You may know the story surrounding the death of Gram Parsons, the great musician who partnered with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Emmy Lou Harris, to name just a small part of his legacy in popular American music. When his friends stole his body from the LA airport, drove it to Joshua Tree National Park, poured five gallons of gasoline into his open coffin and lit it with a match, they fulfilled his dying wish to be cremated in the desert. The police gave chase but, according to one report, were unable to keep up because they were "encumbered by sobriety." How might you be "encumbered by sobriety" as a speaker? In other words, how are you getting in your own way when you stand up to speak? And how might you unleash more of yourself to ignite, inspire and engage your listeners? Here are 3 major moves I've seen recently:

The Script's the Thing

Since the late 1960s, when commercial video cameras hit the market, most training in public speaking has been about delivery. The camera enabled instructors to help us look good without improving the substance and flow of our scripts. After all, most presentation trainers are not trained speech writers. Nor do many of them know the industry we work in, or the nature of our unique businesses. Yet a poor script is not likely to be improved by good delivery. We could all benefit from learning how to shape engaging content. So what's the best way to develop a script for a presentation? These days, people will tell you it should be a story. In fact, everyone in business seems to be talking about story. TED talks, The Moth Radio program, and Story Corps are just three examples I'm aware of. And perhaps that's not surprising. We are awash in the commodity of information, but what we really value is meaning derived from that information, and stories are good at embodying meaning. But then what do people mean when they tell us to turn our presentations into a story? How do you turn a bunch of data slides into a story? What is a story? What are its component parts? And how are those parts assembled to create an effective whole? Well, stories have a setting. They happen "once upon a time in a far off land," or, in our more modern terms, in a particular time and place. Your presentation should follow that format. Stories have a main character. It could be a product, a company, a team, or a project. As a matter of fact, it could be anything. Stories are always about people who have a problem (or an opportunity) that disrupts the status quo and creates imbalance in life (or in your case, business.) You must define and make real to your audience the problem you are addressing. In a story, the main character struggles to solve his/her problem. This is the plot, the largest part of a story, and your proposed solutions to the problem represent the body of your presentation. As they end, stories reach a climax of tension and conflict which must be resolved. Your presentation should do the same. To accomplish this, you, the speaker, must remind the audience of the problem or the opportunity, the solutions you've proposed, and finally tell them specifically what they need to do. You will light the room on fire when you can frame your presentation around an unresolved problem that is relevant to your audience. Furthermore, your audience will burn with delight when you solve the problems that you've brought to their attention. By the way, Lisa Cron's Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence is a good resource. The book confirms what artists and philosophers have intuited for ages: our brains are hard-wired to absorb information through storytelling.

Create emotional appeals

Reasoning about data, facts, & figures makes us think, but emotion makes us act. So how can we build emotional arguments--or inspirational messages--into our presentations? The answer? Appeal to people's emotions. On January 20th, 1961, President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address. Early in his talk, he appealed to our love of country when he said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." And later in the address, he summoned us to sacrifice a second time. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." These are not words aimed at the head. They are aimed at the heart. Their power comes from emotion, not reason. Recently I heard a presentation appealing to the pride and dignity of people who work in the pharmaceutical industry, an industry that is often ranked with big oil and big tobacco as some of the least trusted industries in the world. After introducing himself, the speaker began by saying:

There is so much excitement around the industry. If you think about all the amazing things that we're doing... cellular therapies, nanotechnology, epigenetics-- these really sound like science fiction. But we have them, we're working on them, we're developing new medicines for serious unmet need. And it is such an exciting place to be. Amazing pipelines bursting with energy, tremendous momentum. But unfortunately that sense of optimism and joy isn't shared by everyone.

And then he went on to describe many of the common charges leveled at pharma, before he got to the body of his talk, where he demonstrated the profound societal benefits provided by the industry.

Not only was the talk well built and well delivered, it seemed to kindle a sense of relief in the audience, giving them a counter-story to the popular myths about the industry that many of them had swallowed.

The power of the talk was partially in the facts and figures of the research the speaker showed, but it was mostly that the talk gave listeners a license to be proud of what they do. Very simply, they were armed and equipped to defend their industry if and when their friends and family members condemned it. Appeals to emotion are often shunned in scientific and technical circles, and frequently over-used in political oratory, but make no mistake, human feeling drives decision and behaviors. Effective speakers are able to ignite emotion in their listeners.

Your voice stands guard over content

You can craft a great story and salt your script with emotional appeals, but you can still stand in your own way if you fail to express yourself effectively. We are all born with extraordinary, expressive voices that wake households in the dead of night. Yet when we get older, few of us are happy when we hear what we sound like. And many of us have the experience that we are not being heard--that our voices don't do justice to our capabilities. Here's how to to speak so that people want to listen. Here's how to play the most magnificent instrument in the world: the human voice.

  • Warm it up. Humming is good for the voice: the vibrations knock the crud off your vocal cords. Exercise your lips and tongue too. Say "BRRRRR," and flutter your lips like a horse. Then say, "LALALALALALA," to limber up your tongue.
  • Practice placing your voice in your nose, throat and chest. First, send your sound into your nose. It makes your voice penetrating, but a nasal voice is not the most beautiful sound. Project your voice from your chest, like Darth Vader. A chest voice creates an image of power and authority, for women and men. Then speak with an open throat, which is the most common seat of an effective voice.
  • Timbre (pronounced tamber) is the emotional quality of sound. A rich, smooth, warm sound is most inviting. There are basically four emotive voices: sad, mad, glad, and afraid. Gladness is the best tone to take.
  • Sameness is the enemy of the speaker. There are times to speak loudly, and times to dial it back. People rate your authority higher if you have a more steady pitch but are also able to vary your volume.
  • Speak under the speed limit. Fast talkers get credit for being smart, but people criticize them more because they're harder to follow. And here's a fine distinction: fast talkers don't have to slow down. They just have to pause between phrases.
  • Finally, there is power in silence. A pause refreshes the audience. President Obama is brilliant at pausing. A pause in speech is like white space on a page: it is elegant and helps the audience focus.

So, to summarize:

  • Sharpen and strengthen your script. No amount of strenuous delivery is going to improve a feeble text.
  • Borrow the power of story. Frame your presentation around an open question or an unresolved problem.
  • Appeal to emotion. Emotion makes us act.
  • Release the imprisoned splendor of your voice. It's the most powerful instrument known to man.

You and your script will be heard more clearly, understood more deeply, and inspire more people to act-- when you play your instrument well.