Have you ever suffered through a presentation or talk while your mind wandered, eyelids drooped, and backside ached? Of course you have. Dull and tedious training sessions, speeches, and briefings are an unavoidable part of life. Yet anyone can be a charismatic presenter who captivates an audience, provided the right kind of work goes into the preparation. That's according to Ted Frank, author of Get to the Heart. As a story strategist at Backstories Studio, he uses movie-style storytelling to help people make their presentations quicker, more visual, and more emotionally effective. Here are his words on how to be an engaging speaker and presenter whom everyone wants to hear.

1. Find the story that matters most.

One of the ways screenwriters are able to write so quickly (Rocky was written in three and a half days) is they start with only three key scenes and use them as guideposts. This technique can help business people stay focused and out of the weeds as well. It all starts with these two questions:

  • What do you, my stakeholders, need to do with my information? That question will automatically help you stay relevant and engaging.
  • What are the three key things they need to know to do that thing right? Now, just like a screenwriter, you've got your three key scenes. And three is a good number, because it's about all anyone can remember, so if you stress these points ahead of time, you get to decide what stakeholders come away with. If you stress 15, you won't.

2. Cut out the weeds.

One of the most important lessons I've learned is "If you say too much, you end up saying nothing." Hollywood's answer for that is to "kill your babies," by cutting out the information that doesn't matter. Here's the thing, though. In Hollywood, people don't kill their own babies, because just like us, they're too emotionally attached to know that something is not important. Thus, the director kills the screenwriter's babies, and then the editor kills the director's babies. So, just like them, find a colleague who's not on your project, tell him or her the answers to your big-two questions--what your stakeholders need to do and the key things you want them to come away with--and then ask the colleague to be ruthless and cut everything else out.

3. Plan the audience's escape.

In Hollywood, the opening scene is key to getting us engaged in a movie. But it's harder in a corporate environment, because people come in weary from other meetings and bring their devices to distract them. They also have attention spans shorter than a goldfish's (8.25 seconds, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute). The good news is that the bar is low, because everyone else is boring them, so if you can zap your audience out of the dull conference room and into your presentation, you'll have them. Here are some great tactics.

  • I often start by cutting the lights and playing a short movie. That definitely zaps people into focus, but isn't for everyone.
  • Starting with a provocative question is a trick that TV lawyers use, and it definitely gets stakeholders intrigued. Even if they just want to prove you wrong, they'll stay engaged.
  • Having something visual and relevant will help people get into your world. The book The Happiness Hypothesis tells a story about a purchasing manager giving a presentation on overspending. He placed hundreds of gloves from every factory, with price tags, on the table when execs walked in. They were immediately intrigued.
  • Even something as simple as playing music when people walk in will shift their expectations and engage them.

4. Harness emotion to keep an audience engaged.

In business presentations, people rarely play on the emotions of their audience, but it's key for engagement. It's also the only way the audience will care enough about your message to do something about it. That's because emotional stories are proven to release two chemicals in our brains: cortisol, which makes us feel concerned, and oxytocin, which opens us up and makes us feel inspired. Harnessing these will not only keep everyone engaged but also give them the desire to back your initiative. Here's how to deliver the goods:

  • Create a sense of urgency so your stakeholders will feel like they have to care. There's most likely an upside if they follow you, a big downside if they don't, and maybe a reason why they have to act now. Bring these out.
  • At the same time, because you're asking them to go out on a limb for you, create credibility so they'll feel smart for caring and will feel confident enough to tell other people. So back up your urgency with facts or expert opinion.
  • Create key moments. Movies are so successful and influential because they are built on key moments like "Use the force, Luke" and Leonardo and Kate on the bow of the Titanic. These are completely by design because screenwriters and directors set them up with greater emphasis and with tension. Take your three key points and turn them into moments. Think of them as the moral of a story or the punch line of a joke. Lead up to them by building tension, and then use your key point to release it.

5. Make the presentation real so they can relate.

One reason we love movies is they make even fantasy feel real, because we can see it and feel it. You can do this too.

  • Context is easy to use and memorable. Every data point or idea can be expressed through the people it affects and the way it affects them, and the places or situations they're in. In other words, the characters, plot, and setting that will turn your abstract concept into an easy-to-grasp short story.
  • "So" is relevant, engaging, and actionable: Once you've got the context and story for your point, put your stakeholder hat on and ask this question: "So?" Nine times out of 10, you'll be able to shift the context from mere explanation to a takeaway stakeholders can use. It's amazing how few people do this, but it makes all the difference to your stakeholders and gives them a reason for being.
  • Show instead of tell. Movies communicate so much in so little time because they use visuals and action, not just words. See that big screen behind you? Fill it with images or video. Don't fill it with text. Have what you might normally write on a slide come out of your mouth and you'll be so much more engaging and authoritative.
  • If you can, frame your presentation with a hero and action. Not all presentations lend themselves to one person's tale, but if you can, frame your information as the story of a customer, colleague, employee, or brand to make it much easier for everyone to follow, relate, and care. It's why movies are so powerful. Their heroes give us an easy way in and help us experience the stories vicariously.

6. Wrap it up to go.

The way you end your presentation will determine how people follow up on it. Make it easy for them by giving them a nice wrap up they can then relay to their boss or teams.

  • Recap your story and emphasize the gaps. Point out the difference between what could be (if they follow you) and what is (if they don't). That will show a gap they now have an opportunity to fill.
  • Reframe recommendations into invitations. Switching from saying "I recommend" to "what if we" can often make following your recommendation more engaging, because it becomes an invitation for the audience to solve the problem, rather than marching orders, even though, the crux of what you're saying is the same.

7. Take it from Beyoncé.

Pop stars and keynote speakers are engaging for the simple reason that they put on a show. You don't have to do pyrotechnics, but these tips will help you be a lot more engaging:

  • Memorize your presentation so you can look at your stakeholders and not at the screen.
  • Stand up in front of the screen. You'll not only save your stakeholders from having to look one direction and listen in another, but you'll also evoke their confidence because you're standing for what you say.
Published on: Jan 10, 2017
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