The last blog reveals why presentations are nowadays different compared to the last century: speeches have become more vivid with anecdotes and stories; furthermore, the interaction between speaker and audience gained a stronger emphasis. In this blog, I will highlight why we do not have to take every common advice from rhetoric trainers at face value. Furthermore, I will deepen the topic of “storytelling”.


Good content provides the basis for good presentations

The majority of speech trainers – even those with many years of professional experience – misinterpret one of the most well-known figures on the impact of speeches. The myth, which has been widely spread since 1971, is the mistaken formula: 7 % content – 38 % verbal signals – 55 % body language.

For a successful presentation, good content would therefore be negligible. The author of this study, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, has never been tired of putting these figures into the right context: In reality, they show that in “incongruent” situations we rely more on vocal and body language signals than on the content of the spoken word. We instinctively notice when someone does not express his opinion honestly. So what does this mean for our presentation? As long as we do not talk about feelings or opinions on a topic, the 7-38-55 rule does not apply: it only applies to expressions of feelings and opinions! Only when talking about self-confidence but behaving insecurely – which becomes obvious through body language – do we believe the non-verbal signals of the speaker rather than the content.

We can substantiate this with a little thought experiment: Imagine that someone tells you absolutely nonsense. You are fascinated by his body language and voice, but not in the content itself. Would you believe this person? Possibly yes, but especially where numbers, data and facts play a particularly important role, this speaker would quickly lose credibility with badly prepared content. After all, clean data forms a solid basis for such presentations, especially in science or business communities. If you are well prepared and present with your personality, if you are also completely with yourself in the speech, body and voice will follow almost automatically.


Beware of relevant rhetoric hints

Beware also of some other rhetoric tips! Many of the relevant guidebooks warn that we should not cross our arms or not put hands in our pockets. As a trainer and presentation coach, I see speakers who do just that – and it most commonly does not have a negative effect on me. On the contrary, the speakers even radiate a certain looseness and uninhibitedness. As long as this does not turn into a permanent attitude, there is nothing wrong with it. Only the combination of crossed arms with other characteristics such as an insecure or fragile voice or previous intimidation of the speaker by an aggressive audience may condense signs of insecurity. On the contrary, dynamic speakers reveal active facial expressions and gestures, may even have a hand in their pocket, but do not play around in it and take it out of their pocket after a short time.

Why do people cross arms? Among the more common interpretations are: they want to separate themselves, seek personal protection, are disinterested or act reluctantly when standing in front of an audience. In addition, crossed arms or hands in pockets can also simply reflect a relaxed posture. In dialogue, I also like to listen to my conversation partner with pleasure and attention. In short: We should not interpret body-language signals hastily, but also place them in their current context: Not everyone crossing their arms is insecure or averse to their audience. Communication and body language are very individual.


“Remarkably” and effectively staged for the audience

When I started teaching lectures and seminars at the University in 2008, I did not always feel established in what I passed on to the students. At that time, I felt relieved having quite a safe distance to the students: there were large tables, a lectern or the inevitable video projector between us. Due to the clear feedback, I quickly learned to deal with closeness and to build a much more personal connection to the students. By breaking down or bypassing these barriers, we were soon able to enjoy exciting discussions much more often instead of rather distant frontal lectures. We can state that the closer we are to the audience, the stronger the effect of our presentations usually becomes.

How can you stage your appearance when you are announced as speaker? Frank Asmus, director and coach for excellent presentations, recommends that you best come on stage from the left side – for strategic reasons, because we humans think from left to right, at least in the western hemisphere. During the presentation, you stand at the front of the stage while sharing something personal, whereas the back of the stage is good for argumentation, Asmus says.

Often we can observe speakers who seem to wander aimlessly around the stage. I have talked to some speakers about why they do this. The following reasons are most common: they derive their stage fright and want to show sovereignty in their presentation; they want to be physically present and radiate a certain dynamism; they ensure a high level of attention from the audience. The opinion of the audience may only partially agree with this. Frank Asmus recommends that we, as speakers, stage our presentation in a much more targeted manner: ideally, we start from the middle of the stage. Professional speakers pay attention to the triad of their presentation: the main part of a speech consists of three sections: They stand on the left side of the stage when sharing the first section, in the middle when delivering the second and on the right side while telling the third part of their speech. The conclusion or summary follows again from the middle of the stage. If a discussion follows here, we can take up the corresponding positions again – depending on which section of the presentation we are currently discussing. Frank Asmus also points out that this structure requires a very specific preparation. I have had very good experience with this myself.


Presenting facts and figures in an entertaining way

Professional speakers prepare very conscientiously and in detail for their performance. Beyond content, they score points with their audience above all with personality and their very individual style. Following I will analyze some of the best speeches.

Can you present dry facts and figures in an entertaining way? In his TED Talk “The best stats you’ve ever seen” from 2006, Hans Rosling vividly shows how birth rates and life expectancy are developing worldwide. His enthusiastic and lively manner in combination with the animated graphics makes this talk not only unique, but also memorable: Rosling takes enough time to explain the graphics to his audience – with all the important information, simple and to the point. His audience can therefore follow quickly, also in terms of content. Rosling’s enthusiasm is contagious, and so he captures his audience at the latest when his voice almost overturns. Nevertheless, this part of his presentation is well-rehearsed, which is evident in the speed of the turn of the year in the animation. Almost casually, Rosling also exposes false myths about “developing countries”.

The data Rosling presents tells a story of its own. He does not simply recite his data in a series of dry figures, but rather puts them in a clear developmental context: What is the starting point in 1962? Where do we stand in relation to this in 2003? What has happened in the meantime? Rosling highlights individual dates or countries and provides detailed information on them. In combination, he shares short and in the further course of the presentation also several personal anecdotes. This makes the content most catchy and easy to understand.

To anyone who wants to present statistics and developments in an entertaining way, I can highly recommend watching this video, especially the section between 3.18 and 4.55 minutes discussed here.


Storytelling and dramaturgy

Another master of storytelling was undoubtedly Steve Jobs. Jobs has managed to promote Apple products by telling compelling stories – and in a very different speech, the 2005 Stanford Commencement Address uniquely summarizes his own personal story.

In this speech, Jobs first creates a personal connection with the audience by complimenting them on his lack of a college degree: “You passed college. I myself did not graduate college… I have never been this close to graduation.” The audience is already cheering.

The following is the triad described above, also highlighted by Frank Asmus: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.” In the first story, Jobs puts his biography in context (“Connecting the Dots”): he sees no point in his studies, drops out of college and thus joins his calligraphy course. In retrospect, Jobs reinterprets this course as an excellent further education, because it established a basis for creating fonts on the Mac. He concludes with the statement “You have to trust in something…and it has made all the difference in my life.”

The second story is about love and loss. Here the dramaturgy resembles an exciting roller coaster ride: from a typical garage start-up to a two-billion-dollar company within ten years. “And then I got fired! How can you get fired from a company you started?” and “I still loved what I did…I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.” The story provides several surprising and therefore even more dramatic twists. In addition, Jobs here places the initial “heaviness of being successful” against the “lightness of being a beginner again”. It is the classic story of the Prodigal Son who finds his way back to his family. The speech contains marked words, which he always tells pictorially: “It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.” Jobs concludes this section by emphasizing: “So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” With the repetitions Jobs seems even more haunting, similar to Martin Luther King with his repeated appeal “I still have a dream…I still have a dream.”

The third section is about life and death: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” He would change something if he did things on too many days in a row that he did not want to do. Jobs is a master at addressing his audience directly on a given occasion, sharing his personal experiences and including new ways of thinking and views. That follows by the diagnosis of cancer and the realization that his cancer is curable. “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” We should not waste our time and instead follow our inner voice and heart, appeals to Jobs. Again the numerous appeals are striking. Consequently, Jobs ends his speech with a triple appeal: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Jobs also reveals unexpected weaknesses in this speech, which I would advise against in your future presentations: Instead of hiding behind a podium, you create as direct a proximity to your audience as possible – as I described at the beginning of my own example. Jobs reads most of the text here; I recommend speaking as freely as possible or using small notes only. Since his facial expressions and gestures appear distinctly reduced, Jobs does not convey the otherwise present own wow feeling on this occasion. His emotions are relatively manageable despite of the many personal stories.

What we can learn from Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is to share very personal stories. In a business context, these stories should of course fit as anecdotes or parables: after all, we do not tell stories for the sake of the story, but always in keeping with the occasion. What always works in business: That we can weigh up our experiences and the insights we gain from them. Jobs uses easy-to-understand language with clear messages and gets to the point quickly, without getting bogged down in content. It is no coincidence that Steve Jobs is one of the key figures who has left his mark on the 21st century. Jobs has indeed delivered many outstanding speeches.

How do you make your mark on your audience? What makes a great speech for you? And what role models do you have when you present yourself to an audience?

This post is also available in: German

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