will help you gain insights or—if you’re targeting a broader industry group—going online and finding popular blogs by industry icons to see what’s on their minds. You might take note of what they chat about on social media sites until you reach a point where you feel you know them personally.
Don’t segment the audience in a clichéd or generalized way. Defining your audience too broadly can make you seem impersonal or unprepared. It can cause your audience to feel like a statistic, or like they are being narrowly stereotyped, which can be offensive. The main idea is that you need to define the audience in a way that’s accurate and appropriate for the kind of presentation you will deliver.
Several things helped me to prepare for the presentation to the beer executives. I bought subscriptions to a couple of key marketing publications to see what was being said about their brands, solicited feedback from my social network, searched for articles about them, reviewed their conversations in the top beer blogs, found their own presentations on the web, read their press releases, and read their company’s latest annual report. I even had my company do a bit of market research to surface the nuances among the various products.
The research helped me understand their challenges. Even though I only used a portion of the insights in the actual presentation, I felt like I knew them and had empathy for what was on their minds. Those insights helped me feel connected to them.
Space Shuttle Challenger Address
President Ronald Reagan was a skilled communicator who was faced with a daunting communication situation immediately after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
The shuttle’s launch had already been delayed twice, and the White House was insisting that it launch before the State of the Union address, so it took off on January 28, 1986. This particular launch was widely publicized because for the first time a civilian—a teacher named Christa McAuliffe—was traveling into space. The plan was to have McAuliffe communicate to students from space. According to the New York Times, nearly half of America’s school children aged nine to thirteen watched the event live in their classrooms.2 After a short seventy-three seconds into flight, the world was stunned when the shuttle burst into flames, killing all seven crew members on board.
President Ronald Reagan cancelled his scheduled State of the Union address that evening and instead addressed the nation’s grief. In Great Speeches for Better Speaking, author Michael E. Eidenmuller describes the situation: “In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster. As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster. But Reagan would have to be more than just a eulogist. He would also have to be a U.S. President and carry it all with due presidential dignity befitting the office as well as the subject matter.”3
The speech succeeded in meeting the emotional requirements of its various audiences by carefully addressing each segment. The circumstances gave a natural situational segmentation; it would not have been appropriate for him to address them based on conventional distinctions of gender or political parties.
Reagan took care to connect all sub-audiences to the larger audience of collective mourners. He brought disparate groups together by treating them as a single organic whole: a nation of people called to a place of national sorrow and remembrance.
Eidenmuller says, “Catastrophic events do provide the basis for rhetorical situations. Despair, anxiety, fear, anger, and the loss of meaning and purpose are powerful psycho-spiritual forces that deeply affect us all. It has been said that ‘without hope the people perish.’ And without hearing powerful and timely words of encouragement, the people may never find cause for hope.”4
On the following pages, the various audiences Regan was addressing will be highlighted as he speaks. The speech lasted only four short minutes. The pages that follow show how carefully and beautifully President Reagan addressed the various audiences that evening.
Many insights from this analysis are from Michael E. Eidenmuller’s book Great Speeches for Better Speaking. The text in italics denotes direct quotes from his work.5
The State of the Union address is an annual, constitutionally sanctioned speech delivered like a national progress report—and is a significant task to reschedule. Reagan positions himself as both outside the fray and part of it. He presides over it and shares in its painful reality.
Reagan positions the tragedy within a larger picture without losing the significance of the present tragedy. He names each crew member and praises them for their courage. To further manage our emotions, Reagan again calls us to national mourning, and establishes the primary audience as the collective mourners.
Reagan narrows his focus to the first and most affected sub-audience: the families of the fallen. He acknowledges the inappropriateness of suggesting how they should feel and offers praise they can take hold of with words like “daring,” “brave,” “special grace,” and “special spirit.”
Reagan then draws attention back to the general audience’s interest in the larger scientific story. He then envisions the crew’s place in history as transcending science altogether by calling them pioneers. The term “pioneer” cloaks them in a mythical covering, one dating back to our nation’s earliest ventures. The astronauts’ death is portrayed as a reasonable outcome of their endeavors.
Reagan’s next sub-audience is the school children—an estimated five million—among whom are the students of Christa McAuliffe’s class and school. Reagan momentarily adopts the tone of an empathizing parent which is tough to do while remaining ‘presidential’, but Reagan carries it well.
Here, Reagan the national eulogist hands off to Reagan the U.S. President. This passage contains the only political statement in the address and is targeted at the Soviet Union. He attacks the secrecy surrounding their failures which had irked American scientists who knew that shared knowledge was the best way to ensure the stability and safety of space programs.
In this direct address to NASA, Reagan gives needed encouragement and then turns back again to connect to the whole audience by saying “we share it.”
In closing, Reagan creates an eloquent and poetic moment. It captures the mythological sentiment surrounding humanity’s unending quest to solve the mysteries of the unknown. The phrase “touch the face of God”, was taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” written by John Magee, an American aviator in WWII. Magee was inspired to write the poem while climbing to thirty-three thousand feet in his Spitfire. It remains in the Library of Congress today.
Audience segmentation is helpful—but there’s more complexity to human beings than that. To make a personal connection, you have to bond with what it is in people that makes them human. Take time to analyze who they really are and you will gain valuable insights. Remember, people you don’t know are difficult to influence.
At the beginning of a movie, the hero’s likeability is established. The same applies to a presentation. Successful Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder coined the phrase “save the cat” to describe a hero’s likeability. Snyder says that a “save the cat” scene is “where we meet the hero and he or she does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes the audience like him.”6 By answering the questions on the right, you’ll uncover what makes your hero likeable.
Liking your audience members is the first step in being genuine with them. Study them. What would a walk in their shoes feel like? What keeps them up at night? What are they called to do that will make a difference on this earth? Imagine their lives by the day, hour, and minute.
Don’t forget, they are only human, living chaotic lives. They might be worrying about a sick child, might have slept poorly in a hotel bed, might be struggling with financial problems, or just might feel they’re not in their groove. Think about how your idea will take away some of the pressure they’re feeling if they act on it. Consider where they are.
These questions help you think beyond what they do and focus on who they are. There’s a difference. It’s not enough to know their titles. If you’re speaking at a Human Resources event where your audience will mainly consist of Directors of Human Resources, look online and get an idea of what their typical salaries are. Do they make enough money to manage? How do these people most likely spend their paychecks? Does their role tend to attract people with certain temperaments? Are they impulsive or systematic?
Keep answering the questions until you move away from what your audience members do for a job and begin to acquaint yourself with who they are as people. You can imagine their childhood. What games did they play? What was home life like? What TV shows shaped their psyche? Anything that will generate a connection.
Your goal is to figure out what your audience cares about and link it to your idea.
Who They Are
What’s likable and special about them? What does a walk in their shoes look like? Where do they hang out (in life and on the Web)? What’s their lifestyle like?
What do they already know about your topic? What sources do they get their knowledge from? What biases do they have (good or bad)?
MOTIVATION AND DESIRE
What do they need or desire? What is lacking in their lives? What gets them out of bed and turns their crank?
What’s key to them? How do they spend their time and money? What are their priorities? What unites them or incites them?
Who or what influences their behavior? What experiences have influenced their thoughts? How do they make decisions?
How do they give and receive respect? What can you do to make them feel respected?
Now that you’ve spent time getting into the audiences’ hearts and heads, it’s time to look at your role as mentor.
Your role as mentor is to influence the hero (audience) at critical junctures of their life. The mentor’s appearance in the journey is essential to moving the hero past the blockades of doubt and fear. Mentors usually have two major responsibilities: teaching and gift-giving.
In the movie The Karate Kid (1984), Mr. Miyagi not only teaches protégé Daniel the “tool” of karate; he gives him insights into the meaning of life:
Miyagi: What matter?
Daniel: I’m just scared. The tournament and everything.
Miyagi: You remember lesson about balance?
Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?
Miyagi was a pretty smart dude. He got his deck sanded, car washed, plus his fence and house painted out of the deal. At times, there’s benefit to the mentor, but the greater benefit should always be for the hero.
What deep insights can you provide to your audience? Tap into your own life experience and use it to give to them a sense of how it would feel to follow their calling more fully. Don’t lose sight of the role you are playing in their lives.
The purpose of your appearance in their grand drama is to provide the tools and magical gifts that will help them get unstuck and continue on their journey. Of course you have an agenda and information to get across—maybe you’re even trying to close a deal—but you should offer something more in your presentation.
The mentor should provide the hero with important, useful, previously unknown information. You should also motivate the hero when he is fearful or hesitant, and give the hero tools for his tool belt. These tools could be roadmaps for success, new communication techniques, or even insights into his soul. No matter what the tool is, the audience should leave each presentation knowing something they didn’t know before and with the ability to apply that knowledge to help them succeed.
You mustn’t come across as if the audience is helping you on your journey. You’re to be a gift to them. Every once in a while, mentors gain something from the relationship for themselves, like knowledge or insights—but that shouldn’t be your goal. An audience can always spot selfish motives.
What You Give Them
What insights and knowledge will help them navigate their journey?
How can you bolster their confidence so they aren’t reluctant?
What tools, skills, or magical gifts do they gain from you on their journey?
Creating common ground with an audience is like clearing a pathway from their heart to yours.
You develop credibility without coming across as arrogant. Even your magnificent qualifications should be revealed in a humble and selfless way that connects with them.
Focusing on commonalities bolsters credibility, so spend time uncovering similarities. Seek out shared experiences and goals that you can bring to the foreground. A presentation that creates common ground has the potential to unite a diverse group of people toward a common purpose—people who normally might never have unified because of their great diversity.
People set aside differences when they’re strongly connected to achieving a common goal.
If a presentation goes badly awry, it’s easy to blame the audience for misinterpretations and say, “That’s not what I meant. How could they be so dumb?” In the blame game, all ten fingers should be pointed at you, not the people “misinterpreting” your presentation. You chose the words and images to convey your idea; if it didn’t align with the audience’s experiences, you need to own up to the misunderstanding.
I had one of those “why doesn’t the audience get this obvious idea” moments when conveying our company vision in 2007. My employees are not blind; my communication was flawed. Having been through three significant economic downturns, it was easy to see the next one coming a mile away. I knew that the firm needed to make some immediate changes that would help us weather the storm. But to the team, everything seemed safe and stable. So when I delivered an urgent “danger is eminent” message, it backfired. At the end of my dramatic presentation, my employees sat stunned, feeling like I was trying to manipulate them by telling them the sky was falling. What I thought was a presentation dripping with insight and urgency, my young staff—who had only known prosperity and stability—perceived as manipulative.
My message and means of communication slowed progress to a crawl. A handful understood, but getting everyone on board proved almost insurmountable. It took an entire year to reframe the issues and build momentum. Even though a downturn was coming, the idea had no traction because I didn’t use symbols or experiences to which my audience could connect.
The audience chooses whether to connect to you or not. People will usually respond only if it’s in their best interest. Personal values will ultimately drive their behavior, so ideally you should identify and align with existing values.
How You Connect with Them
What from your past do you have in common: memories, historical events, interests?
Where are you headed in the future? What types of outcomes are mutually desired?
Why are you uniquely qualified to be their guide? What similar journey have you gone on with a positive outcome?
Why do you have to go through all these questions about the audience and yourself? Connecting empathetically with an audience requires developing understanding and sensitivity to their feelings and thoughts.
It’s the presenter’s job to know and tune into the audience’s frequency. Your message should resonate with what’s already inside them. As a presenter, if you send a message that is tuned to the “frequency” of their needs and desires—they will change. They might even quiver with enthusiasm and move together to create beautiful results (page 7).
When you are close with someone, your shared experiences create shared meaning. My husband, Mark, will often speak just one word that is packed with ample meaning, and I’m beside myself with laughter. It is safe to say that you haven’t known your audience for thirty years—but if you research them enough, they will feel like a close friend. And friends can easily persuade each other using an inherent way of swaying one another toward their point of view.
Establishing how you’re alike also clarifies how you’re different. Once you’ve identified the overlap, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what’s outside the overlap that needs to be embraced by the audience.
Your objective is to find the most relevant and believable way to link your issue to your audience’s top values and concerns.
Review what you’ve learned so far. Each question has one right answer.
When you know someone, really know them, it’s easy to persuade them. Investing time into familiarizing yourself with the audience solidifies your ability to persuade.
Meet the Hero: The audience is the hero who will determine the outcome of your idea, so it’s important to know them fully. Jump into the shoes of your audience and look carefully at their lives. Picture them as individuals with complex lives. Identify with their feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. Discover their lifestyles, knowledge, desires, and values. Painting a picture of who they are in their ordinary world helps you connect with them and communicate from a place of empathy.
Meet the Mentor: Embracing the stance of mentor clothes you in humility. It moves you from forcing information on “an ignorant audience” to giving them valuable tools to guide them on their journey or help them get unstuck. They should leave with valuable insights they didn’t have before they met with you.
When an audience gathers, they have given you their time, which is a precious slice of their lives. It’s your job to have them feel that the time they spent with you brought value to their lives.
Good presentations lead an audience to a specific destination, and your audience won’t get there unless you map out where you want them to be when you’re finished presenting. A sailor who wanted to get to Hawaii would never simply jump into a boat, unfurl the sails, go wherever the wind took him, and expect to arrive there after a few days on the ocean. Traveling just doesn’t work that way—and neither do presentations. You have to set a course. Once you’ve set a destination, it will serve as a guide for developing the right content. Every bit of content you share should propel the audience toward that destination.
Remember, moving the audience from one place to another is the goal of every presentation. The audience will feel a sense of loss as they move away from their familiar world and closer to your perspective. You are persuading the audience to let go of old beliefs or habits, and adopt new ones. When people deeply understand things from a new perspective to the point where they feel inclined to change, that change begins on the inside (heart and mind) and ends on the outside (actions and behavior). However, this typically doesn’t happen without a struggle.
That struggle usually manifests as resistance—but you can harness that resistance and use it to your advantage if you plan well. When a sailboat’s sails are set correctly, it can sail into the wind and still harness the wind’s power. In fact, a boat can sail faster than the wind itself—even when the gusts are in the opposite direction. Of course you can’t control the strength of an audience’s resistance, but you can “adjust your sails” (message) and use that resistance to gain momentum. When properly harnessed, forces that seem counterproductive can lead to forward progress. However, the boat (your presentation) needs to move back and forth in order to get there, just like the Presentation Form.
Now you have established your big idea and determined your destination. But you also need a map—a persuasion plan. Persuasion involves asking your audience to change in one way or another, and change usually obligates people to move from their current way of being or acting and move to a new and different way of being or acting. Often, internal emotional changes must transpire before people manifest external change in their behavior.
Change is interesting to watch. We go to the movies or read a book to see the change that happens in the main character. This carefully planned change is called the character arc—the identifiable internal and external change that the hero endures.
When a screenplay is submitted for acquisition to a studio, a story analyst evaluates it by assessing the quality of the character arc. The story analyst determines the quality fairly quickly, simply by looking at the first and last pages of the script.
The first page sets up who the hero is when the movie begins and the last page determines how much the hero changed during its course. This quick assessment of a screenplay determines if the hero’s journey changed her at all. If the hero didn’t change enough, it’ll be a boring film.3 Great stories show growth and transformation in the characters.
In the same way a story analyst looks at the first and last page of a screenplay, you must envision and study your audience at the beginning of your presentation—and who you want them to be when they leave. Upon entering the room, your audience holds a point of view about your topic that you want to change.
When planning your audience’s journey, you have to establish where they are and where you want to move them to. Identify both the inner and outer transformation you want to achieve. If you can persuade them to change internally, you will usually see results in their actions. This outward change proves that they understood and embraced your big idea. When beliefs change, actions follow.
You might be thinking, “Gosh, I’m just presenting at my staff meeting, I can skip this step.” Perhaps a better option, in that case, would be writing and distributing a report. Although, if your staff meeting is about the status of a project that is over budget, you better get in there and move them from thinking that being over budget is okay, to taking responsibility and working hard to ensure the budget gets back on track. This, then, is a persuasive situation that requires a clearly defined journey.
A big idea is that one key message you want to communicate. It contains the impetus that compels the audience to set a new course with a new compass heading. Screenwriters call this the “controlling idea.” It’s also been called the gist, the takeaway, the thesis statement, or the single unifying message.
There are three components of a big idea:
ONE A big idea must convey your unique perspective. Your audience showed up to hear you speak. They’re sitting there to learn your point of view, and you should clearly and completely articulate it. For example, “the fate of the oceans,” is only a topic, not a big idea. “Worldwide pollution is killing the ocean and us,” is a big idea with a unique perspective. Your big idea doesn’t need to be so unusual that no presenter has ever expressed it before. But it must be unique to you, not merely a generalization.
TWO A big idea must communicate what’s at stake. You need to articulate to the audience why they should care enough about your perspective to adopt it. The big idea, “Replenish the wetlands through new legislation,” doesn’t convey what’s at stake. In contrast, “Without better legislation, the destruction of the wetlands will cost the Florida economy $70 billion by 2025,” provides a strong reason to care. When you convey what’s at stake, you help your audience understand why they should participate and become heroes. Without compelling reasons for the audience to engage, your big idea won’t get off the ground.
THREE A big idea must be stated as a complete sentence. When you state your big idea as a complete sentence it forces you to use a noun and a verb. If presenters are asked what their presentation is about, they usually respond with phrases such as, “the third quarter update,” or “our company’s new software.” These are not big ideas. A big idea must be expressed in a complete sentence such as, “This software will increase your team’s productivity 10 percent and boost
revenues over the next year by $1 million.” Using “you” in the sentence makes it even better, because it ensures that you have a clear audience in mind.
Emotion is another important component to the big idea. Boiling down all of the various emotions simplifies this task. Ultimately, there are only two emotions—pleasure and pain. A truly persuasive presentation plays on those emotions to do one of the following:
For example, a business presentation that centers on “We are losing our competitive advantage” as its big idea, has nothing at stake. In contrast, the message “If we don’t regain our competitive advantage, your jobs are in jeopardy” makes it clear that there’s plenty at stake!
It appeals to employees’ human instinct to survive. Humans change when there is a threat and sense of urgency. In the January 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter explained “most successful change efforts begin when some individuals or groups start to look hard at a company’s competitive situation, market position, technological trends, and financial performance. They then find ways to communicate this information broadly and dramatically, especially with respect to crises, potential crises, or great opportunities that are very timely.”2
The gravity of the presentation should match the severity of the situation and accurately reflect what’s at stake—no more, no less.
Below is a list of words pulled from various articles on change management. It’s not an exhaustive list of every type of change, but it can help spark ideas for how you want your audience to be transformed.
People experience a sense of fear when they embark on a journey that involves change, because change has an element of the unknown. That is what makes it so frightening.
Change is about accepting the new and abandoning the old. New societies cannot rise unless old societies fall. If new technology emerges, it renders the old technology obsolete. In the presentation space, accepting something new often means sacrificing something held dear.
Sacrifice is defined as the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. Often, your audience can’t change without making a sacrifice. You need to make them understand that without sacrifice, there can be no reward.
Changing their minds is like asking them to forsake an old friend who has stood by them for a long time. Losing an old friend is painful.
Even something seemingly trivial—like a forfeit of their time—might require them to risk something. Working late might mean missing volleyball practice or the chance to tuck their kids into bed at night. Be cognizant of the sacrifice the audience will make when you ask them to do something, because you’re asking them to give up a small—but still irretrievable—slice of their lives.
Audience resistance is usually related to the sacrifice they realize they will have to make. Presentations disrupt the audience’s contented stance. Perhaps they’ll have to give up time or money. You’re telling them they will be better off if they buy your product, or become more productive, or join a movement, but they think everything is okay the way it is.
Empathize with Their Sacrifice and Risk
What would they sacrifice to adopt your idea? What beliefs or ideals will be let go? How much will it cost them in time or money?
What’s the perceived risk? Are there physical or emotional risks they will need to take? How will this stretch them? Who or what might they have to confront?
Refusal of the Call
There’s no doubt about it; most people do not enjoy change and will resist. An audience might understand your plea, and even mentally accept it, but they still might not be moved to action.
In the July 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger reported, “All people who are affected by change experience some emotional turmoil. Even changes that appear to be ‘positive’ or ‘rational’ involve loss and uncertainty. Nevertheless, for a number of different reasons, individuals, or groups can react very differently to change—from passively resisting it, to aggressively trying to undermine it, to sincerely embracing it.”4
Their resistance can range from subtle skepticism to open revolt, and you must be prepared to deal with it. When you’re sailing into the wind, you can still move towards your destination, but you must adjust your “sails,” modifying your arguments to move audience members from aggressively attacking your message to whole-heartedly embracing it.
Carefully contemplate all the ways in which your audience might resist. What attitudes, fears, and limitations do they use as a tool to oppose implementing the idea? After identifying their reasons for refusal, use those concerns as inoculants. State the opposing points before they get a chance to refute your point.
An inoculation purposefully infects a person to minimize the severity of an infection. The same takes place when you empathetically address an audience’s refusals by stating them openly in your talk. This will help them see that you’ve thought through everything—which will decrease their anxiety.
It is not common for people to resist merely for the sake of resistance (although some do). In general, people resist because you’re asking them to take a risk or make a sacrifice, at least to some degree. For example, if you ask them to buy your company’s product it could make them worry that they’re putting their reputation at risk by committing company money to a product with an uncertain outcome.
Your audience may view what you experience as resistance in an entirely different light. From their perspective, it may seem that your message puts their credibility, reputation, or even their honor at risk. It may be that where you see resistance, they see valor. They feel they are responding appropriately to protect things they value and hold dear. Acknowledge their resistance while at the same time assuring them that with you, their mentor, they are in good hands.
Refusal of the Call
What’s their tolerance level for change? Where is their comfort zone? How far out of it are you asking them to go?
What keeps them up at night? What’s their greatest fear? What fears are valid, and which should be dispelled?
In which areas are they vulnerable? Any recent changes, errors, or weaknesses?
What might they misunderstand about the message and/or implications? Why might they believe the change doesn’t make sense for them?
What mental or practical barriers are in their way? What obstacles cause friction? What will stop them from adopting and acting on your message?
Where is the balance of power? Who or what has influence over them? Would your idea create a shift in power?
Whether it’s based on altruism or ego, people like to make a difference with their lives. That difference could be something as modest as “make this a great place to work” or as lofty as “save lives in Ethiopia.”
No matter how engaging your presentation may be, no audience will act unless you describe a reward that makes it worthwhile. You must clearly articulate the ultimate gain for the audience, its extended sphere of influence, or perhaps even all of humanity. If your call to action is asking them to sacrifice their time, money, or ideals, you must be very clear about what the payoff will be.
Rewards should appeal to physical, relational, or self-fulfillment needs:
them—even for someone else. People don’t like to see others’ basic needs go unmet, and this prompts generosity.
In light of these categories, ask yourself: what is it that the audience gets in exchange for changing? What is in it for them? What do they gain by adopting your perspective or buying your product? What value does it bring to them?
As you’ve learned from The Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves the ordinary world, enters a special world, and returns not only changed as a human being, but bearing an Elixir—a reward for having taken the journey. The reward for your audience should be proportional to the sacrifice they have made.
Identify the Reward (New Bliss)
BENEFIT TO THEM
How will they personally benefit from adopting your idea? What’s in it for them materially or emotionally?
BENEFIT TO SPHERE
How will this help their sphere of influence such as friends, peers, students, and direct reports? How can they use it to their benefit with those they influence?
BENEFIT TO MANKIND
How will this help the humans or the planet?