How to Take Your Presentation from Boring to Soaring

By Makana Risser Chai   © copyright 2012 by Makana Risser Chai – all rights reserved

For 14 years, two or three times a week, I presented programs to corporate managers on how to avoid getting sued by people like me. One morning as I was setting up for the day, a man rushed in and said, “I’m the vice president of international sales. I am too important to waste my time in a class like this. I’ve been a manager for 26 years. I know this stuff already. You have to let me out of here!” He was frantic because he thought the presentation would be like other legal programs he’d attended—boring.

I said, “Your boss told you to be here, so I can’t let you out. But let’s make a deal. You stay through to the first break. Participate fully, be a good role model, and if you don’t feel you’ve gotten some value out of it by then, I’ll talk to your boss.” He agreed. In the next two and a half hours I scared the group a bit, engaged them in exercises, and got them laughing. He started thinking, and at the break he said, “I am so lucky I haven’t been sued—I’ve been doing everything wrong!” He stayed to the end of the day and wrote on his evaluation, “This was better than CATS!” More importantly, two weeks later the CEO called and said he had completely turned around his behavior.

How do you create compelling presentations? I use a model that engages four elements: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual.

The first element is mental. The question to ask yourself when preparing a presentation is: what do you want them to think? This is the linear, logical, rational, reasonable aspect of the program. This is where most people excel. We love giving information, reviewing cases, and citing statutes. In choosing our facts, though, we have to have a strategy. We can’t tell them everything. There’s a saying in public speaking that every audience member wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” Usually we want a result from our presentation, a decision from a board, committee, judge, jury, co-workers or other audience. So limit your facts to those that help them make that decision. And as one trail attorney said, “Go for the jugular, not the capillaries.” But even if we limit our facts, if all we do is give people the facts, is that enough to get them to listen? No.

We also need to engage them emotionally. The question to ask yourself: how do you want them to feel? What emotions do you want to evoke? Negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness are very useful for getting people’s attention and motivating them to want to change. But you also need to evoke positive feelings such as happiness, confidence, joy, love, and optimism—otherwise they’ll just leave feeling depressed. Insurance company advertisements are great examples of using negative and positive emotions.

One of the best ways to evoke emotions is through stories. Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, talks about constructing stories using a model called the Hero’s Journey. Whether the story is The Odyssey or Star Wars, it begins with a common man or woman everyone can relate to. They undertake a journey of challenges to obtain a victory or treasure. But at the end, it is not achieving the goal but rather their personal growth through the journey that is the true treasure.

There is a wealth of story material in newspaper articles, reported cases, and in our own experiences. If we begin our speeches with a story from one of these sources (maintaining client confidentiality, of course), we immediately grab our audiences’ attention. Once they are emotionally involved, they want to know the content.

Professional speakers often combine the mental and emotional elements by pairing every learning point with a story to illustrate it. Make a point, tell a story.

The third element is physical. Ask yourself: what do you want them to do? There are two aspects to this: what do you want them to do during the presentation, and what do you want them to do afterwards?

Today’s audiences don’t just want to sit there and be lectured to. They want to interact with you. You can get them involved in a variety of ways. Give them a case scenario and ask them to guess the result. Ask them a question to discuss with each other about how they would apply the legal concepts. When people think they already know everything about the topic, at the very beginning I like to give them a tough quiz to answer with a partner. When they find out they were wrong, they hang on every word.

We usually want them to change their behavior after the speech, too. Throughout your presentation, give them specific, practical action steps they can implement. At the end, summarize those steps. Then ask them to write down one or two things they are going to do as a result of the program. It makes it more likely they actually will change.

The last element is spiritual. I define this as giving people the space for spirit to inspire them. If all we do is talk there is no space for the still, small voice inside to spark their imaginations. How are they inspired? This is where we engage their right brains by being creative. Pictures, music, and poetry go here. You might think these don’t fit into a legal program, but you can use powerful images on your slides, and play music as they work on an exercise. As for poetry, remember in the O. J. Simpson trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Rhymes make our messages memorable.

Humor also inspires people. But don’t tell jokes. Jokes fall flat. Instead, poke fun at yourself. Mine newspaper articles, the internet and reported cases for their rich veins of humorous material. The daily news often provides wonderful examples of stupid funny behavior. I spoke on preventing sexual harassment during the Bill Clinton administration which was a great source of humor. And when you engage the audience as discussed above, they will make funny comments you can use the next time you speak.

By engaging our audiences mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we create compelling presentations that are not only fun for us and for our audiences, but also make a difference in their lives.

If you or your team want to be more effective public speakers, contact Makana at 808-282-2743 or contact us.