Sherlock’s Toughest Case: How To Write An Unforgettable Best Man Speech

sherlockIt turns out Sherlock Holmes is human after all. The proof? Public speaking torments him as much as it does the rest of us.

Holmes has been unmasking murderers, saving the Crown Jewels, and exposing nefarious secret societies since 1887. He’s traveled to the 22nd Century and battled his nemesis Moriarty on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (well, Data did in a Sherlock Holmes costume). But his biggest challenge? Writing a speech for John Watson’s wedding.

The recent BBC episode The Sign of Three opens with Sherlock calling Detective Inspector Lestrade away from a crime in progress for help with an emergency. Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to find Homes staring at his laptop screen in anguish.

“This is hard,” Sherlock says. “Really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then he holds up a pamphlet he’s been studying called How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “Do you know any funny stories about John?” he implores Lestrade. “I need anecdotes.”

Sherlock believes he is especially tormented by having to write his speech because of his self-diagnosis as a “high-functioning sociopath” and because he’s not good with people and their emotions. But his experience creating this speech is pretty consistent with what the rest of us go through in a similar situation. We agonize about these important moments because we want to do a good job for the people we love and not embarrass ourselves in front of an audience.

Faced with a challenge that feels insurmountable, Holmes approaches it the same way he would any other case: with research. And apparently How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech is full of good advice because (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler), Sherlock does an outstanding job. He even manages to solve another murder in the process.

Once you take out all the flashbacks and murder-solving distractions, it turns out that his wedding speech is pretty conventional. Of course, every wedding is different and every speaker has to write a talk that suits the specific event, their abilities as a speaker, and their relationships with the couple getting married. But many of the tactics Sherlock adopts would be useful any time you find yourself in the nerve-wracking position of having to prepare a wedding speech.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the text of How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. But, based on Sherlock’s performance, we can make some pretty good guesses about the advice it offers. My own powers of deduction tell me that the pamphlet’s suggestions look something like this:

Control Your Nerves

Public speaking makes almost everyone nervous. Even, it turns out, Sherlock Holmes. For most people the worst symptoms of their fear come right at the beginning, so it can be hard to get started and find a comfortable rhythm. But taking a few deep breaths, trying to speak slowly, and realizing that the worst will soon be over can help make your fear manageable. One of the great things about speaking at a wedding is that chances are pretty good you know a lot of people in the audience, so it should be easy to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and speak to them.

In Sherlock’s case, his nerves seem apparent as he struggles to write the speech and as he fumbles around a bit at the beginning of his performance, opening with “Ladies and gentlemen. Family and friends. And others….” But this turns out to be part of his plan. More on that in a bit….

(For other suggestions on dealing with fear of public speaking you can look here, or elsewhere on this blog).

Acknowledge Tradition

Are you speaking at a wedding with a Catholic mass or one being held on the beach in Santa Cruz? Both have rules and expectations that need to be followed, but those involved in either one would probably be wildly out of place at the other. Being aware of what everyone (especially the bride) expects from a wedding speech is critical. Are there rituals that need to be performed? How are you supposed to be dressed? What kind of humor is appropriate (if humor is appropriate at all)? Getting it right is incredibly important. The wedding speeches that go most horribly awry are usually the ones where the speakers simply don’t understand the context in which they are being given.

Aside from his formal wedding suit, the main gesture Sherlock makes to tradition in his best man’s speech is his attempt to read the “telegrams,” which he points out aren’t really telegrams at all but notes from loved ones who can’t be there.

“Big squishy cuddles. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes,” he reads before quickly flipping through the note cards and then tossing them aside in discomfort. “Love, love, love. You get the general gist. People are basically just fond,” he finally summarizes. It may not be the most traditional performance, but at least people in the audience can think Holmes has made an effort.

Personalize Your Speech

When you’ve been asked to give a wedding speech, it should be because you have a close relationship with the bride, the groom, or both. At least one (and hopefully both) of them feel you have personal insight into them and their relationship. If that’s not the case and you find yourself asked to speak at the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, find an excuse to be out of town that day. Quick! Move overseas if you have to.

Every presentation needs an objective, and the objective of any wedding speech is to say something that will please the new couple and that they will remember for years to come. Even more specifically, your goal should always be to say something that makes the bride happy. In the end, she’s really the only one who matters.The danger here is in falling into the trap of talking about yourself too much, or focusing on just the bride or groom. Remember, the whole point of the wedding is bringing them together. You need to show some insight into them as a couple, something that you’ve personally observed.

Here’s where the Watson wedding gets really interesting. After Sherlock has made an effort with the traditional “telegrams,” he starts to personalize his speech. But he goes about it in an unexpected and circuitous way. Instead of talking about what great people John and Mary are and how happy they are going to be, Holmes plays to the audience’s expectations of him. It suddenly looks like he’s bombing the speech as he insults the bridesmaids, the vicar, and says this about the institution of marriage itself:

All emotions–in particular, love–stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

Then he follows up with a barb at Watson:

If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

But not even Holmes is insensitive enough to say this at the wedding of a friend and mean it. He’s just playing on the audience’s expectations of him in order to create a genuinely memorable and dramatic speech and….

Do Something Unexpected

Of course, you could just stand up to make a speech, say a couple of nice things about the couple and be done. People make these kinds of speeches all the time. But it wouldn’t last very long, and it wouldn’t be very memorable. If you want to make a really great speech, you need to do something unexpected or tell a story that the audience doesn’t know. This is true of any presentation, really. Your talk has to stand out from all the other presentations people have to sit through if you want it to be truly memorable, and the element of surprise is a highly effective way of getting people to pay attention.

(A caution here. This doesn’t mean that you need to aim to create a speech that could go viral on YouTube. Remember that you’re there to celebrate the bride, not steal the spotlight from her).

Sherlock Holmes certainly excels at providing an unexpected twist with his speech. After seeming to trash the institution of marriage and insult much of the audience, he reveals that he’s been playing the role of “Sherlock Holmes the Sociopath” all along and that he completely understands what he needs to do in order to make a great speech.

“The point I’m trying to make,” he says:

is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

Sherlock, it turns out, has played up his own deficiencies in order to contrast them with John’s virtues. You can see the light bulbs come on in the faces of the wedding guests as they start to understand that they’ve been tricked. But it’s not something they’re going to be angry or annoyed about. They actually get a great deal of pleasure from figuring out what’s going on. Sherlock’s not so cold after all.

(Letting an audience figure out something on their own is one of the best ways to make any presentation memorable. People like to feel clever, that they’ve accomplished something, and it makes them feel much more invested in any talk.)

Create An Emotional Connection

The final, mandatory, element of any successful wedding speech is to make an emotional connection between the audience and the happy couple. There are lots of things you could do that would be “unforgettable” but still wouldn’t be good ideas for a wedding. Getting falling-down drunk before your speech. Stripping off your clothes as you talk. Making out with the maid of honor at the head table. These things are all overdone, anyway.

But making a wedding speech memorable in a good way requires you to say something that prompts a positive emotional response from the guests. How you do this will be different in every situation because every wedding and every relationship are unique, but it’s critical that you find appropriate emotional content. Otherwise you’re just saying nice things that no one is likely to remember.

Here’s how Sherlock creator Steven Moffat, who actually wrote the wedding episode, imagines Holmes’ thought process in planning the speech and the importance it has for him:

I thought what Sherlock would do is he’d sit there and think, ‘Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right c***-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely.’ And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate–he wouldn’t let his mate down.

So what does Sherlock actually say? He makes a direct appeal to the bride and talks about how they share their love for John:

Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss—so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John….

After his initial ruse of being completely insensitive to the feelings of others, the emotional impact Sherlock makes in the end is so strong (and I admit I may have had a tear or two in my eyes) that the audience has to stop him from proceeding with his speech so they can enjoy the sentiment as he tries to rush ahead and tell the funny anecdotes he’s collected.

Make Them Laugh (Optional)

When people start thinking about giving a wedding speech, often the first thing they worry about is being funny. And Sherlock does too. His initial response was to call in Lestrade and beg for funny anecdotes. But, while some of the best wedding speeches certainly make people laugh, humor should be entirely optional. It is sincerity that is required for a great wedding speech.

Remember that a wedding is not an open mic night or your chance to practice a standup routine. The spotlight on this stage should stay fixed on the bride and groom. If you have funny stories to tell, great, as long as they help the guests get to know the bride and groom better. If you have to search hard for funny anecdotes, however, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t depend on humor. And don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you have a hard time remembering a punchline. Much better just to be genuine and tell a good story.

Unfortunately, we may never know what, if any, anecdotes Sherlock came up with since the wedding party doesn’t give him a chance to tell them. I suspect, though, that he may have been trying to generate some during the disastrous two-man bachelor party he tried to orchestrate for Watson.

Solve The Murder (Sherlock Only)

Chances are pretty good that you will not be called on to solve a murder, so there’s really no need to over-prepare for this situation. Probably best to leave the sleuthing to the professionals anyway and spend your time coming up with the right stories for your wedding speech. Now that you know How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech, it should be easy.

Jacqueline Bisset’s Golden Globes Speech: Always Have Something Prepared

http://youtu.be/_6D_QqzDME4?tA&start=77

There are certain events for which you should always have a few prepared comments at hand. They’re the kinds of situations where there’s a good chance that you’ll be asked to say a couple of words and where there are often powerful emotions involved that make impromptu thinking difficult. If you’re the guest of honor at a party (think birthdays, anniversaries and retirements) you need to be prepared to thank everyone. If you’re at a wedding where you’re close to at least one of the people getting married you should have something nice to say about the couple. And if you’re nominated for an award you have to have some kind of acceptance speech ready to go, no matter how unlikely you think it is you’ll win. Because you don’t want to sound like Jacqueline Bisset at the Golden Globes on Sunday.

That doesn’t mean you need a long script. In fact, trying to read or recite a long speech is often a total disaster. A couple of heartfelt or funny sentences are usually all it takes to make a great impression. If Ms. Bisset had simply said, “Thank you so much. I guess that Most Promising Newcomer nomination 47 years ago finally makes sense now!” she would have earned a big laugh. Instead, she said this:

(Sigh) God. (Lip smack.) (Laugh.) Um, I think it was 47 years ago that the Hollywood Foreign Press gave me, promising, a nomination for the Holl-uh, Promising Newcomer!!! (Sigh) Thank you very much, Hollywood Foreign Press. I’m absolutely shaken. I can’t believe this. God knows you’ve nominated me about five times I think, anyway. (Sigh) (Lip smack) (Lip smack) (Sigh) OK! Scottish background to the front! OK! Um, I always wanted to do something for the BBC. And we did this. And this was great. Chiwetel, where are you? Can I see Chiwetel? I need him for inspiration. Where is he? OK. We had a good cast, didn’t we? It was great. Starz thank you for putting this on and, uh, (lip smack) thank you to my British agent, Steve Kenis, and my American agent, Harry Abrams. (Music begins) I…I’m sorry, I’m gonna get this together! I want to thank the people who’ve given me joy and there have been many! The people who’ve given me shit, I say, like my mother, what did she say? She used to say, “Go to hell and don’t come back.” However, however, however, my mother was not entirely me. I (laughs) believe if you wanna look good, you’ve got to forgive everybody. You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment. Forgiveness for yourself and for the others. (Blows a kiss) I love my friends, I love my family, and you’re so kind! Thank you so much! (Giggles) Thank you!

 

Jacqueline Bisset's Golden Globe Speech

Clifford Chance’s Dubious Public Speaking Tips For Women

A leaked memo from the giant law firm Clifford Chance has been getting a lot of attention for offering its female lawyers (just the female lawyers) public speaking tips, including these bits of wisdom:

  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t giggle
  • Avoid the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage
  • Project power by visualizing filling a fat arrow extending 10’ out
  • Don’t take your purse up to the podium
  • Practice hard words
  • Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky
  • Move your mouth when you speak
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe

I know it’s hard to believe, but those bullets are directly quoted from advice to highly accomplished lawyers at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Some of the responses to the memo have come from sources that usually cover the legal industry, but the controversy has taken on a broader life in the general media, too. As I’m writing this, the story is currently the top item you get when you google “Clifford Chance” (which can’t be a happy result for the firm’s marketing department). But I’ve been waiting to write about it for a little while because there’s so much wrong with this document that I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

Is it sexist? Sure.

Is it surprising that the lawyers receiving the memo were insulted? Nope.

Do the condescending tone and sloppy writing detract from the writer’s message? They do!

Is it especially troubling that this was written by a female lawyer and distributed by the firm’s Women’s Committee? You bet!

But on top of everything else, what I find really shocking about the advice in this document is how shallow most of it is. Sure, there are many helpful tips included among the more mystifying suggestions (“Make nose contact”), things that would be helpful for speakers of any gender. Of course you shouldn’t read your slides to your audience. Yes, you need to make sure that people can hear your voice. But almost all of the tips in this list are about surface effects: how you look; how you sound; what you should wear. And very little of it is actually concerned with making sure you have something interesting, important, or useful to tell to your audience.

I’m not saying that the surface details don’t matter–they do. It’s hard to have credibility with an audience if you don’t look and sound the part. But the content of any presentation should be given much greater priority than it’s appearance should. One of the reasons that this document comes across as sexist is because it focuses so relentlessly on how female presenters should look without giving them much guidance on what they should say. After all, if you don’t have something important to say and a good reason to take up peoples’ time and gather them in a room, you really shouldn’t be giving a presentation in the first place.

During my presentation training I always ask the audience for examples of the best presentations they’ve seen and what made them so great. In every single case, the elements of great presentations that audiences bring up are things like expertise, sincerity, storytelling, humor, commitment, emotional content, and making a connection with the audience. No one has ever mentioned what a speaker looked like or how they sounded.

When you’re putting together any presentation, the strategies you will use to engage your audience are what you should plan first. Yes, it’s important to give a polished performance. But it’s much more important to figure out what you have to say and how you’re going to persuade your audience to see things the way you do. The only good reason to have a presentation in the first place is because you want to take advantage of having the live audience there to interact with them. So you have to give them a good reason to show up and listen to you. Once you’ve done that you can worry about the polish, the surface elements that the Clifford Chance document tried to address.

There’s nothing wrong with offering speakers tips about how they can improve their performance. Even experienced presenters need to be reminded of the basics sometimes so they don’t get sloppy. Because the way you present yourself does matter. You might have great material, but people won’t hear any of it if you mumble through your talk or if the audience is distracted by a big stain on the front of your shirt. But the content of your presentation has to come first.

If I were going to offer a quick list of tips for creating substantial, effective presentations, I’d suggest that any speaker start with these questions:

  • What do you want your talk to accomplish?
  • What is interesting about what you have to say?
  • Why should your audience care about this?
  • How are you going to engage your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re well on your way to knowing what your presentation is about. Then you can start to worry about how you’re going to say it.

If you’re interested in much more extensive advice on creating better presentations, some samples of the handouts I’ve created for law firm and legal department clients are here, and embedded below.

And here are the Cliffford Chance tips:

Bulletproof Presentations Handouts

Click to access bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Tips For Writing More Effective Email: Plan Before You Start Writing

Having a strategy for your email doesn’t mean that you’re trying to pull something sneaky–though sometimes that’s exactly what you want to do.

Sure, there are times when you want to wait to send an important message until the end of the day on Friday so you don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of annoying responses. It’s Friday and you’re ready for happy hour–bring on the nachos! But most of the time having a strategy for what you’re writing just means spending a couple of seconds to think about what you’re doing. Taking the time to ask yourself a few questions can make the difference between a good email and an embarrassing one:

  • What is it that I’m trying to say?
  • Who needs to know about this?
  • How are they likely to react?
  • Have I taken the time to proofread and run spellcheck on my message?

Really, slowing down and putting some thought into what you’re doing instead of just reacting is the key to successfully communicating at work. So the first and single-most important step in the SEAR program is:

Plan Before You Start Writing

Let’s say that you are an HR administrator at a large company and you need to communicate an important change in benefits to all of your employees. I know that sounds scary, but it’s all hypothetical at this point. Unless you really are an HR administrator. Sorry about that.

Anyway, you have to tell your employees about these changes and there are lots of things to think about before you actually send them an email. The first question I’d suggest you ask yourself is whether email is even the appropriate format for conveying something so important–there are few things that people take as seriously as their compensation. If it’s good news that you have to share with them–maybe everyone is going to get an extra week of paid vacation during the holidays–it’s easier. But if it’s bad news–maybe you’re doing away with their pensions–you have to be considerably more careful.

In a case like that an email is most likely going to come across as a heartless and impersonal way of communicating information that will have a major impact on people’s lives. If it’s at all possible, I strongly suggest that this is a case where personal contact is much better and less likely to alienate your employees. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s generally a bad idea to convey bad news in email since having someone there in person and being able to ask questions can often go a long way toward cushioning such a blow.

Heck, why stop there? The personal touch is usually best for all kinds of emotional issues.  Why waste the good news about that extra week of vacation in an email? Why not have a party to announce it and bask in the love and gratitude?

Whether email is even the right format for your communication is just one of the things you should think about before you write or send that message. Admittedly, not every email you write is going to require a lot of thought. If your best friend sends you a note asking if you want to have lunch, just say “YES!” (here the caps are perfectly appropriate in the sense of GET ME OUT OF HERE!) and don’t worry about going through a checklist of rules to consider.

But for anything more formal you should at least consider whether your message requires a little more thought and planning. For guidelines on what you should be thinking about as you plan those important emails, follow this blog.

Tips For Writing More Effective Email: SEAR

SEARThese days it seems that everything needs an acronym. But while acronyms and initialisms used to exist to make complex terms and phrases (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) into words that sound less terrifying and are easier to remember (SCUBA), sometimes it seems that they exist today just to bewilder and embarrass us. Maybe it’s because more and more technical terms are leaking into our everyday language. Maybe it’s because so many acronyms and initialisms (HTML, SQL, GIF) don’t look like words and give us no cues as to how to pronounce them. Or maybe it’s because our clever and secretive children seem to write in a new language that consists of little more than a series of unrelated letters strung together with smiley faces. IMHO, a combination of all these factors has done a lot of damage when it comes to making everyday writing easy to understand.

Just the same, I’m going to go out on a limb and introduce an acronym of my own in the hope of making it easier to remember the elements that I think are most important when it comes to writing clear and effective email. I hope that mine is more reminiscent of the days of helpful acronyms (CARE) than the muddled-sounding efforts (UNIFEM – which sounds like an evil supercomputer with a female voice but actually stands for United Nations Development Fund for Women) people are resorting to lately. I wanted to come up with a real acronym, something you could recognize as a word and didn’t have to struggle to pronounce. Above all, I wanted something that you could remember and would help you recall the four points I want to emphasize as key to successfully writing business email.

What I came up with is SEAR, which is, I think, pretty good. Not only is it a real word, but it’s a verb, an active, forceful word. It’s a command, for crying out loud! This is an acronym with a lot going for it! Creative writing teachers will always tell you that, in order for your language to be memorable, you should engage as many of your reader’s senses as possible. Marketers do the same thing: why do you think hotels have “signature scents” and Starbucks has an official soundtrack? They want to take advantage of all your senses to help make you remember their brands and keep you coming back for more.

SEAR is just the kind of suggestive word to do that. It evokes the bright heat of a flame; you can practically hear the sizzle of the fire in its long, sibilant “S.” To make it even more memorable, take the mental picture a step further and imagine that it’s a nice steak you’re searing. You can practically smell it, can’t you, your mouth watering as you almost taste that first bite?

“Alright, enough of the acronym!” you say. “We remember it already. You’re making us hungry! But what does it mean? How are those four letters going to help me with my writing, and why are they arranged in that order? Why is it SEAR and not EARS?”

So here we go. Here are the four things you need to think about when you sit down to write at work, in the order you should generally think about them:

Strategy–Basically the idea here is to do a little planning before you start to write. Take the time to think about whether email is really the right format for your message. Have you clearly worked out what it is that you have to say, or are you still struggling with it? Have you given yourself enough time to write and to write well? Is there something in your email that could get you in trouble down the road? Best to consider these ideas before you even start typing a new message.

Emotion plays a crucial role in the overall strategy of your writing, but it’s something that’s often ignored. Poorly-handled emotional content can probably cause you more severe problems than any of the other pitfalls of writing email. And most of the time emotions get stirred up unintentionally because we are simply better at communicating in person than we are in writing. Email is notorious for lacking the cues to tone and meaning that we share in our everyday person-to-person conversations. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell if someone is kidding or if they’re really angry with us. Are they just being brief, or are they upset? And the truth is that we don’t always take the time to be good readers, either, which makes it even harder to communicate clearly.

But we all need to take a little more responsibility for our writing to make sure that it isn’t going to stir up emotions unnecessarily. Is the message you need to convey something that’s loaded with emotional content? If so, maybe you would be better off considering another, more personal, format. Do you have a history of conflict with the person you intend to write? Are they likely to react badly to this particular topic? If so, you might want to reconsider using email and pick up the phone instead. Better yet, walk down the hall and see them in person if you can. I know, many of us would rather avoid conflict at all cost. But sending an email that upsets someone isn’t going to help.

Audience–This idea really builds on the topic of emotion. It’s critical that you always think about who you are writing to. How are they going to react to your message? Do they even know who you are? If not, you’ll need to introduce yourself. How are you going to get their attention when they get hundreds of emails every day? What are they interested in and what information do you have that they are going to care about? It’s important to make sure that your message is modulated for this particular audience. Are you using the right tone? If you’re writing to the president of your company in the same tone that you write to your best friend, you should probably reconsider unless you’re also a VIP. Is the person you’re writing to a stickler for spelling and grammar? If so, you’d better run that spellcheck and proofread one more time.

Rules have to be followed to make sure that all of your other hard work isn’t wasted. So far I’ve played down the importance of correct grammar and punctuation, which is why I’ve made this the last of my four topics. But the fact is that you can do everything else well and still lose all your credibility if your readers are put off by typos and missing punctuation. There are still lots of people out there who will judge your intelligence and ability based on the mechanics of your writing–whether or not that is fair. Know who those sticklers are and do your best to weed out the mistakes in your messages to them.

But really, why not do your best in all the emails you send? The rules of grammar and punctuation only exist to make language clear and easy to read. When you write poorly you increase the chances that your message will be misunderstood or not read in the first place. After all, if you can’t take the time to write clearly, why should your reader struggle to make sense out of what you have to say?

Those are the headlines, the big ideas from what follows. Follow this blog for more specifics.

Visual Aids: Make An Emotional Connection

Arrest Development--Tobias

I love Netflix’s posters for the resurrected series Arrested Development because they do a great job of showing how you can convey a complicated idea–or in this case a character–with a simple image. Fans of the series will immediately recognize the posters for each of their favorite characters.

You may not be able to find an appropriate way to work a pair of Daisy Dukes into your presentations, but anchoring your ideas with clever images is an incredibly effective strategy. For one thing, images are much more memorable than words themselves. Audience members will remember a picture you show them much longer than they’ll remember any of your bullet points.

But images also allow you to connect with an audience’s emotions in a way that’s difficult to do with words alone. Arrested Development fans are likely to react to these posters in several ways. First, they’ll laugh. They’ll remember how much they love the show. Then they’ll enjoy feeling clever for understanding the references in the pictures.

If you can accomplish any of these things in your own presentations you’re doing great. Of course your images need to be relevant (and appropriate!) to your message. And they need to look good, which can be a lot of work. But the payoff can be huge. People love to be entertained, and they love the accomplishment they feel when they have to make a little effort to figure something out. Human beings are born problem solvers, and who doesn’t like to feel smart? Even better, a live audience will transfer their good feelings to you as the speaker and be more likely to be persuaded by your ideas.

Instead of just loving your images, they may love you.

Arrested Development Character Posters

Persuasive Presentations: Put Some Heart Into It

Put a Heart on It

Sometimes it can even be a literal heart.

I always try to make a little smalltalk with the employees at my regular cafe. It helps ease the transition into the work day and sometimes leads to free pastries. Today I was the first customer of the morning and Kyle and Meghan were still setting up the bar covered with delicious treats as I came in.

“I really like it when you make the signs for the pastries,” he told her.

“Why?” I asked. “Because she’s better at it, or because you just don’t want to do it?”

“Both,” he said. “It’s just one of those chores that you dread. But I really like the heart that you put on the doughnut sign,” he told her. “It just adds a special something.”

Meghan was already making my latte the way they always do it for me without my having to ask–in a short water glass instead of a porcelain cup. “You know,” she said, “I wondered if it was a bit much. But every time I put a heart on a sign for something we sell out. So, whatever.”

Of course, you don’t want to put a heart on everything. If you do they become meaningless. But making a little extra effort, enthusiasm, or just being pleasant to deal with can go a long way to persuading anyone–whether you’re trying to sell doughnuts or your company’s quarterly financial results.

Here’s what my coffee looked like when I picked it up. I had to smile.

Coffee Heart

State of the Union: Thirsty

Scripted events like the State of the Union are generally so dry and predictable that they’re best remembered when something unusual happens. Right after President Obama’s speech last night, many news analysts suggested that this State of the Union only really stood out for the emotional pull of the “they deserve a vote” refrain at the end.

But today it isn’t Obama’s speech that’s getting the most attention on the morning shows, it’s the Republican response from Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Specifically, the fact that he suddenly lurched out of the television frame to grab a water bottle and take a drink. So far he’s handled the response with such good humor that I really don’t think it’s the “disaster” that some people are making it out to be. But it certainly isn’t the kind of attention that anyone wants. Especially since there was already talk that the opposition response was cursed.

Instead of leaving it up to chance (or accident), it’s always a good idea to plan what you can do to make your presentations memorable. What will stand out in the sea of colorless talks? What will keep your audience’s attention focused on you so they won’t be tempted to sneak their phones out of their pockets? How would you want an audience member to describe your presentation to someone who wasn’t there? Figure out a “hook” for your talk so it isn’t forgotten the moment everyone leaves the room.

And keep your water bottle within easy reach.

Marco Rubio’s Dry Mouth

Presentation Tips: Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

One of the great–but frequently ignored–truths about presentations is that they require you to entertain your audience. That doesn’t mean that your presentations should be frivolous, that you have to sing, tell jokes or do magic tricks. But it does mean that you have to engage your audience enough to hold their attention, to give them a good reason to keep listening to you. And there’s no better way to do that than by telling them a story.

Storytelling and presentations are a natural fit. They’re the best way to connect with your audience and help them understand what you’re talking about. And they don’t even have to be that complicated. The simplest way to create a story for your presentation is just to ask yourself “why should my audience care about this?” If you can’t quickly come up with that story you really need to reconsider your whole presentation. But there are lots of ways to construct a story for your presentations. I’m always looking for a “hook” for my presentations? What will make my talk different enough for it to be memorable to an audience? How would they describe it to someone who wasn’t there? That’s a story, too.

If you want to learn more about storytelling, there may be no better place to spend 20 minutes of your time than this TED talk from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton. Pixar, of course, is one of the best and most successful storytellers of our time. The silent montage at the beginning of Up is one the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched it I kept having to wipe the tears from my 3-D glasses. And Stanton has played a leadership role in Pixar’s films since the beginning, including as the director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo.

Just a warning, though. The joke he uses as an icebreaker to open the talk is not something you would find in a Pixar film. Kids and delicate souls may want to stay away. Everyone else can learn a lot here. Most of the examples of storytelling techniques he uses come from films, but everything he says about connecting with an audience and creating a successful story applies to presentations as well. Here’s a brief summary of some of the key ideas that link the two:

Storytelling is joke telling: There’s a good reason that Stanton begins with a joke. Storytelling, he says, is joke telling. They both engage an audience in an immediate way, and they both require you to know the ending you’re working toward. A joke moves towards its punchline and the stories you use in your presentations need to work toward achieving your goals.

Stories give meaning: The stories that we tell each other confirm deeper truths and help us understand who we are as human beings. Because of this people love stories and are inherently drawn in and entertained by them. I’d also add that stories are effective in presentations because they help you be more persuasive. Studies show that people are more likely to believe something you tell them in story format than they are when you simply provide them with facts. Storytelling causes an audience to suspend much of their critical thinking and simply absorb what you say as true.

Stories are what connect us to others: If you want people to care about something, tell them a story that illustrates why they should. Stories activate our emotions in powerful ways that are hard to duplicate otherwise. Stanton tells a story about how Mr. Rogers carried around a quote that said “there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” In the TED talk this is illustrated in the slide (which you can see in the video preview about) that says, “Make me care.” You need to show why every audience should care, whether you’re trying to get them engaged with your movie, your characters, or the projects you’re involved with at work. The minute they decide they don’t care you lose them and they start changing channels in their heads.

Stories have to lead an audience somewhere: This should be obvious in presentations, but it isn’t always. You have to demonstrate that what you’re telling them is going to lead somewhere, that there will be a payoff and you’re not just wasting their time. Stanton calls this the “promise” of a story and says that “a well-told promise is like a pebble pulled back in a slingshot” that propels your story forward. What “promise” can you make to your audience to keep them interested? Have you created anticipation? Made them wonder what’s going to happen next? Will we find Nemo? Solve our IT problem? Creating this kind of tension is the surest way to make sure that they’re still paying attention.

Stories should require something of their audience: Audiences are much more likely to actually do what you ask them if they feel like they have a stake in what you’re talking about. In my own presentations, I like to involve the audience by asking them lots of questions and having having them come up with the answers themselves. That way they actually become part of the presentation and want it to succeed. Stanton talks about this in the context of the wordless sections of WALL-E, where the audience has to pay attention, figure out what’s going on. We’re born problem solvers, he says. “Audiences want to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. Your job as a storyteller is to hide that you’re making them work. Give them two plus two, but make them come up with four.”

Stories must be about change: There needs to be a primary driver for characters, and there needs to be a goal, an objective, for your presentations. Change is the force that propels all stories, and it should be the driver for your presentations. Otherwise, why are you there? One of the simplest kinds of stories, one that can be as simple as two pictures, is “before” and “after.” The basic story behind many presentations can be as elegant as “here’s the current situation, here’s where we want to get to, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”

“Wonder” is the secret sauce of storytelling: Stanton uses the example of the scene of Bambi and Thumper sliding across the frozen pond to illustrate the profound power of storytelling, the feeling of wonder that another human being can create in us simply by telling a story. Chances are that most of the presentations you attend (or give) don’t provoke that kind of emotion. But why not? Connecting with an audience in a meaningful way, telling them something that makes them feel like they know or understand you can be incredibly powerful and make it much easier to win them over to your cause. Making them laugh is a good start. Making them cry isn’t always appropriate, but it would be amazing!

Stanton himself tells a story about how he was born prematurely, which can’t help but make an audience empathize with him, then shows the clip from Finding Nemo where Marlin the clownfish finds the egg that will grow to be his son and promises to always protect him. Stanton says that this is an example of “using what you know” in storytelling. I think it’s even better as an example of using your own story to bond with and influence an audience.

The next time you have to give an important presentation, start by asking yourself “what story do I want to tell?” Then figure out how you can incorporate some of the terrific ideas from this talk.

Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

Pitch Perfect: Apple’s iPad Mini Ad

Most presentations rely on logical arguments to try to persuade an audience–and that’s one of the reasons that so many of them fail. Charts, facts and figures tend to bore an audience and make them tune out. Making an emotional connection, on the other hand, is much more likely to be effective. It’s something that every speaker should try to include in their presentations.

When it comes creating advertising–which is really just another presentation format–Apple is the undisputed master at making people feel that they need something, even if it’s just a smaller version of something they already own. There’s a lot that any presenter can learn from how they work their magic to create that kind of desire.

Here’s a great example of how Apple deploys emotional content to sell its products. They don’t use any of the new iPad Mini’s specifications in order to make you want the new toy. This ad don’t even use any words other than the product’s name. Instead, Apple appeals to nostalgia with the childhood ritual of learning to play “Heart and Soul” on the piano, using the size difference between the two iPads to suggest a child playing along with an adult. Watching the piece for the first time during the keynote event literally gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, even though I’ve never played the piano.

Brilliant.

Apple’s iPad Mini Ad