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Strategy 2: Prepare Outstanding Content


It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

- Mark Twain

Some presenters are high in energy but low in content. Other presenters have excellent content but their style of delivery puts you to sleep. Twain's lesson is clear: Great speakers prepare great content. Great speeches are the result of great preparation. Our definition of a great presentation is one that has the intellectual power to move listeners to new ways of thinking and the emotional power to move them to new ways of behaving.

Preparation of content, organizational structure, and delivery often go hand in hand. When all goes well, it can be a rewarding and creatively stimulating process. However, when you get stuck, it can be like "hitting the wall" in a marathon. Although content, organization, and delivery must work together, we will look at them separately in this and the next two sections. One advantage of looking at these facets separately is if you get stuck in one area, you can turn to another. However, to be artful as a presenter, all three processes must eventually be integrated into one seamless whole.

No delivery skills can save a presentation that has poor content. Therefore, accomplished presenters develop masterful content. This chapter examines how you can develop masterful content:

Speak From a Strong Point of View

Your content will be more powerful if you introduce it with a strong and unique point of view. Sean describes how this works with one of the best presentations he has ever seen.

Sean: Author and past president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, started his presentation by saying that he was once interviewed by CNN about the current state of psychology in the world. Martin was only given one word to state his answer, to which he responded by saying, "Good." Because this was not much of a sound bite, the reporter said he could have two words, and Martin said, "Not good." The CNN reporter wasn't happy with this sound bite either, so he said he could have three words, and Martin answered, "Not good enough."

Martin then went on to state his point of view more explicitly by stating that psychology has done a good job in researching mental illness and is making strides in helping people get better. However, psychology has done a very poor job in researching happiness and helping people do a better job of attaining it.

Martin then went on to do a brilliant job of explaining the characteristics of people who lead A Pleasant Life, A Good Life, and A Meaningful Life. A Pleasant Life consists of having pleasant experiences such as sharing an excellent meal with a good friend. A Good Life consists of using one's signature strengths. A Meaningful Life consists of using one's "signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are."[1] He then told the participants, who were sitting on the edge of their seats, that we can have a Full Life, which consists of a pleasant, good and meaningful life.

I don't know if I have ever seen a presentation with more breadth and depth and at the same time content that was truly universal and deeply personal.

You can get a sense of Martin's ability to convey information from this strong and unique point of view, and take a test to determine and develop your own signature strengths, in his book Authentic Happiness.

You can also make your content powerful by asking a thought-provoking, rhetorical question that gets the participants thinking right at the outset of your presentation. Aaron Ropeik, Director of Risk Communications at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, starts his presentation by asking the participants to make a series of choices about the perceived risk associated with various activities by taking the risk quiz in Figure 2-1.

Risk Quiz

Figure 2-1

Most of the people who responded to the quiz thought that the chances of risk were higher from the external factors, when in fact they were higher from the respondents' own actions. In other words, the risk that any one person will have an accident or die while using his or her mobile phone while driving is significantly higher than the risk associated with bioterrorism or pesticides. Aaron used the quiz to get the audience thinking about how they assessed risk and benefits of activities more objectively and how to take appropriate corrective action.

Stephen Lewis has held the offices of the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, special adviser to the U.N. Secretary General of Africa, Assistant Secretary General with UNICEF, and is the Secretary General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Mr. Lewis is a world-renowned orator who presents using words of eloquence on behalf of making the world, especially Africa, a better place.

Mr. Lewis presented the closing keynote address to the Congress of Canadian Student Associations. This association is for university and college student leaders from across Canada. The speech took place on a Sunday evening; the keynote was scheduled to take place after the closing dinner at which point there would be an open bar and a dance. To make matters even more challenging, many of the student leaders had partied as only college and university students can on the Saturday night before. Yet when Stephen Lewis spoke, he captured their total attention for the entire length of his keynote address. His passion for his cause is nothing short of remarkable.

As a presenter, Stephen Lewis is also nothing short of a provocateur. After telling us of his first-hand experience in seeing the ravages of HIV/AIDS on the African continent, he pointed out that only a fraction of the money that was spent on arms or the 2003 Iraqi war could completely eradicate the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.

He then stunned the audience by saying that gender inequality may be an even bigger worldwide problem than HIV/AIDS. Stephen spoke eloquently about women who are refused education just because they were born female; about baby girls killed in China just because they were born female; and women who, against their will, were raped and subsequently stoned because "they committed adultery" in Central America.

It is almost impossible to hear this impassioned, eloquent man speak and not want to help make the world a better place. Stephen always speaks from a strong point of view and earns the utmost respect of those who agree with him as well as those who don't.

In sum, Martin Seligman, David Ropeik, and Stephen Lewis all have mastered the craft of developing dynamic content by speaking from a strong and compelling point of view.


Please write down three specific things you could do to develop your own strong and compelling point of view.

Craig Valentine, a Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking says:

"You have to know your message and where it is going. Many speakers don't know their message strongly, clearly and concisely enough and that is the main reason why the audience can't follow it."

One sure-fire way to make sure you do know your message strongly, clearly, and concisely enough is to use the business card test. The business card test evaluates if you are able to write the central thesis of your presentation on the back of a business card. If you can do this, you'll go a long way towards developing a strong point of view, and you will be off to a great beginning.

My point of view is.

[1]Seligman, Martin Authentic Happiness. p. 263.

Craft Titles That the Audience Would Crawl Over Glass to Hear

The title of your presentation is a hook. It sets up an expectation that the presentation will be worth the time and effort that the attendees have made to be there. Also, if competing presentations are offered at the same time, your compelling title will ensure that you have a full room. Therefore, you need to develop titles that an audience will find so compelling that they would sacrifice their last moment of free time to hear your presentation.

Examples of some of the best titles we have heard are as follows:

All of these titles have four common characteristics. First, they are fresh and original. Even the order of the words is different from what we have come to expect. Second, they exude energy. The speed at which we read the title accelerates because we can't wait to see what it means. Third, they entice with bold promises and/or rewards that you will receive by attending the presentation. Fourth, they contain a hook that entices the potential participants to want to be there because the presentation promises to help the attendees develop a critical skill in order to accomplish more and/or to improve their lives in some significant way.

Try comparing the previous "live" titles with the following "lifeless" ones:

All of the "lifeless" titles have the following characteristics: We have heard the same title or something very similar to it many times before. The title is perfectly predictable, not at all unusual or surprising. The title has little or no energy - even in reading the title, our eye movements slow down to a crawl because it is so boring, or we skim over it as quickly as possible to avoid being bored.

What is the difference between the enticing titles and ones that sound like the presentation will bore the socks off you? There has to be an element of surprise, novelty, originality, magic, excitement, or enticement. A great title does not guarantee a great presentation, but it does prove to the audience that the presenter went to considerable trouble to develop it, and that is a good first sign.


Please write down three of the best and three of the worst titles that you have heard.

Here are several suggestions for creating dynamic titles: Take a common phrase and bring it to life with a twist by doing something unusual or unexpected. Think of the title as a "teaser" - something to arouse your audience's curiosity and make them want to hear the rest of the story. Make it short enough and unique enough to be remembered. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Ask friends and colleagues to brainstorm creative suggestions. Get feedback from other people regarding the title's uniqueness and memorability. Think of your title as a billboard - it has to have stopping power even when passing it by at freeway speeds.

Powerful Beginnings and Endings

Memory research tells us that the material that is most easily remembered and has the most impact are the beginnings and endings. Therefore, presenters that aspire to achieve high proficiency should pay particular attention to the development and the delivery of their introductions and conclusions.

Accomplished presenters may not know these "laws" by name, but they instinctively structure their messages to utilize the law of primacy and the law of recency. These "laws" prove the audience is most likely to remember what they hear first (primacy) and what they hear last (recency). That's why so many veteran presenters insist: Open strong, close strong.

Twenty-five percent of the impact of any presentation is a powerful beginning and ending. We live in a world of instant messaging, fast food, microwave meals, and 30-second sound bites; your audience members are accustomed to a fast start. Therefore, you have no more than 90 seconds to get their attention. If you don't get it then, you can still get it, but it will take a great deal of work and effort on your part.

Some seasoned presenters suggest listeners begin forming their opinions of the speaker even faster. Roger Ailes, author of You Are the Message, says, "Research shows that we start to make up our minds about other people within seven seconds of first meeting them."

This may seem like an unusually short time in which to form an opinion, so Aaron puts it to the test. In his presentations, he asks participants to pair up, with one person serving as active observer. Then he tells them he wants them to merely look at the other person until Aaron says to stop. At the end of seven seconds, he picks several observers and asks: "What opinions can you draw from what you saw?" It is amazing how much some people say they perceived. Comments range from, "He looks intense, knowledgeable, and scholarly," to, "She looks like a kind, thoughtful, caring person." All of these insights and opinions were formed in only seven short seconds. This exercise illustrates the power of the first impression.

Chris Clark-Epstein, author and presenter, knows the importance of hooking your audience and demonstrating your competency as early as possible in the session. She says: "I am very, very cognizant of what I say first. I am a fairly extemporaneous speaker. However, I am very disciplined about my opening. The opening must be absolutely tailored to that group of people based on the research I have done on the audience. You could say that I am pathological about what that opening is about."

Sean: Memory expert Bob Gray is one of the most novel and unique presenters I have ever seen. Bob starts his presentation by demonstrating his ability to speak backwards and write upside down, backwards, and inverted with both his hands and feet while blindfolded. Bob then asks three volunteers from the audience to select the name of any country. Bob then lists the capital, population, and square miles of each country, which are then verified by another volunteer. Lastly, he asks for two volunteers to state the date, month, and year of their birthday, provided they know what day of the week on which they were born. Bob then tells them the day of the week and they verify his answers. Bob then challenges the audience by telling them that he doesn't have a photographic memory, but rather a trained memory, and offers to teach them his memory techniques. Now, did his powerful beginning get the audience's full attention? You bet.

Aaron: Mark Brown, a Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking says, "You must have your opening (one to four minutes) down cold. Have it so firmly rehearsed you could say it in your sleep." Why? Because as you take the stage you must take charge. And you can't take charge if you are unsure of your material.

Have you ever heard a speaker start slowly ... and then stay slow? It is agonizing. On the other hand, have you ever heard a speaker open briskly and powerfully with a compelling statement that just makes you want to hear more? These are the speakers we perk up to hear. Here is an example of a compelling 30-second opening from a speech by Frank Morris:

"At this very minute around the world, parents are anticipating their child's second birthday ... and with it comes the onset of the 'terrible two's' ... that special moment in which their precious little toddler becomes a diabolical demon of destruction. Now, you may laugh, but ladies and gentlemen, young and old, I suggest to you that the terrible two's are not restricted just to children ... "

At this point, Frank has set the stage with his pace, rhythm, alliteration, and added an element of intrigue. The listener wants to know, "What does he mean by that?" That is a lot to accomplish in his first 61 words.

It is also true that 25 percent of the impact of any presentation is a powerful ending. Paradoxically, if you start with the end in mind, you will be much more focused when you start working on the body of your presentation or the beginning. Having a well-defined ending, focus, and a central theme for your presentation will make it easier to develop, easier to organize, and easier for the participants to follow and remember.

You may choose to end your presentation with a review of the materials covered, a terrific quotation, a story, or an anecdote. Because impactful beginnings and endings are so important, this topic will be explored further in Strategy 4 of this resource.

Use the Perfect Quote

Savvy presenters know that finding the perfect quote often jumpstarts their creativity. The quote illustrates exactly what you need to write about and/or talk about, or the quote gives you another way to organize the content. No wonder so many books, speeches, and presentations, or different sections within a presentation, start with just the right quote. The right quote sets just the right tone, evokes just the right feeling, and simplifies our understanding. This helps us grasp the deeper meaning and, at the same time, makes the presentation more memorable. The perfect quote can also be used as a unifying device to tie everything together at the right point within the presentation and at its conclusion.

Quotations are tremendous tools. They can help build your confidence in your presentation, boost your credibility, give you direction, and help you focus your presentation - but only if you remember where you saw it or heard it. Has the following ever happened to you: "I know of a great quote that would tie everything together perfectly, but I just can't quite remember the exact words"? Or, "I remember the words, but I forget who said it"? When this happens, you either scrap the quote or embark on a time-consuming search that often turns up empty handed.

In the past, skilled presenters had books and books of excellent quotes such as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Today's aspiring presenters have the luxury of a tool like the internet to uncover just the right quote by subject matter or by author, and allow them to enter their own favorite quotes so they can be easily retrieved.

For example, Sean developed a program on effective communication for the Association of Health Organizations. They had seven people who could deliver the program. They were very happy with the program and he was extremely pleased with the quality of the people who would be delivering it. When they were all satisfied that the program would meet their needs and the trainers were prepared, the director asked if there were a few good quotes that could help them better market their new training module.

Sean had been collecting quotes and had entered them in a folder, but this was very time consuming. As their numbers grew, it became increasingly difficult to identify and retrieve the ones he wanted, so he turned to computer software (PowerPlugs: Quotations by CrystalGraphics) for help. The result was a job that normally would have taken days to complete, took only minutes.

The computer program quickly found 127 quotes on communications. From those, Sean made the following seven selections:

Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.

- Anonymous

Watch your thoughts; they become words.

Watch your words; they become actions.

Watch your actions; they become habits.

Watch your habits; they become your character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

- Frank Outlaw, author

No one ever lost his job by listening too much.

- Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President

We must never forget that the most powerful communication isn't what you say, it's what you do. What counts, in the final analysis, is not what people are told but what they accept. It is this concept of the role of communication in industry that characterizes effective leadership.

- Frank E. Fischer, American Management Association

The most important thing in communication is to bear what isn't being said.

- Peter F. Drucker, management professor

The two words "information" and "communication" are often used inter-changeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.

- Sydney J. Harris, journalist, author

Effective communication is 20 percent what you know and 80 percent how you feel about what you know.

- E. James (Jim) Rohn, speaker, trainer, author

These quotes were perfect for the training program because they emphasize the need for effective communication. Although this program isn't perfect, it sure beats trying to look up quotes or trying to locate that perfect quote when you just can't remember where you saw it. You can also enter your favorite new quote and you will know where to find it each and every time. Therefore, if you want to find the perfect quote, stimulate your thinking, and add focus and direction to your presentation, you may want to consider a computerized quotation program.

Other excellent sources for quotes are David's two favorite quotation books: Simpson's Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes Since 1950 by James B. Simpson and Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice by William Safire and Leonard Safir.

The Perfect Illustrative Story

Experience is the best teacher, and when learning the aims of an organization, it typically takes form of critical incidents. These are the stuff of stories and legends.

- Kouzes and Posner

Long after the participants have forgotten the topic of the presentation, even after they have forgotten the name of the presenter, they will remember a story. Therefore, expert presenters have mastered the art of story construction and delivery. The perfect story not only makes the material memorable, but also brings it alive for the audience. Like the perfect picture, the perfect story captures the essence of what needs to be learned.

In this section we are going to examine how stories can be used in the following six ways:

  1. Introduction.

  2. Icebreaker.

  3. Example, explanation, or illustration.

  4. Case Study.

  5. Metaphor.

  6. Conclusion.

1. The Story as Introduction

The perfect story can be a perfect introduction to your topic. For example, a university professor starts his ethics class with the following story:

At Duke University, there were four sophomores taking Organic Chemistry. They did so well on all the quizzes, midterms, labs, etc., that each had an A so far for the semester. These four friends were so confident that the weekend before finals, they decided to go up to the University of Virginia and party with some friends there. They had a great time - however, after all the hard partying, they slept all day Sunday and didn't make it back to Duke until early Monday morning.

Rather than taking the final then, they decided to find their professor after the final and explain to him why they missed it. They explained that they had gone to the University of Virginia for the weekend with the plan to come back in time to study, but, unfortunately, they had a flat tire on the way back, didn't have a spare, and couldn't get help for a long time. As a result, they missed the final. The professor thought it over and then agreed they could make up the final the following day. The guys were elated and relieved. They studied that night and went in the next day at the time the professor had told them. He placed them in separate rooms and handed each of them a test booklet, and told them to begin. They looked at the first problem, worth five points. It was something simple about free radical formation. "Cool," they thought at the same time, each one in his separate room, "this is going to be easy." Each finished the problem and then turned the page. On the second page was written: "For 95 points, which tire?"

The professor then goes on to lead a discussion about under what circumstances should we tell the truth, tell a partial truth, and not tell the truth at all. Did the professor get the students' attention? Was the story absolutely appropriate for this audience? Was it relevant to the topic? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.

Another example of using a story as an introduction comes from Brad's leadership course. The story is used to illustrate that almost everything a leader does or doesn't do is a potential act of leadership. Sean uses an article written by Norman Augustine, CEO of Lockheed Martin, which chronicles how the U.S. defense industry decreased procurement by more than 60 percent since 1989 as a result of the end of the Cold War. Consequently, 15 major companies were downsized and merged into four. In the article, the author describes 12 essential steps that led Lockheed through this difficult time and on to phenomenal success. The following illustrates one of the aspects of his leadership:

Pay attention to symbols. For example, when we combined Lockheed's and Martin Marietta's headquarters in a building previously occupied by Martin Marietta, we moved everyone out and reassigned offices from scratch to avoid the impression that anyone had been bumped or that some people were more important than others. That action was critical from a social standpoint, and it is for that reason that we at Lockheed Martin try to treat acquisitions as mergers of equals. The attitude "we bought you" is a corporate cancer.

The question Sean then asks the participants is, "Was it worth the expense to move everyone out and then to move all the successful candidates back in again?" After very little discussion, the answer is always yes. He then asks the class, "Why?" After a short discussion, they always say that not only was this action the fairest way to do things, it also was symbolic of Augustine's fair approach and set the expectation that he would be fair in dealing with staff in the future. This allows Sean to add that in two-thirds of the cases, mergers have been found not to be cost effective due to the culture wars between the two organizations that are merging into one. Most organizations and their leaders do not pay enough attention to the process by which the merger comes about. This is most shortsighted because the process is the foundation upon which the new organization rests. Note that the Norman Augustine story is made up of only 85 words. It is not the number of words that gives the story its impact. It is the story itself. Although these two stories are very different, what they have in common is that the accomplished presenters are master storytellers. They know that well-crafted and well-told stories are one of the best ways to begin a presentation, because they capture the audience's attention and establish credibility.

2. The Story as Icebreaker

Stories can also be used as icebreakers. The difference between an introduction to a presentation and an icebreaker is that an icebreaker is designed to help move the participant's attention from their thoughts outside of the session to what is going on inside the session. A story as an introduction, on the other hand, conveys the underlying message that the presenter intends to deliver. In this regard, the icebreaker is an invitation into the presentation. Icebreakers can be used at any time during a presentation, such as when the session begins, following lunch or a break, when the participants have their minds on a million other things. The icebreaker invites, beguiles, and entices the participants into the session. The message that an icebreaker gives is that this session will be either provocative; stimulating and fun; or insipid, dull, and boring.

Presenter Terry Pallson uses the following story to illustrate the importance of treating people as you would like to be treated:

Not long ago I was flying to Los Angeles, where I was scheduled to speak at a conference. I was at Kennedy Airport in New York, standing in line to check my bags, and the guy in front of me was giving the baggage checker a difficult time. He was being terribly, obnoxiously abusive. I didn't say anything - the man was not only upset, he was big. After he moved away from the curb, I expressed my sympathy to the checker for the verbal bullying he had taken.

"Do people talk that way to you often?" I asked him.

"Oh, yeah. You get used to it ... "

"Well, I don't think I'd get used to it."

"Don't worry ... After all, the customer's always right."

"Well, I don't think he was right in this case," I said.

"Don't worry." The checker repeated. "I've already gotten even."

"What do you mean" ...

"He's on his way to Chicago ... .but his bags are going to Japan."

The keys to a good story are that it must be yours and that it must be mostly true - by mostly true, we mean it can be embellished a bit, but must be based in fact.

Sean: I once heard a speaker who was obviously in trouble with his audience. The speech was flat and the audience members' faces reflected the flatness of the presentation. In truth they looked bored and I think were, like me, deciding if it would be too impolite to get up and leave. The speaker seemed to get the feedback from the audience but was not sure what to do with it. He then went through a litany of all of the bad things that had happened to him, finishing with his being kidnapped. The trouble was, the litany had nothing to do with his presentation, and his tale of being kidnapped rang patently untrue. Object lesson - be as genuine and congruent as you possibly can; the audience has built-in truth detectors.

Aaron: There is a speakers' adage that says: "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." This does not mean it's okay to lie and represent it as truth. But all good writers and all good speakers know the value of "artistic interpretation." That is, telling the story in the most effective way for maximum impact. Think of your "real" story as an artist's canvas. If the artist wishes to depict the scene exactly as it appears before him, he could take a photograph instead of using his brush. Yet, most people will agree that an artist's interpretation of a scene is what makes it compelling. Good speakers do the same: They take the real event and interpret it, enhance it, or edit it for the greatest impact.

Remember, this is not a license to lie. The audience will not excuse a blatant attempt to deceive. No one will ever fault a speaker for taking a real event and telling it in the most effective way possible. This may mean you have to leave out a few lines of unnecessary dialogue, leave out a character or two, or compress the time frame in which the event happened. This is creative storytelling, and virtuoso presenters do it well.

Don't forget the transition or tie in. If there isn't a natural transition between your story and your topic, you will have to develop one. Sean started with the following story in his "Emotional Intelligence" presentation to a group of project managers. Note how the tie-in at the end of the story is used as a transition from the story to the subject of emotional intelligence.

John invited his mother over for dinner. During the meal, his mother couldn't help noticing how beautiful John's roommate was. She had long been suspicious of a relationship between John and his roommate, and this only made her more curious. Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, she started to wonder if there was more between John and the roommate than met the eye. Reading his mom's thoughts, John volunteered, "I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you, Julie and I are just roommates." About a week later, Julie came to John and said, "Ever since your mother came to dinner, I've been unable to find the beautiful silver gravy ladle. You don't suppose she took it, do you?" John said, "Well, I doubt it, but I'll write her a letter just to be sure." So he sat down and wrote a letter: Dear Mother, I'm not saying you did take a gravy ladle from my house, and I'm not saying you did not take a gravy ladle from my house, but the fact remains that it has been missing ever since you were here for dinner.

Several days later, John received a letter from his mother that read: Dear Son, I'm not saying that you do sleep with Julie, and I'm not saying that you do not, but the fact remains that if she were sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the gravy ladle by now.

Just as John's mother knew the right technique to seek information about John and Julie's relationship, project managers use emotional intelligence to bring their projects to fruition - and it is the subject of how a better understanding and application of emotional intelligence can help that we now turn our attention.

Even though the audience may have heard the story before, the transition is uniquely yours. That takes it from being a stand-alone joke to being a valuable presentation device.

3. The Story as Example, Explanation, or Illustration

Presenter Bill Gove says, "Public speaking is simply this: Make a point, tell a story." That's the essence of public speaking: Make a point, tell a story. He said that years after he will have spoken somewhere, someone will come up to him and say, "Bill, I still remember the story you told about ... ." He said that proves the power of the story as example. Anchor every point with an example, and make your examples through your stories.

Aaron: An example I use in a variety of ways is this: "I have a nine-year-old son named Matthew. When he was 4, he learned how to spell his name as a result of playing computer games. As you may know, kids' games almost always ask the child to log in. For a long time I logged in for him, but one day I said, ‘No, it's time you do that for yourself, so if you want to play the game, you have to spell your name.’ So he learned to spell his name by hunting and pecking on the keyboard. A few days later, he was away from the computer and I asked him to spell his name for me. He said, ‘M-A-T-T-H-E-W-Enter."’

Without fail, this story always gets a laugh. So if for no other reason than to lighten the moment, it has great use. But I use it to illustrate a variety of other points depending on my need. For example, if I'm talking about the pervasiveness of computers in our culture, I use it. Or if I'm making a point about how we learn, I use it. Or if I'm making a point about the way people depend on contextual learning, I use it. That's the beauty of a good story - it can serve many purposes.

You can use stories to illustrate your most important points. Darren LaCroix, a Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, delivers a powerful message on the importance of failing. He opens with the question: "Have you ever fallen flat on your face?" Then, he literally falls face down on stage. Still down, he delivers the next several lines of his speech, while audience members strain to see him. He then gets up and brushes himself off and launches into a powerful, personal story of a very large personal failure. He tells the story of how, right out of college, he bought a Subway sandwich franchise, and how over the next few months, he proceeded to turn his Subway restaurant into a "non-profit operation." It takes courage to stand on stage and tell of a personal failure. Darren's speech is effective precisely because of his story. The skilled presenters know that we can never be persuasive when we tell someone else's story. We can be remarkably effective when we tell our own. As Mark Brown says, "Nobody but you can tell your story, and nobody can tell your story the way you can."

4. The Story as a Case Study

Start with a story that is a puzzle, an exceedingly difficult problem, and/or a moral dilemma that will take all of the audience's wisdom and intelligence to solve. One of the best stories that fits this description is the story of river blindness from the book The Leadership Moment. A synopsis of that story follows:

Responsible To Whom

"The banks of the West African rivers ... should provide ideal farmlands in an otherwise water-deprived region between the Sahara Desert to the north and the rain forests to the south. Instead, they are regions of human devastation. Entire communities have migrated to drier lands, abandoning their ancient villages and fertile valleys. River blindness is a scourge not only of human health but also of economic development." Almost all of the people become completely blind by early adulthood. Thus it is common that children guide their blind parents.

You are president and CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals. Your company has developed a cure for river blindness. The drug costs only three dollars per tablet. The only problem is that "The drug was needed only by people who couldn't afford it." Producing enough medication to eradicate the disease would cost $500 million, which does not include the cost of distributing the drug.

The Case for Donating the Drug to Western Africa. Your company has a history of being socially responsible. Your mission is both to help people and make a profit. No other company has developed a cure. This would certainly be a good public relations move. No other pharmaceutical company has ever made a donation of this size before. This action would also help all Merck employees develop pride in their company.

The Case for Not Donating the Drug to Western Africa. Firstly, $2+ billion is the amount of money required to bring a new drug onto the market. It would be irresponsible to Merck's clients and shareholders not to develop a drug that would help both people and profits. Secondly, many organizations hold some of their retirement funds in Merck's stock. The company should not be donating a drug to eradicate river blindness at the expense of the company's shareholders' retirement, especially if the shareholders did not vote to spend their earnings in this manner. Thirdly, the task of distributing the drug is daunting. The World Health Organization has already declined taking on the task of helping to distribute the drug.

The participants have 15 minutes, first to work individually, and then to work in small groups to decide which course of action they are going to take (that is, to donate or not donate the drug to Western Africa) and to prepare a speech regarding their decision to stockholders at the annual meeting.

After the participants have given their presentations, we compare their solutions with how the real company president dealt with the situation in real life. The value of this type of case study is that it places the participants in a real leadership situation, asks them what they would do, and then lets them compare their answers with how the actual leader in the story led at that critical juncture. An additional benefit from this exercise is that the participants must present their solution in a manner that would be appropriate for the president of a large corporation, which underscores the relationship between leadership skills and presentations skills.

5. The Story as Metaphor

Mark Brown, a Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, used a masterful metaphor in his World Championship speech. He used the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast as the framework for his message about ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. He first illustrated how these negative attributes were depicted in the animated movie. Then he smoothly shifted into a real-life parallel. He told a moving story of a beautiful television reporter who went undercover as an unkempt homeless person to illustrate how differently she was treated. He said, "This beauty took on a beastly appearance." Then as he described what the camera saw, he illustrated each of the negative attributes of ignorance, intolerance, and indifference in the reactions of those who passed by her. The story of the movie was played out in real life. And because of the power of his metaphor, the real-life story had so much more impact.

Metaphorical stories capture the theme of the presentation, making it real, concrete, and tangible. These stories reach out and grab your audience's attention. Harvard's John Kotter, one of the world's foremost experts on leadership and change, artfully uses metaphor in the following story:

In 1993, a new CEO put the company through a major transformation process that was successful. By 1998, the old procedure manuals were no longer used, replaced by far fewer rules and a set of customer-first practices that made more sense in the 1990s. The CEO realized that the old manuals, while not on people's desks, were still very much in the corporate culture. So here is what he did.

When he took the stage for his keynote address at the annual management meeting, he had three of his officers stack the old manuals on a table next to the lectern. In his speech he said something like this:

"These books served us well for many years. They codified wisdom and experience developed over decades and made that available to all of us. I'm sure that many thousands of our customers benefited enormously because of these procedures.

"In the past few decades, our industry has changed in some important ways. Where there once were only two major competitors, we now have six. Where a new generation of products used to be delivered once every two decades, the time has now been cut to nearly five years. Where once customers were delighted if they could receive help from us in 48 hours, they now expect service within the course of an eight-hour shift.

"In this new context, our wonderful old books began to show their age - they weren't serving customers as well. They didn't help us adapt well to changing conditions. They slowed us down ... and it began to show up in our financials.

" ... we decided that we had to do something about this - not only because the economic results were looking poor but even more so because we were no longer doing what we wanted to do and had done so well for so long: serve our customers' needs in a truly outstanding way. We reexamined their requirements and in the last three years have changed dozens of practices to meet those needs. And in the process, we set these [books] aside.

" ... I'm taking time to tell you all this today for a number of reasons. I know that there are a few of you in this room, each new to the company in the last couple of years, who think the books over here are a joke, bureaucratic mindlessness in the extreme. Well, I want you to know that they served this company well for many years. I also know that there are people in this room who hate to see the books go. You might not admit it - the logical case for what we've done is far too compelling - but at some gut level, you feel that way. I want you to join with me today in saying good-bye. The books are like an old friend who's died after living a good life. We need to acknowledge his contribution to our lives and move on."

For many of the people who read this story, their first reaction is to burn the books. The wisdom in this story is that it acknowledges that past procedures worked, and that we should honor them. It helps us move away from thinking that today's technique is good, and yesterday's is bad. This becomes a problem because what is new today will be old and hence bad tomorrow, and this lessens or devalues the impact of anything that appears to be new. In fact, many employees then start to view the newest change as "the flavor of the month."

By eulogizing the books, the speaker in the story acknowledges both their usefulness at the time they were developed and also that it is time to lay a good friend to rest and move on. The metaphor of paying our respect to a good friend who deserves our respect and has passed on is a perfect way not only to acknowledge the respect that the employees had for their manuals, but also to acknowledge the manual's passing.

6. Stories as Conclusions

Stories can also be used as a powerful way to conclude your presentation. Albert Mensah, a native of Ghana, delivers a powerful speech in which he speaks on the theme, "Underneath, we're all the same." He walks on stage wearing a denka, a ceremonial African robe. He tells his story of how, as an African immigrant, he was treated differently when he first arrived in the United States. He speaks of being treated as an outsider - a troublemaker - because he looked, spoke, and acted so differently. He proceeds to illustrate how damaging such thinking can be. Then, at the climax of his speech, he rips off the denka, reveals a beautifully tailored suit and tie and says with a knockout punch: "Because underneath, we're all the same." It's a powerful illustration - memorable and moving.

Another outstanding speaker, Sandra Zeigler, tells the story of Harriett Tubman, a woman who helped U.S. Civil War slaves escape to freedom. After telling Harriett's story, Sandra shifts the focus to the audience for a powerful conclusion. She says:

This morning, if you are standing at a place in your life where two roads are diverging, you are standing where Harriett Tubman, a black, disabled, illiterate, penniless woman born in bondage, once stood. Take the less traveled road of freedom, instead of the well-worn path to surrender. And when you arrive at your destination, and you will arrive, go back. Go back to your cities and your neighborhoods and teach, train, and inspire others to achieve what you have accomplished. [She pauses.] Don't stop at personal success. [She pauses.] As a tribute to Harriett Tubman, become one of the great ones. The great ones go back.

Sean often ends his negotiation presentation with the following story from the book Getting to Yes:

An American father and his twelve-year-old son were enjoying a beautiful Saturday in Hyde Park, London, playing catch with a Frisbee. Few in England had seen a Frisbee at that time and a small group of strollers gathered to watch this strange sport. Finally, one Homburg-clad Britisher came over to the father: "Sorry to bother you. Been watching you a quarter of an hour. Who's winning?"

In most instances to ask a negotiator, "Who's winning?" is as inappropriate as to ask who's winning a marriage. If you ask that question about your marriage, you have already lost the more important negotiation - the one about what kind of game to play, about the way you deal with each other and your shared and differing interests.

Sean then adds the following ending as a call to action:

It is my hope that this presentation is a beginning for all of us, me included, to negotiate more effectively, in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our states/provinces, nationally, and indeed, in events such as September 11, 2001, have so aptly pointed out, internationally. In those endeavors, I wish you good fortune.

This is not only a great story to end the presentation on, it also emphasizes the fact that the participants will have ample opportunity to practice the skills that they have just learned in the days ahead, and it challenges them to do so both in their personal and professional lives.

How to Find the Best Stories

There are many ways to collect good stories. Books, magazines, movies, your local library, your organization's formal or informal archives, story clubs, book clubs, and stories about one's children, friends, and family life can all work well if they are not overdone or over used.

Many presenters use stories that they have found in issues of popular publications. The danger here is that as soon as you start to tell a story your audience has already heard, your credibility goes out the window. The listener thinks, "I've heard that from someone else. I wonder how much of the rest of this presentation is someone else's."

Aaron: When I heard accomplished presenter Bill Gove explain that public speaking was simply a matter of "Make a point, tell a story," I thought at the time, That's good advice if you have a big story. If you've climbed Everest, well, that's a story. Or if you've conquered cancer and then gone on to win the Tour de France, that's a story. But I had to admit that I had done nothing that significant enough to use as "my story." So, though I understood what Bill Gove said, for the next four years, I didn't do it. Then, one morning, I was reading the newspaper. I saw in a trivia column written by L. M. Boyd a small item that jumped off the page at me. It said: "Every human being alive experiences these six emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear." I don't know why at that moment I thought of Bill Gove's "Make a point, tell a story," but the moment I brought those two thoughts together is the moment I changed the way I spoke. I thought, If I have a little story, a little slice-of-life vignette that triggers at least one of those emotions, that story will connect with anyone. What a revelation that was, because I stopped waiting for my big story and started using my little stories. And from that moment on, I stopped giving "speeches" and started speaking conversationally as I told my little stories. It has changed my approach, and it can do the same for you.

Other excellent sources of stories are our families, children, relatives, and friends. However, the story must be pertinent and under no circumstances should the presenter appear to be bragging, as this is very likely to alienate you from the audience. Often, a story where you show yourself to be far from perfect and where the story illustrates your point is the most intellectually powerful, fun, and entertaining. This is because the audience is more likely to identify with you as soon as they know you don't consider yourself superior. In other words, a humbling story is more likely to connect with the audience. In one of Brad's negotiation sessions, he uses the following story to illustrate the concept that almost all negotiations must balance preparation and flexibility, and one way to improve this is to "Expect the Unexpected":

I was working as a regional manager for a national company several years ago. The work was very demanding so I booked Thursday evenings as private time. During this time I was taking ice-skating lessons and had an extremely capable coach. A colleague, Harold Taylor, a recognized expert on time management, taught me that firstly, if I wanted to protect my private time, I had to schedule it into my daily planner and secondly, that I had to treat it as equally important to other meetings that I had. He also warned me that I would be tested. However, I didn't expect to be tested so soon, so often, or so severely.

I started my lessons, was making progress in my skating and felt good about having a complete break from my work. In other words, I was feeling very good about taking care of myself. The following Thursday, the President of the company was visiting our region.

The president was well known for being able to work very long hours and a full day of meetings was scheduled in addition to a business dinner for that night. I asked if we could eat early because I had a meeting Thursday night (I did - although it was with my coach). The next week, the vice president was in town and once again we had a business dinner scheduled for Thursday night. Again, I asked if we could eat early because I had a meeting scheduled for later that evening - with my coach. I was beginning to feel like I had mastered one of the elements of time management and self-care.

The next Thursday night I was thoroughly tested. My children attended École Beaufort, a French immersion school. Thursday night was the school's celebration of La Carnival, which recognizes the coming of spring. My son Andrew very much wanted the whole family to go to La Carnival. I thought that this was a teachable moment where I could help my son learn that parents deserved some private time as well. I carefully prepared for this negotiation. I was going to talk about the fact that I take my son to hockey and soccer on a regular basis, that we take a father and son trip once a year, played sports together, etc. However, before I made these points, as a good negotiator does, I asked my son, "Why is it so important to you that I go to La Carnival?" This gorgeous blue-eyed, blond haired 8-year-old looked up at me and said, "Dad, because I like you a lot."

I was wiped off the table. Speechless. I thought about it all the next day and came up with the following interest-based solution. My main interest was taking the lesson and for one night could easily miss the warm up and cool down. So I approached Andrew and asked him if it would be all right if we as a family went to La Carnival and were there for the start. I would miss the warm up, take my lesson, miss the cool down and be back at the school by eight o'clock. "Sure Dad." By taking an interest-based approach, both parties' interests were well satisfied.

Sean finds that audiences always relate well to this story and you, too, can find stories from your personal life that not only make the point, but also help to make you appear more human and approachable. At the same time, you must not overuse personal stories or you will appear to be egocentric, conceited, and unapproachable.

We recommend you start and maintain your own personal story file. From now on, any time you encounter any event or moment that triggers one of the six universal emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, or fear) write it down. You don't have to write the entire story, but you should jot down a reminder of the moment. Put it in your personal story file. Your "file" doesn't have to be anything elaborate, but you must find a place to store the golden stories that you discover. You can also start or join a story club. You and several friends can form a group and every time one of you finds a good story, e-mail it to each other for feedback. Set up a special folder on your computers. When you find a story that has potential, put it in this folder. You want to avoid finding and then losing the perfect story. You may think, "I don't need to write it down; but you'll be amazed at how many good stories you let slip away because you just forgot them.

Superb storytelling is one of the hallmarks used by artful presenters. However, the good presenters don't rely on storytelling alone. Storytelling is one of the three parts of the Three "S" Advantage. In the next section we will cover all three parts.

The Three "S" Advantage

The Three "S" Advantage is guaranteed to help you develop a more powerful, memorable, and impactful presentation. The three S's stand for stories, simulations, and a summary of the scientific evidence. In Brad's negotiator presentations, he begins with the concept that we can build our futures with creative or wasteful solutions. Step one is to illustrate the concept with a convincing story. Step two is to use a simulation that ensures that the audience experiences the concept by creating a teachable moment. Step three is to present a summary of scientific evidence that supports your point.

The reason you want to use the Three "S" Advantage is because of the incredible synergy that you can develop by combining these three elements. A mathematical analogy to illustrate synergy is 3 + 3 + 3 = 9, however, 3 × 3 × 3 = 27. If used correctly, the use of stories, simulations, and summaries of the scientific evidence can increase both the breadth and depth of your material as no other method can. The stories bring perspective and memorability, the simulations let the participant experience for himself or herself the point you are trying to make, and summaries of the scientific evidence add proof that reassures your audience that the material has withstood the test of time.


As noted, compelling stories draw the audience into your topic. They have humor, intrigue, suspense, or pathos. The audience is drawn into the topic, forgetting their everyday concerns. The audience lets out a gasp, or sits on the edge of their seats trying to figure something out that has become important to them. Good storytelling, like good joke telling, is an art. Highly proficient presenters practice their stories over and over again, changing parts and studying how the audience responds, until they get the story just right. Long after the participants have forgotten everything else, they will remember a great story. All of the stories that excellent presenters use serve to make a point, and that point is so well crafted and so well told that it is etched indelibly into the participants' memory.


The best piece of educational technology ever created was the flight simulator. Should we have simulators for all of our training? Yes. Why don't we? Too much money. But when you're sitting in your seat in a 747 and wondering about the skill level of the pilot, you don't say to yourself, "Gee, I hope he passed that paper test in flight school." You want to know that pilot [has] actually flown or has simulated flight in a number of the most challenging circumstances that he's "done it." Our training needs to be the same way.

- Roger Schank

Simulations create three-dimensional models that allow the participants to experience the topic under discussion without the attendant risks that could occur in real life. Simulations allow people to get out of their comfort level; to experiment; to try out new behaviors; and see for themselves if they work, how they work, where they work, and, just as important, where they do not work.

In one of Brad's negotiation sessions, the participants simulate negotiating the sale of a house where the only remaining issue is the closing date. After the negotiation, they then analyze themselves and each other as to the negotiation style they used. Likewise, when Aaron has taught a writing program for business, he explains that he was once hired to proofread a promotional piece for the launch of a Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. The PR person responsible for the launch said, "I've checked everything several times. I'm confident it's ready to go to press, but my boss said I have to get someone else to check off on it. It's mostly just a formality at this point, but he said if there are any mistakes, it's my neck." Then Aaron passes out a copy of the piece and asks the participants to proofread it as if their careers depended on it. Why is this an effective presentation tool? Because it simulates a real situation with very real consequences.

Summary of Scientific Evidence

We have all attended presentations that were well organized and very well presented. But after all was said and done, they left a funny aftertaste. We had learned nothing new. They remind us of the famous Wendy's commercial in which a woman asked, "Where's the beef?" Presentations that use relevant scientific evidence add content and substance, which enables us to better understand the world and/or see it in a new way. We are left feeling satisfied that the presenter took the time to create a meaningful presentation that has left us with content that we can use.

Step three of the Three "S" Advantage is to summarize the scientific evidence. For example, after a negotiation simulation that reveals the participants' negotiation style, Sean presents the Gerald Williams's research on negotiation style. Because the participants had just negotiated and experienced how well their style and the other participants' style worked or didn't work, the scientific evidence has 100 percent more meaning to the participants than if it were introduced on its own.

Note that the Three "S" Advantage is not to be used rigidly. You can present very effectively by using part of the model, or by using some elements of the model more than once. Author and presenter William Bridges very successfully uses elements one and two, storytelling and simulations, in a presentation on transitions. During the presentation he would stop lecturing and/or storytelling, and at critical points he would ask the participants to form into groups of four to carry out an exercise or simulation. He asks the participants to share a transition that they were in at a previous time in their lives and identify for themselves, and for each other, a skill or a strategy that helped them master that transition. Second, the participants were to state how that same skill or strategy could help them master a current transition or one that they would soon be facing.

Bridges could have lectured on this point until the cows came home and it would never have had the impact that "harvesting the past" had as an experiential exercise. The use of this exercise was much more powerful than a traditional lecture could have ever been.

Please note that the order of the three elements depends on which order works best for your particular presentation and your particular audience. After you become familiar with the method, you can vary the number of elements. You may chose to start with a story, do a simulation, give a summary of the scientific evidence, and then end the section with another story. As you become more familiar with the Three "S" Advantage, you will be able to pick the precise element(s) to make your presentations as powerful as those of the veteran presenters you have met in the pages of this resource.

The following exercise has been designed to help you master the Three "S" Advantage.


Design an element of your next presentation or design an element of a current presentation using at least two of the elements of the Three "S" Advantage.

  1. How will you use storytelling techniques to add impact to your presentation?

  2. How will you use a simulation to add impact to your presentation?

  3. How will you use a summary of scientific evidence to add impact to your presentation?

The Zero Draft

There is a wonderful book titled Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. In the book, Bolker talks about writing "the zero draft." The zero draft is a private document designed for the writer to get his or her thoughts down on paper, which is also known as a "brain dump." Bolker's next stage is writing a private document for the writer's eyes only. In that stage, the writer is trying to figure something out, to arrive at the truth to the best of his or her ability, and the writer is his or her own audience. At this stage, don't be a perfectionist, and remember what John Maynard Keynes said, "It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong." When you are writing everything but the final draft, give yourself permission to write notes in the margins about what you think, feel, have hunches about, and anything else that comes to mind about what you have written. In other words, you can produce a written dialogue and that dialogue will help you develop both your thinking and your writing. Even if 90 percent of these thoughts are later discarded, you will find that the remaining 10 percent will be rich and valuable. In stage three, the writer writes for his or her intended audience, and in stage four the writer has produced something of great value both for himself and for his intended audience.

The beauty of Bolker's stages is that they not only hold true for writing but also for developing a presentation. Think of the zero draft as a way to get your ideas down on paper. The first draft, outline, or mind-map can then be developed. At this stage, you are the audience and you can jot down in the margin any thoughts whatsoever about the presentation. Again, even if 90 percent of these thoughts are later discarded, you will find that the remaining 10 percent will be rich and valuable.

In truth you can begin the zero draft at any time before you do anything else or after you craft your title. Developing a presentation is really an iterative process. This means that you may develop a better title or story or draft at any stage in the preparation of your presentation, and although the elements are presented individually, they really work together synergistically. An improvement in any one of the elements can lead to an improvement in any of the other elements and an improvement to the presentation as a whole.

In stage three, you rework your presentation with a specific audience in mind, and in stage four you produce a presentation that has great value both for your intended audience and for yourself. But it doesn't end here; you must practice and get feedback on your presentation to fine tune both the content and the delivery.

Your Content Advisory Board

Presenter Ian Percy recommends that presenters of all levels and abilities use a Content Advisory Board (CAB). The purpose of the CAB is to give the presenter objective, pertinent, insightful, and crystal clear feedback on where that presenter's content is working and where it is not. Sometimes the material is not appropriate, sometimes the explanation is not clear enough, sometimes better or more timely examples are needed. Just as the milk you buy at the store has a "best before" date, so too does our material. No matter how much the presenter loves that particular piece of material, story, joke, or anecdote, it must be discarded because it is no longer fresh. Your Content Advisory Board must give you balanced feedback, both about what is working and what is not. Ideally, each member of the board will have different strengths, so select the people on your Content Advisory Board carefully. This just may be one of the most important decisions you ever make in your career.


List up to eight people who might form your Content Advisory Board. List specifically what each of these people could contribute to your growth and development as a presenter.

Among the questions your Content Advisory Board should look at are:

  1. Is the presentation content light, content heavy, or content right?

    Content light is fluff, not enough new information, too much information the audience already knows, or an excellent five-minute point stretched and repeated to fill 45 minutes.

    Content heavy is too much information and too many details to remember. Nothing stands out from anything else and there is an over-whelming amount of facts and figures.

    Content right is just the right amount of content. It matches perfectly with the time period allotted, the expertise and technical level of the audience, and the context such as at the beginning of the day when people are fresh or at the end of the day when the audience members are tired and information-satiated.

  2. Please rate the presentation on a scale of 1 to 7, with a 1 representing that the content is too light, 4 just right, and 7 too heavy.

    Too light

    Just right

    Too heavy








  1. Is the content meaningful, engaging, and does it resonate with the audience?

    Are the audience members bored, listless, and mentally checked out or are they fully engaged, leaning forward, and watching the presenter with focused attention?

    Not meaningful or
    engaging and does not
    resonate with audience

    Meaningful, engaging,
    and resonates with audience








  2. Is the content new, thought-provoking, and inspiring?

    In place of the same old content and same old clichés, skilled presenters give their audience new, thought provoking and inspiring information that once learned, allows the audience to view the world in ways that weren't possible before the presentation.

    Not new, thought-provoking,
    and inspiring

    New, thought-provoking,
    and inspiring








  3. Did you provide an incisive analysis along with the information you presented?

    Today's audiences are bombarded with a plethora of information from many sources including the Internet. The best presenters also give their audiences the tools to analyze this information in ways that they could not have gleaned from any other source.

    No incisive analysis

    Incisive analysis








Preparing outstanding content is a result of a variety of elements. Putting together outstanding content involves speaking from a strong point of view and developing titles that will grab and hold the audience's imagination. Frame your beginnings and endings with content that has impact and then work on finding, creating, and developing the perfect illustrative stories. These stories, along with simulations and scientific backup will give you credibility and believability. Once you are ready for a trial run of your presentation, start with the zero draft and end with feedback. When you've succeeded in accumulating the perfect content balance, the next step is organizing it to make it as powerful and as memorable as possible. We'll address that next.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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