The Secret Lives of Talks

Secret Lives  of Talks
We spend our days trying to move others – at anniversaries, birthdays, awards, dedications, commencements, eulogies, farewells, fund raising events, meetings, retirement parties, Q&A sessions, trade shows booths, conferences, as part of panels, as impromptu speeches, introducing speakers, and giving toasts.

There are as many ways to present and styles as individuals — from irreverent to funny, daring to soft spoken, exposing stories in an intimate dialogue with the audience.

With all the pitching, presenting, and talking we do, it is curious how fear of public speaking still ranks fairly high on the list of most common social anxieties. The more we think about having to give a talk, the more anxious we become.

The secret to a successful presentation is preparation. Knowing your subject matter is not enough to transmit your knowledge to an audience. Rehearsing is one of the steps in a process. Starting from the end goal, then tracing your way back is a good way to get unstuck and productive. A breakdown of the key ingredients:

  • end goal — the talk abstract
  • what you will teach — techniques or lessons
  • break down of each — core elements
  • stories — bring the abstract to life
  • narrative arc — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution
  • draft deck or write up — edit to necessary parts
  • rehearse — record by video using the slides

The more you prepare and practice, the better you can improvise the day of the talk based on audience, setting, energy in the room, and (potentially) new circumstances.

I've delivered upward of 150 public talks, including working labs, panel moderation sessions, recorded interviews, and impromptu sessions and I am still learning new techniques and better ways. I am not alone in this pursuit.

This is an updated version of my 2008 post.

To be or not to be

Is a most-frequently asked question. A personal story resonates because we are wired for stories. Plus, it is something you know well and that sets you apart. However, your audience will feel the difference if they can relate to it. That means finding the universal aspects of your story.

Of the many talks by Malcolm Gladwell I attended, Her Way, presented at The Moth, is my favorite. It looks improvised, and it is very relatable — both signs of meticulous preparation. Take a look:

There are many great presenters you can study — YouTube and TED have made it easier to find them. A few examples of the ones I admire:

  • Benjamin Zander makes you feel like you are the only person in the room, and this is the first time he he talking about his subject matter. I must have watched this performance a dozen times and I am not tired of it. Every time I learn something new about myself as I learn about passion, possibility, and leadership. Notice the repetition, the crescendos, the kinesthetic and auditory nature of the exposition. Zander is physically and emotionally engaging. Are you a one-buttock presenter? One thing is for sure, you are not tone deaf. In fact you have a fantastic ear, you can use that to your advantage.
  • Jim Collins has fantastic enunciation. He is also the only speaker I have had the pleasure of listening to live twice – the first time at Fast Company Real Time when he presented the underlying concepts of Good to Great, what a powerful conversation with Alan Webber that was! Funny, engaging, life changing. The second time was a two-hour session at the Wharton Leadership Forum on Good to Great for the Social Sector. At that event I experienced the power of the pause. Collins is the one speaker who has mastered the pause.
  • Amy Tan tells her personal story in a way that is compelling, relevant, and inspiring. She is one of a handful of writers who are also excellent speakers. I had the good fortune of hearing and seeing her speak at the Philadelphia Speakers Series a few years ago. Her talent is in making extraordinary use of language and story in her exposition, with a very natural style. She is humorous, empathetic, and present.
  • Sir Ken Robinson is my modern equivalent of marching words into action. He is passionate about education and brings plenty of experience to the table. His tempo and stories are the reasons why how schools kill creativity is one of the top TED talks of all times with 32 million views. Watch all his talks and you will see how things like accents and body language can strengthen the message you want to bring into the world. Can creativity be taught? is a popular question he helps answer.
  • Dan Pink is another favorite of mine for the whole-brained way he exposes scientific information blended with storytelling in his talks. The themes that make up his body of work — motivation, drive, moving others — make him supremely relatable. Having watched him present to audiences large and small, from TED talks to live events he graciously agreed to do with us in Philadelphia over the years, two other characteristics I love about his exposition are clarity and surprise. Here's a video of Dan on persuading with the right questions.

There are many more, of course and I hope you'll share your favorites in the comments.

Before video was so ubiquitous, I made it a point to attend as many conferences as I could. In person you experience the energy and context of a presentation. The Moth, Toast Masters, Do Lectures, DareConf, and Inbound Bold talks (here's mine on becoming a Conversation Agent) are all excellent places to learn both about a topic and deconstruct the techniques that make a talk work.

For more than 7 years, I organized live monthly events as curator of the Fast Company social network in Philadelphia. We hosted many excellent speakers. You don't have to be famous to be moving and inspire action.

What's your point?

Determining your end goal should be the first step. What's the hook? What are you trying to convey? Making clarity about the end goal will help you stay consistent and back from it into the opening remarks. A presentation is a tool — are you asking someone to learn something new? to make a decision? to do something?

Even if you think you're not selling anything, you are. An idea, a mission (see Daniel Lanois in my recent post), the execution of a project, what else? You are selling your own brand. Some ideas on the main reason why you are giving the talk and formats:

  • to seek advice — many events are organized as unconferences. These are spaces where a main statement and Socratic questions help facilitate a conversation. Unlocking the talent in the room will take you new places. Remember that in a sense those who seek to learn more are those who are usually already primed for a topic and have done a good deal of homework. The expression preaching to the choir exists for a reason.
  • to give advice — there are many ways to make this interactive. Using the narrative arc — situation or scenario, complication or problem, climax, possibly last minute complication, and resolution — you take the audience on a journey. Do this well and engage their inner dialogue, what is going on in their heads during the talk, to participate, and this becomes their journey.
  • to inspire (and hopefully instigate) by exposing a new way of doing something — this is more the type of talk Zander and Collins are very good at — helping you relate to a goal by using their experience to show a novel point of view. Good speakers educate, inspire, and instigate. Great speakers deliver in a way that changes you and your world from that point on.

The difference between a person's competence and a person's effectiveness is based on their ability to relate. Do that well, and people will likely take some action after your talk.

Three important things to remember

After you figure out what you want to say, work on who, why to what/how, and interaction:

1. Who's your audience?

Is by far the most important of all questions. It will help you determine the choices to make on what to keep / what to edit out. How will your story relate to them and their context? Why are they here?

Connecting with conference organizers to understand audience mix and event goals is a good idea. However, you may not get a lot of information ahead of time and you will need to do some groundwork.

For example, if you are giving a commencement address#, take a look at how others have done it. Dan Pink on good storytelling begins with figuring out what you think. Another example via Shane Parrish who deconstructs several more#.

2. Why does it matter?

This is the journey you take your audience on with your story, how you connect the dots. Structuring your presentation will help you stay focused and thus be effective. Content matters, but you don't need to say it all.

What are key lessons, techniques, main action to take? Repeat those at the beginning, as you go through, and at the end.

3. Can they relate?

Presenting is a structured conversation, even when you are doing all the talking. Observe the body language in the room, respond to it, adapt, let it drive your performance.

In fact, take a look at the room before you even start. In addition to doing sound checks, connection checks, and seeing the space, visualize the experience. Is the room big, small, wide, tall? How does that change your spot in it? Think tone, volume, eye contact, etc. Some ideas on how to speak powerfully.

Keep things simple and remember to breathe, preferably from the diaphragm, and pause. They both help you pace yourself and pay attention to what is happening in the room.

I mentioned performance in a couple of places.

Performance or conversation?

In a conversation with Andy Nulman who blogged for years about surprise at Pow! Right Between the Eyes! we discussed whether presenters approach an event as a performance. Just like a live rock band.

For this kind of question I typically rely on movies. A favorite is Greg Kinnear in many scenes of Stuck in Love, where he plays famous writer Bill Borgens, father to two budding writers and divorcee. I look at movie descriptions as examples of concise storytelling. What is Stuck in Love about?

An acclaimed writer, his ex-wife, and their teenaged children come to terms with the complexities of love in all its forms over the course of one tumultuous year.

The movie also features good performances by Jennifer Connelly, Lily Collins, Nat Wolff, Kristen Bell, and a guest talking appearance by Stephen King. I've played his monologue of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love quote from the book party many times:

I could hear my heart beating.

I could hear everyone’s heart.

I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

Listening to the tempo, how my heart was beating while he was saying it.

The closest I could think of for performance at a live event was Kevin Roberts at Fast Company Real Time in Philadelphia (2001.) He had kiwi dancers with him and the connection they helped make was total inspiration. I also think that the book he co-authored on Peak Performance was way ahead of the times.

Mitch Joel goes for performance. I had the good fortune of attending one of his more intimate presentations while in Montreal, and many since then. I'm pretty sure that if you run a search with his name and presentation(s), you will find dozens of them. Mitch is known for delivering powerful presentations.

If you do not know Laura Fitton, aka Pistachio, you're missing out. I have not seen Laura present live, but I have seen video clips. Her style is more conversational and used to teach how to present. According to Laura, TED Talks# by Brene Brown, Helen Fischer, and Jill Bolte Taylor are a great place to start.

Great presentations mean business, and are sometimes designed to also be world-changing experiences.

Change the world

Presentations will never go out of fashion or style. There is something to the idea of meeting in a space and learning from each other that has no substitute. Imagine a lawyer making her case by email!

Think about great presenters in films and TV shows:

  • Perry Mason (actor Raymond Burr) – remember his courtroom oratory? He establishes his client's innocence by dramatically demonstrating the guilt of another character.
  • Lt. Col. Frank Slade (actor Al Pacino) in Scent of a Woman — there are two famous speeches in the movie. The first one is the one that gives the title to the movie. Slade/Pacino talks to Charlie Simms/Chris O'Donnell about the woman sitting a few tables down. It's an intimate and highly detailed conversation where Slade presents what will come next. Watch me, he says. The other more explosive one is towards the end, when the ex-colonel addresses the audience at Simms' college.
  • James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the plot has all the elements of a juicy hero's journey. Naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers, is appointed on a lark by the spineless governor of his state. He is reunited with the state's senior senator–presidential hopeful and childhood hero, Senator Joseph Paine. In Washington, however, Smith discovers many of the shortcomings of the political process as his earnest goal of a national boys' camp leads to a conflict with the state political boss, Jim Taylor. Taylor first tries to corrupt Smith and then later attempts to destroy Smith through a scandal.
  • Henry Fonda personifies reasonable doubt while serving on an otherwise nameless murder trial jury in Twelve Angry Men, which explores many techniques of consensus-building, and the difficulties encountered in the process, among a group of men whose range of personalities adds intensity and conflict

By their force of persuasion and skill they transform the world as you know it.

Bonus resources

If you're interested in reading and learning more about presenting, these books have been useful to me:


Other resources:

  • Seth Godin on really bad PowerPoint. This is the eBook on the same topic.

Sometimes it is not so much what you say as how you say it. Inflection and tone count for 38% and non-verbals for 55% of the conversation. The secret sauce, the key to success, the one ingredient that will make your presentation spark is the joy you put into it.

Regardless of how we do on the outside, it is what we achieve inwardly that will change outer reality, a reminder by J.K. Rawlings that there are fringe benefits of failure, along with the importance of imagination:

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Who are your favorite presenters and why?


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