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Tried-and-True Sources of Support

Whether you're facing a skeptical audience, have a difficult idea to communicate, or just need support to make your topic clear and engaging, here are some of the most reliable ways to give your speech staying power. You'll keep your audience involved and its interest level high if every three or four minutes during your presentation, you tell a story, ask a question, or use a combination of the support devices that follow:

  • Facts. A fact is simply a statement that can be verified, either by referring to a third source or by direct observation. Facts give your opinions weight and add objectivity to your pronouncements. Without facts, you have no credibility. The key is not to bore your audience with too many of them.

  • Figures and Statistics. Succinct and unblinking, numbers can provide startling punctuation to any presentation and are mandatory in many technical ones. But numbers cannot communicate on their own. Some numbers are so vast they require further illustration, such as the national deficit. A good speaker will "translate" this huge sum into a stack of $100 bills and tell the audience how tall that stack is.

  • Definitions. They allow you to inquire into the nature of something, usually by identifying it with a general class and then specifying its particular qualities. For example, a man (the word to be defined) is a type of mammal (general class) that walks upright (particular quality).

    Using the dictionary is always a good source, though definitions can vary. Select the definition that suits you. For instance, if you want to call attention to marketing's sheer scope, you can define it as "the coordination of all activities—including planning, research, and selling—necessary to get a product or service from a seller to a buyer."

    Definitions don't have to be serious; many speakers use pithy, witty quotations to zero in on a point they want to cover. Here's how Ambrose Bierce defined egotist: "A person more interested in himself than in me." Sometimes it's fun (and memorable) to make up your own definitions.

  • Examples. Usually brief, examples are incidents or objects that prove or clarify a generalization you're making. As support, examples are everywhere and often serve to introduce compelling facts and statistics. A manager trying to prove it's possible to cut costs in his division without cutting personnel will persuade his audience with examples (that is, the actual dollar savings attached to various changes in procedure).

    While you will usually want to use examples to prove or elaborate on your point, you can also use them to form a positive point of view. For example, as XYZ Manufacturing Company has shown, if you don't cut personnel, here's what will result: Morale will rise, employees will work harder, and profits will increase.

  • Illustrations. These are more detailed than examples, often offering point-by-point clarification.

    To illustrate the above stance on not cutting personnel, you could go step by step and show how the company was still able to cut costs through a better hiring process, and then take your listeners through that process.

  • Anecdotes and Personal Stories. These are stories or experiences used to illuminate but not necessarily to prove a point. Many speakers use anecdotes and personal stories—often about themselves—to establish rapport, break the ice, or subtly reinforce the point they are making. Anecdotes tend to be human-interest stories and can have real staying power with an audience.

  • Authority. Cite an authority when you use a reliable, recognized source to support your point.

  • Quotations. A favorite of many speakers, quotations allow you to bring in an authority, an example, and often some humor—all at once. And because many quotations that have survived through the ages tend to be pithy and profound, speakers instantly inject both qualities into their speech. A favorite of mine is John Kenneth Galbraith's quote that modesty is a much overrated virtue. The quote (or the person quoted) doesn't have to be well known to be effective, it just has to be relevant and help you make your point.

  • Testimony. Usually more directly relevant to the speaker's points than a quotation, testimony is corroborating evidence—proof in someone else's words that supports your view. In my talk "The Power of Questions: How to Use Questions to Lead, Succeed, and Activate Change," I quote Michael Bloomberg as sharing that there is an indivisible bond between the people who have the right information and the people who succeed. I got this quote from him several years ago, but now that he is the mayor of New York City, it makes my information even more credible.

  • Analogies. A set of parallel conditions that throw light on what is being discussed by their similarity and familiarity, analogies are very useful in technical presentations. Use a "domestic" analogy, one that defines the esoteric in terms that are close to home. Best-selling author Dr. Richard Seizer makes medicine seem immediate when he writes phrases such as, "a surgeon, who palms the human heart as though it were some captured bird." The best analogies have a little bit of surprise—the surprise that leads to retention.

  • Restatements. Because it is the business of a good speaker to condense and edit, restatements help you find and present the essence in a long-winded point you need to include. By putting things into your own words, which is why you were asked to speak in the first place, restatements let you speak with the authority of the facts behind the statement without losing your own talent.

  • Historical Background. Most presentations need some sort of context to be persuasive. Be sure your audience has the background necessary to understand the implications of your presentation. Don't make the mistake of assuming the topic you're talking about is common knowledge. Astute speakers will present their background material in such a way that it also supports their contentions.


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