Why are most business presentations so bad? Often we see speakers organise their talks in lists of information (such as ‘Five reasons to join our exciting investment program’), without recognising that the human mind isn’t constructed to remember lists very well. Once we’ve been told three or four things, to remember the fourth and fifth points, we’ll have to forget the first couple. ‘In one ear and out the other’ pretty much describes how we respond to lists.
Yet everyone who has heard, seen, or read Romeo and Juliet, for example, remembers the story. Our brains have the capacity to recall information far better, if it’s told as a story. So the theory goes that if you give speeches more like Shakespeare and less like the Phone Book, you’ll be much more memorable.
Storytelling can be such an important tactic, but how do you go about creating a great story, for the purposes of public speaking?
My favourite structure for a persuasive speech is the problem-solution structure.
You begin your presentation by describing a common problem that the audience has, and then you describe a solution. You can either stick to that structure, and tell stories at various points along the way, as examples and supporting evidence; or you can treat the whole speech as a story.
Think of your stories as having three acts.
The first act presents an idea or a situation that will engage the audience.
(Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love)
It’s best if this idea or situation is one that, once it has happened or been told, cannot be undone. (Romeo cannot ‘un-meet’ Juliet.) If you give your audience some information at the beginning of your speech that they don’t know, it has the same effect.
Example: “Our customer base has been eroding for the last 16 quarters, and just today I learned that it’s official, we’re now down for 17 quarters. We can’t afford to go on like this…”
Needless to say, it should be information that is of interest to the audience, and it should be about a problem they share.
The second act raises the stakes on the earlier idea or situation.
(Romeo marries Juliet, despite the feud between the two families)
Once again, it should be something that cannot easily be undone.
Example: “If we have another down quarter, we’re going to have to close manufacturing plants in Chicago and Ohio.”
The third act precipitates a resolution, either favourable or unfavourable, by posing a question that must be resolved.
(Romeo kills Tybalt in a duel, thus resulting in his banishment. Will Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after? Answer: no)
Example: “To turn things around, I’m starting a new product line, code name ‘Lemmings’, that will excite customers once again and bring them flocking back to our stores.”
Just as no one in the play Romeo and Juliet ever literally asks the resolving question out loud, you don’t have to in your speech. You do have to resolve it though, and the best way is to get your audience to undertake some action to enlist them in your persuasive moment.
Example: “I’ve put prototype Lemmings underneath your chairs. I’d like you now to please take them out of their boxes and try them out.”
Just as the rest of Romeo and Juliet fills in around these key moments with scenes that explore the consequences of these interesting, fateful actions; your speech should too.
That’s the basic structure of a good story. But there’s more.
Think about using archetypes to get further storytelling mileage out of our common mythology.
Basically, an archetype is a model of a character, or part of a character. The word and concept have been around for a long time, but they were made famous, so to speak, by the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.
When Jung talked about archetypes, he meant primarily aspects of a person — the Self, the Shadow (your Dark Side) and the Persona (the face you put toward the world). But he also talked about a host of other kinds of people, and aspects of people and the natural world, that could be archetypes, from the child, hero, mother and wise old man to the fish.
The idea is that your particular mother resonates for you with the archetypal mother in some ways, and not in other ways. You may develop a mother complex as a result. We live at our best and most fully when we’re in harmony with all the archetypes we summon up.
Jung believed that archetypes were real — a kind of bridge between our inner psychological world and the real world out there. More than that, we all have access to universal wisdom and understanding through and with these archetypes.
OK, so what does that mean for speakers and speaking?
I think we can invoke the power of the basic archetypes by naming them at appropriate moments in our stories and by using them as ways to connect with the audience. Words like ‘child’, ‘mother’, ‘father’ and so on, have enormous resonance for just about everyone in your audience. The trick is to let your audience do the work, creating the associations, by giving them enough detail to get their minds working, but not so much that you stop them from using their imaginations.
Archetypes work best in simple stories that allow audiences to fill in the blanks. You need to craft these stories (parables really), with great care so that they are not hackneyed or silly.
If you do it right, you can create powerful, memorable stories, on a variety of levels, in your speeches, that call us all to our best, archetypal selves and move your audiences to action.
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