presentations

Think More, Talk Less to Be Heard

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

In communication, less is usually more than enough. Brevity is the soul of wit – and quite possibly the only way to get your point across to audiences addicted to mobile devices and plagued by shrinking attention spans.

Executive coach Greg Salciccioli instructs presenters to deliver “clear, concise and compelling content.” His advice applies to any form of communication, especially media interviews.

A client asked me why a TV reporter totally missed his key message after he gave an in-person interview. I told him he drowned out his message by offering too much information. The reporter needed something quotable; he gave a lecture.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Salciccioli cited research by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, that indicates full-time workers focus on their jobs for only six hours a week – or roughly 15 percent of their time at work. He also notes a 2016 Nielsen report that says US adults spend more than 10 hours per day interacting with electronic media. These two data points are not unrelated. Statistics like that underscore why simplicity and scintillating content are necessary to grab attention.

Simplifying what you say is not the same as dumbing down what you say. Simplification means conveying what you want to say in as few words as possible. Or as Joseph McCormack, author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, advises: “Think and speak in headlines.”

Headlines are basically the same as sound bites – short, catchy phrases that convey a lot of meaning in a few words. Presenters and spokespersons may balk at reducing their brilliance to sound bites, but they do so at the peril of their key messages, like my client. If you want to be heard, you have to do what’s necessary to be heard.

Catering to your audience isn’t an act of surrender. If people are interested in a subject, they will ask for more information. However, pepper-spraying an audience – or a reporter – with a lot of information all at once only serves to push them away. That TV reporter interviewing my client couldn’t wait to beat a hasty retreat.

Contemporary audiences don’t view long orations or debates as entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who participated in seven 3-hour debates with Stephen Douglas, gave his most inspirational and enduring speech at Gettysburg. It lasted only three minutes and consisted of just 272 words, punctuated by the riveting line, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s memorable remarks followed a 2-hour “keynote” speech that has been largely forgotten.

People with a lot to say tend to put up the most stubborn resistance to brevity. But their vanity can’t overcome – and might actually contribute to – the lethargy and apathy of an audience. As humbling as it might be, people listening to a speech or media interview will remember more of what they see than what they hear. How you look and present yourself can make up 80 percent of an audience impression. All the more reason to choose your words carefully to maximize that other 20 percent of retention.

Speaking effectively and efficiently, as Salciccioli recommends, can earn you credibility with an audience or a reporter. Your preparation, organization and succinct delivery makes listening easier. Audience members don’t need to struggle to figure out what you mean to say. A reporter doesn’t have to scramble to find 12 usable seconds of tape, the average length of a quote in TV stories.

Salciccioli titled his LinkedIn blog, “The Power of Getting to the Point.” He is absolutely right that straightforward, brightly expressed commentary puts you in the driver’s seat because you are commanding the narrative. When you wander around and drone on, you muddy and bury the story you mean to tell. You leave it to the audience or a reporter to decipher what you said.

My baffled client told me proudly he gave the TV reporter enough material to fill 30 minutes of air time. Sadly, the reporter only needed 12 seconds of good sound for her story. The 12 seconds she chose wasn’t his key message, which we had worked on for two hours before the interview. My client blamed the reporter. In reality, he had no one to blame but himself.

If you want to make your point, take the time to chisel it into a phrase or sentence that people can hear, comprehend and remember. Think more and talk less.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Structures to Make Stories Familiar, Yet Fresh

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is a proven way to make your point in a memorable way. While we learn to listen to and tell stories as children, many adults forget the basics. Author Christopher Booker has provided a refresher course.

Booker says storytelling boils down to seven basic plots. Master them and you can become a spellbinding storyteller.

Instead of reading his book, The Seven Basic Plots, which veers off topic to denounce soap operas, the metric system and feminism, Quid Corner, a British financial resource blog, has reduced his concepts to a series of easy-to-access infographics.

To be effective, storytelling must be authentic, not the sum total of a formula. However, some basic plot structures can help a stymied storyteller get started.

According to Booker, the seven plots are overcoming a monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, the quest, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. The Quid Corner infographics offer advice on how to use each basic plot to tell a story or make a presentation.

You can think of the infographics as paint-by-the-numbers storytelling and treat them accordingly. But before scoffing them into insignificance, they are useful mini-guides to creating a recognizable story architecture. Many stories fall flat because the audience gets confused, loses track of the plot and misses the point of the story.

In the “rags to riches” plot structure, for example, someone overcomes major obstacles to achieve success. This doesn’t have to be only about Horatio Alger heroes who with fortitude go from impoverished to wealthy. This story line is one we see, in one form or another, a lot. A child is diagnosed with cancer, doctors are stymied, then the child receives an experimental procedure and defeats cancer. A man is fired because he is an alcoholic, his family leaves, he becomes homeless, then he seeks help, sobers up, gets a job and regains his self-respect. These are compelling narratives with a familiar plot.

All of the plot structures Quid Corner illustrates can be used in a similar fashion. You don’t need a real “monster” to trace Booker’s plot line of overcoming one.

The real value of Booker’s synthesis of plot structures – and Quid Corner’s infographics – is to give storytellers an outline of how to tell their story in a way that is at once familiar, yet fresh: What elements to include, a sequence to follow and a tie-in between the rags starting point and the riches finish line.

The structure of the story is critical so you don’t baffle listeners, but instead give them a familiar path to follow to the fresh point you want your story to make.

 

Storytelling with the Showmanship of Charts

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts are an undervalued storytelling device. The problem with most charts is that they are designed by number nerds, not storytellers.

With apologies to Excel users, showing a bunch of numbers doesn’t equal a good story. Explaining what the numbers mean is the storyline that is missing.

There are many ways charts can tell stories powerfully. Here are some:

Simple Charts

Southwest Airlines introduced itself with large ads that featured a single chart comparing its fares from Portland to several destinations with other airlines. The simplicity of the chart made it impossible to miss the message – Southwest Airlines was the low-cost alternative.

The airline reprised that original chart recently with a similar simple chart illustrating the baggage and other fees that Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge. Not fancy, but effective.

Annotated Charts

Portland-based economist Bill Conerly produces the Businomics Newsletter that contains a lot of data rendered in charts. Conerly annotates the charts with what amounts to a key message that puts the data into a meaningful context.

Complex Charts

Visual communications guru Edward Tufte deplores PowerPoint because of its reductionist character. He advocates sharing complex data in comprehensible packages. His favorite example is a chart depicting Napolean’s ill-fated march to Moscow. Created by Charles Joseph Minard, the graphic plots the demise of Napoleon’s dancing and retreating army to temperature and time scales. The story of what happened is inescapable despite the detail.

Entertaining Charts

Playing off the idea of a pie chart, the graphic  below serves as a teaching tool for effective writing. It puts a lot of information on the plate in an easy-to-grasp, viewer-friendly fashion.

Explanatory Chart

Charts can act as visual explanations, as does this graphic in explaining the appropriate volume for voices for children from the classroom to playground.

This graphic uses a cat motif to explain the essence of various social media sites.

Shareable Chart

Charts in the shape of infographics can be highly informative and suitable for sharing. They are effectively scrollable stories.

Teachable Moment Charts

Charts can depict the dangers to virtue or use data to warn of drowning in too much data.

The bottom line is that charts can tell stories, but it takes more than 3D pie charts and data points. It takes a little imagination to picture how your data can show a story.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.