Last weekend, nearly 2,000 people across the U.S. hosted parties to screen the DVD release of former Vice-President Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. In it, Gore makes a persuasive case that the world must take dramatic steps to curtail carbon dioxide emissions in order to reduce global warming.
The point of today's column is not to convince you the issue is as urgent as Gore argues. Rather, it's intended to help you improve the power of your communication skills by breaking down Gore's documentary, which is really a slide presentation in film form. So for this purpose, please set aside any political inclinations you might have and learn from Gore's skillful use of words and images. Here's what Gore does right in presenting his argument.
Set the Stage
Grab the attention of your audience by giving them a reason to listen; the more personal and relevant, the better. Gore begins his presentation—his story—by setting the stage for his argument. In a series of colorful images of the earth taken from space, he gets audiences to appreciate its beauty and reminds them that many theories about the planet once considered fact turned out be to untrue. By doing so, Gore succeeds in framing the issue to support his argument, setting the stage so he can later counter his critics by referring back to his introduction.
The introduction of a presentation is very important, and yet how many of us begin with the "about us" section? The problem is, it's not about you; it's about your audience. Make a connection with them right out of the gate and set the stage for the rest of your argument.
Not one of Gore's slides contains a title and bullet points, the standard template found in Microsoft's (MSFT) PowerPoint software. One reason, of course, is because Gore is using the powerful Apple presentation software, Keynote. But most of the world uses PowerPoint, so keep in mind that it, too, is a tool that can be used effectively. Unfortunately, most slides are boring instead of dynamic. Engaging slides have few or no bullets.
Get away from the standard template and begin replacing titles and bullets with more creative ways of displaying information using graphs, tables, images, and photographs. This takes some creative effort, however. I'm encouraging you to abandon the standard text layout of a PowerPoint deck (where it asks for title and text) and urging you to open the layout design titled "blank slide" or "title only." Staring at a blank slide with no room for bullets can be intimidating at first, but it forces you to think about the information in the way many of your listeners learn—visually (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/5/06, "Presentations with Something for Everyone").
Make Numbers Interesting
Gore could easily have dumped a mind-numbing array of statistics on his audience. But that's not the way to make a persuasive case, and he knows it. For example, for a slide displaying two overlapping graphs representing CO2 emissions and the average temperature going back 600,000 years, Gore says, "When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer." He then reveals a slide that shows the graph climbing to the highest level of carbon dioxide in our planet's history—which represents where the level is today.
"Now if you'll bear with me, I want to really emphasize this next point," Gore says as he climbs onto a mechanical lift, presses a button and rises five feet or so in the air. "In less than 50 years," he goes on to say, "it's going to continue to go up. When some of these children who are here are my age, here's where it's going to be…. You've heard of off the charts? Well here's where we're going to be in less than 50 years." It's funny, memorable, and powerful at the same time.
I realize you can't do something as involved as that during your next staff meeting, but find ways to make facts, figures, and statistics come to life. Don't just dump data on your listeners. Make the information relevant, interesting, and easy to remember.
Tell Personal Stories
Personal stories are memorable and yet few people use them in a business presentation. Gore tells deeply personal stories that are intended to break down walls between himself and his listeners, allowing them to be more receptive to his message. Here's one example: "When I was a kid, summertime meant working with tobacco. Working with the guys on the farm seemed like fun to me. Starting in 1964 with the Surgeon General's report, the evidence was laid out on the connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. But we kept growing tobacco.
"My sister Nancy was 10 years older than me and there were only the two of us. She was my protector and friend at the same time. She started smoking when she was a teenager and never stopped. She died of lung cancer…. My father had grown tobacco all his life. Whatever explanation that seemed to make sense in the past just didn't cut it anymore. He stopped. It's human nature to take time to connect the dots. I know that. But I also know there can be a day of reckoning when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly."
Not only is the story highly personable and memorable, it also reinforces the central theme of his message—getting his listeners to challenge their own assumptions of the crisis. Gore's stories also succeed in once again giving him leverage to denounce his critics.
Get a Hook
Every hit song has a "hook," the part of the song that is repeated and memorable. Sometimes, it's the only part you remember. I love the Sting song, Fields of Gold, but if you ask me to sing it, you'll only hear "da da da da da…as we walk in fields of gold." That's the hook!
Gore has his own hook; a favorite which he repeats, not only in this presentation but in nearly every interview he has given on the subject. For example, Gore ends his presentation by telling his audience that we have the knowledge, skill and tools available to reverse the trend: "The only thing we're lacking is the will to act, but in America that will is a renewable resource."
Before your next presentation, get a hook—that one line that is easy for you to remember, easy for your listener to repeat, and that reinforces your theme.
Call for Leaders
I'm thrilled that so many of you are fans of this content. I can use your help next year. I'm looking for inspiring leaders to feature; men and women, famous and not so famous, who inspire through their communication skills. If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear from you! Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a wonderful holiday season!