Listeners like a vertebrate speech or presentation--a talk with a spine. They dislike gelatinous, invertebrate talks.
They like all the parts of the speech hanging together, all the ribs connected to the back bone, the knee bone connected to the shin bone.
Good opening lines ignite interest, solving a problem captures attention, and good conclusions call people to action.
What are the best ways to organize a speech or presentation, beyond "introduction, body, and conclusion"? How can you make your talks more like stories, more dramatic and less predictable?
Model Your Talks on Google Earth
About a year ago I was using the software to look for my childhood home outside Katonah, New York. I caught a glimpse of it from 30,000 feet, then zoomed in and saw my mother’s herb garden at the bottom of the lawn.
I could tell the image was created in late fall or early winter because part of the lawn was brown: My father planted Zoisa grass in the early 1960s when he was waging war against crabgrass, and Zoisa turns brown in the cold.
I saw no Jack Russell terriers leaping after tennis balls that my Dad used to smack with a wiffle bat. I only saw a still image, a soundless moment, at a house I knew well.
It reminded me that filmmakers use wide angles and close-ups to tell their stories. Wide angles create the setting, and close-ups bring us face to face with uncertain human realities.
Abraham Lincoln did this in the Gettysburg Address. With his first sentence, he invites his audience to gaze at the continent and 87 years of history.
"Four score and seven years ago," he begins, "Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation..."
In one majestic sentence he summarizes national history and the view from the heavens. And then comes the close up. "Now we are engaged in a great Civil War…" With that sentence he locates his audience in time.
"We are met on a great battlefield of that war." Now he locates us in space, in Gettysburg, PA.
The President goes on to say that the deeds of the dead cannot be honored by the words of the living, and that we can best honor the fallen with a renewed commitment to the principles of representative democracy.
Like me looking for my childhood home on Google Earth, Lincoln first fixed his listeners' eyes on the big picture--the wide angle, the arc of history, and the curve of the earth.
And then he brought to their attention the current conflict, and the bloody field where the bodies lay--zooming in on the problem, and on what needed to be done.
This is a powerful model for presentations. Start with the big picture, the setting in which the story takes place. Then zoom in on the problem that clamors for a solution, and offer an actionable and evidence-based answer.
But equally powerful can be the reverse: moving from the close-up to the bigger picture. Locating a vivid and telling detail at the start of your talk can focus the your listeners before you zoom out to provide context and meaning.
For instance, my wife, Sharon Dennis Wyeth, an author of many childrens' books, often begins her talks with the image of her coming home from school with a piece of paper in her hand, on which she had written B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L, the first word she ever wrote. In her story, she gives it to her mother, and her mother puts it on the refrigerator. And then Sharon zooms out, to speak about the importance of nurturing young readers.
I zoomed out from my childhood home so I could see the wide woods surrounding the house--the woods where I played with my friends.
Still there, now owned by the Nature Conservancy, I saw the canopy of bare branches that shadowed the ruins of our forts, where we fought battles with each other, and went home for supper when it got dark.
From a distance of 50 years, and after a close look at the lawn and garden, I have to say I was a lucky boy.