The Killer Talk: TL;DR: A Long Complicated Post
Creating a killer talk is complicated. Therefore this post is complicated, and because I want to go into detail on some of the points, I’m going to start with a quick TL;DR summary table. If you’re like me, and enjoy a nice wall of text, skip down and start reading!
- Practice is everything
- Gifted speakers give bad talks too
- Bad speakers can become great presenters
- Understanding Story Structure
- Clear structure makes things memorable and easier to understand
- Stories are present in all forms of expression, like architecture
- Proper story structure helps us to manage attention and not be boring
- Picking the Story
- 3 Key factors
- What the audience expects
- What the audience wants
- What the audience needs
- 3 Key factors
- Complicating the Story
- Subvert the 3 key factors and introduce conflicting ideas
- Bring your story to an unexpected solution
- If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting
- Telling a True Story
- Make yourself or someone else the hero of your story
- Create an interest villain too
- Have your hero’s story be a framing device for your views on the topic
- Pro Tips: Establishing Authority
- Always frame your talk in the context of your expertise and experience
- Embrace your limitations as your advantage (unique perspective)
- Make your authority clear by your words, not by declaration
People ask me sometimes how I prepare for the talks I frequently give at tech conferences and universities around Central Europe.
They say preparation is everything, and I agree. At StartupYard, we’ve been able to turn seemingly hopeless public speakers into real stars. It just takes dedication and time.
The truth is though, certain people are just good at public speaking. I have always been one of them, and that has made me slightly lazy when it comes to preparation. However, as expectations have risen over time, I’ve taken my speech prep more seriously.
This, by the way, is another common problem. Those who *are* naturally gifted public speakers tend to under-prepare. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a great speaker give a mediocre presentation for that reason.
The opportunity to change minds through public speaking is in many ways more powerful than in almost any other medium. It is an art our species has practiced for longer than any other. Standing in front of other people, and challenging and influencing their sense of truth, of justice, and of reason, is as good as it gets in the marketplace of ideas.
Public speaking is the Cadillac of communication.
So then, as a reformed lazy person, how do I prepare for public remarks? How can you learn from my experience?
Understanding Story Structure
“My mother always said: whatever you do in life, don’t be boring.” – Christopher Hitchens
The greatest sin in public speaking is to bore or confuse your audience.
To be truly interesting is to be memorable. And memorability requires some structure- something the memory can attach itself to. The structure of a talk, just like that of a building or a piece of music, or a book, gives the listener/viewer/reader the shape of the idea, and helps them to remember it.
We call this structure “story.”
Think of it like architecture: the visible elements of a building help us to understand how that building works. Where are the entrances? What is the building for? These clues help you understand what is an office building, rather than a hospital, or what is a grocery store versus a warehouse.
An architect tells a story with the design of a building. In this analogy, we can see that it is possible to fail at speaking the same way you can fail at architecture. There are entire genres of architectural criticism that focus on this problem (and that particular blog is a hilarious example).
Is your talk a maze, or is the layout clear? Do people recognize the entrances and exits? Does it appear to be what it actually is? Does it make sense in the context of its time and space? Is it balanced?
Story structure is about answering these questions.
Note that not all of them have to be answered in the same way! Sometimes you want a maze. Sometimes you want the exits to be hard to find (like in a casino), and sometimes you want a building to stick out, and not fit in. But just like in architecture, we cannot simply ignore structure if we want to be different and memorable in the way we speak in public. We have to master story first.
Picking the Story
My strategy for creating a story for a talk is to understand 3 basic things very clearly. Again, this approach could be applied to any creative medium, even things like music (in fact, studying music theory and composition is where I learned this approach).
The three elements I start with are: what the audience expects to hear, what the audience wants to hear, and what the audience needs to hear.
So let’s take a practical example like Blockchain – the latest hot topic everyone wants to tell everyone else about. If I were to give a talk, I would follow these steps:
- Think about what the audience expects you to say. Blockchain is the future? It’s a revolution? It’s safe? It’s better than alternatives?
Pro Tip: Try to find something (which you also believe), that the audience doesn’t expect you to say. Blockchain will solve world hunger? Blockchain will cause a worldwide crisis?
- Think about what the audience wants to hear. That blockchain is working out the way they hoped? That decisions made in the past were good? That the future is bright? Maybe the audience wants you to be negative about it as well. This is specific to the context of the talk, and who will hear it.
Pro Tip: Acknowledge what the audience wants to hear, but don’t say it. “I know what you’re probably expecting to hear from me, but I’ll have to disappoint you.”
- Think about what the audience needs to hear. What are the inconvenient truths about blockchain? What are the things people are ignoring? How are most people wrong about it? What is hard to grasp for this specific group?
Pro tip: Avoid saying things the audience doesn’t need to hear or already knows. Blockchain is a popular subject? Yes. Only say this if it has a rhetorical purpose: “Of course blockchain is a popular topic but… (insert something the audience needs to know).”
Complicating the Story
“Learn the rules as an artisan, so you can break them as an artist.” – Attributed to Pablo Picasso
So we’ve seen in essence, that a great talk is one that doesn’t say what people expect, that contradicts what people want to hear, and which says what people need to hear.
The art of public speaking is the way in which you complicate this process.
Complicating the story means introducing information or ideas that are in conflict with each other. One narrative appears to emerge, but is then challenged by a new narrative. A good public talk examines a story from more than one perspective, and shows how these narratives intersect and diverge.
So then an uncomplicated story begins with the three elements above, but stops there. It tells a narrative in conflict with previous narratives. A really complex and interesting story goes further, and challenges its own ideas in the same way, to arrive at still different conclusions. Often we do this by making the story about our personal journey of discovery: how we started by seeing things one way, and ended up seeing them another way entirely.
You will understand this concept quite instinctively, even if you have never noticed it before. Think of a classic story like The Lord of the Rings, or Casa Blanca. We are at first presented with two opposing ideas: a battle between the good guys, and the bad guys. But inevitably, the interesting part of these stories is what the good guys do that is bad, and what the bad guys do that is good.
You can’t have Frodo without Smigel. Casablanca’s Rick Blaine would never do anything interesting without his antagonist and rival Louis Renaultm to provoke him to action.
Remember: If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting. Nothing worth your audience’s time is obvious. If everyone agrees with you all the time, then you’re probably not going deep enough. If you agree with yourself all the time, you’re probably not talking about anything that matters.
I know a talk has been a success when people come up to me afterwards to challenge my ideas. “Haven’t you considered this?” “I don’t agree with your conclusion about that.” These are positive outcomes for a public talk: that it inspires more people to think and talk about what you’ve said.
If nobody wants to give you their view, it may be because you haven’t really challenged them.If it's not arguable, it's not interesting. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet
Telling a True Story
You may recognize the patterns i’ve talked about as similar to that of a classic TED talk, and with good reason. TED is masterful at helping presenters to illuminate a topic from a very specific point of view, and build a story around it.
Ted talks are most often shaped around the “Hero’s Journey,” narrative device. This is a common storytelling practice in which a character (often the speaker themselves), goes through a series of experiences which change their view of the world, and leave them better off than when they started.
A story that can seem flat and uninteresting if told without this device, can come alive for the audience when the hero is included. Take, for example, this classic talk from Will Wright, creator of SimCity, on Spore, birth of a game, from 2007.
On the surface, this could be a very dry discussion of game design in the 21st century. But because Wright makes himself the hero of his own story, we are taken on a journey from his early experiences with game design, through his personal discoveries about science and the theories of the universe, and arrive at the present day, understanding much more about why Wright has created this new game.
This strategy also works when you are not the subject of the story. We routinely see this in political speeches, for example: stories of average working people whose experiences are used to explain a political position or a decision. Investors often use this device to talk about the companies they invest in.
Pro Tips: Establishing Authority
Any time you’re being asked to speak as an authority on a given topic, it’s your job to help your audience understand not only what you think about that topic, but also how you came to have that position in the first place.
A poor way of establishing your authority is simply to state that you are an authority. “I am an expert in this topic,” is the lazy presenter’s mode of persuasion. Better is to list your accomplishments, and even better still, is to actively demonstrate your knowledge and experience in what you say.
A speaker’s authority is as important as what they say. This does not mean that one must be the highest authority on a topic in order to be persuasive, but it does mean that the speaker must frame their arguments in context with their authority to make those arguments.
For example, if I’m being asked to give a talk on Blockchain, I cannot give a persuasive presentation based on my knowledge of the technology. I just don’t know enough about it. There are others who should be listened to on that.
I don’t have to avoid talking about blockchain though. Instead, I would need to pick a point at which my authority intersects with the topic, and examine it from that perspective. Speaking outside my area of authority diminishes my arguments, but sticking to what I do know can bring up important points about the topic that another type of expert might miss.Everyone is an expert if you look deep enough. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet
Can a marketing expert and an experienced startup investor tell you something meaningful about the blockchain? Absolutely. However, it should be something only a person with those qualifications would know or be able to argue effectively. I could talk about how the technology is marketed, for example, or what the technology’s implications are for marketing in general. I could talk about how the technology interacts with my discipline and my areas of experience.
Inside your area of authority, there will always be perspectives that can be valuable to others. So don’t ask “who am I to address this topic?” but rather “what does my expertise and experience tell me that others need to hear?”