Don’t lose the room: Three elements of a compelling presentation

When you’re speaking or teaching, how you say something matters more than what you say.

Yes – content matters. You’ve got to start with something worth sharing. But most who are willing to get in front of a group have something worth passing along. The problem is, that kernel of amazing insight gets lost in the rest of the words.

Any time you speak, here are three things to consider:


Yes, your talk should have goals, or in “education-speak,” learning objectives. But compelling sessions can’t stop there. A good message has a story. It fits your topic into a broader narrative. It asks questions. It even invites mystery.

When JJ Abrams spoke at TED, he described every good story as a series of mystery boxes. A closed box is presented. The story moves the viewer toward the box, eventually opening it and discovering a new mystery box.  I’ve shared these before, but they’re so good, they’re worth repeating:

  • The best stories are mystery boxes. They are question after question after question that pull you through a complete story.
  • Withholding info increases interest. The Jaws shark didn’t work half the time so it was shown less. That’s what made it frightening – the unseen.
  • The best stories hold a difference between what you think you’re getting and what you’re really getting. ET isn’t about an alien who meets a kid. It’s about a heartbreaking divorce and a kid who’s finding his way in life. Jaws isn’t all about a shark attacking people, it’s about a man wrestling with his place in the world, his masculinity, and his family. If you want to do a sequel, don’t rip off the shark, that’s not what makes it work! Rip off the story – the characters – the struggle.


I’ve read that emotion accounts for 80% of our decision making. Take that, logic. And even if the stat is wrong, it certainly feels about right. When we tell a good story, what’s really happening is we are tapping into that emotion.

There are two basic models of human nature in the business world. The Homo sapiens model assumes that it’s human sapience—wisdom, intelligence—that really sets our species apart. Based on this model, the best way to achieve business goals is to crunch numbers, lay out facts, and wait for rational actors to flock to your point of view.  This is the traditional model. But a new model of human nature is emerging to complement—not replace—the traditional model.  This is what I call the Homo fictus (fiction man) model of human nature. This model acknowledges that humans are creatures of emotion as much as logic, and that facts and arguments move us most when they are embedded in good stories.  The world’s priests, politicians, and teachers have always known this by instinct, and so have the world’s marketers.

Jonathan Gottschall

As someone who leans more toward the “logical” side of the spectrum, this freaks me out. But we all live and make decisions by emotion. Logic may direct the ship (a little), but emotion powers it. Without tapping into emotion – passion, joy, pain, compassion – the information presented is unlikely to cause change.

Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard  is a great book about how we decide. It describes this tension as the elephant (our emotion) and the rider (our logic). The rider may decide where it wants to go, but if the elephant disagrees, the elephant’s going to win.


This one is about connection. Why does this topic matter to this group? Not, what do I know about this topic? Or, what do I find interesting? Why will this make an immediate difference in the lives of the people listening? Find the piece of information or the angle that connects with the needs of the group. Without relevance, you’ll lose people’s interest. Every time.

What you share needs to connect with a current need in your listener’s lives. It can be how to fix a problem, how to become better at something, or even something that relates to a topic they’re passionate about. But it must connect.


If you want to read more on how to master presenting, I highly recommend  Made to Stick (the absolute best book on communicating – everyone should read) and Give Your Speech, Change the World (a more typical book on speaking, but helpful and interesting). And while we’re at it, Seth Godin’s Really Bad Powerpoint (and how to avoid it) is a must for presenters (and here’s a related blog post).

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