Every semester, I assign my students a task: present an informative speech on anything you’d like, as long as it is between 5-7 minutes.
The groans that follow are a bit overly dramatic considering the complexity of the task.
Yet, this is my favorite part of the semester. Why? It is the time that students realize that information, and the act of informing and being informed, are not boring in and of themselves. It is all up to the person presenting and the way the information is presented.
Unfortunately, we have come to associate that term – information – with long lists of bulleted points, complex technical jargon that we don’t understand and a never ending deck of blue Power Point slides that do little more than waste our time.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. And it shouldn’t be like that. Stories are much more interesting. Stories are also much more persuasive. You should use them in all of your presentations – whether you are presenting to the board or your biggest client, humans relate to narrative.
It is neither my students’ inexperience, age nor skill level that has led them to misunderstand this concept. Ask someone 20 years their senior and he or she will likely have the same thought. Rather, the problem is the inexperience and skill level of those that speak.
In order for your listeners to stop associating your presentations (and therefore, you) with boredom, you must begin to use narrative in your presentation. This is the case whether your topic is technical or common. Following is a comparison of the traditional, fact based presentation to the use of narrative.
Fact based presentations rely mostly on statistics, facts and definitions to relay information. Speakers often rely on this type of evidence to support their point because they are unsure how to best get their point across. The idea is further confused when people believe their topic is unique: too technical, too complex, too serious, etc. to utilize anything but statistics and facts.
The problem with relying solely on this type of supporting material is that the speaker essentially removes all trace of emotion. The topic becomes cold and distant. There is rarely a connection to the speaker in this scenario either.
So what can you do? How do you successfully convey complex, technical issues to an audience without heavily relying on statistics and facts?
Examples and narratives are two types of supporting material that are available to you, as a speaker. It is true that you can not rely 100% on a story or an example to prove your point. It will be a weak argument. However, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid these entirely. Examples and stories focus on human characteristics and activate human emotion. If your audience can identify with the story, the character and the situation, they will feel an emotional connection that will drive them to change their attitudes, beliefs and ultimately actions.
For the narrative to successfully impact the audience, the audience must identify with the characters in the story. A study from the Ohio State University compared the effectiveness of a news report vs. an episode of the O.C. in persuading college students to practice safe sex. As you can probably guess after reading the first half of this post, the episode of the O.C. was more persuasive, at least for part of the audience.
As it turns out, a news report (one actually used in high schools) that outlines the struggles that teenage moms might encounter, made no impact on the attitude of the audience two weeks post viewing. However, the episode of the O.C. that told a story about a character that experienced a tough time because of a pregnancy had a significant effect on the college women that viewed it, even two weeks after the viewing. The effect was stronger when the young women felt that they could identify with the characters in the story. Those who did not identify with the characters (such as males) were not likely to change their attitude about safe sex.
This study illustrates the point that narratives are effective. They are more effective than simply stating the facts. The audience is not likely to change their minds or behavior without feeling a connection to the topic.
Ok, so teenage pregnancy is one thing. What about those of you who talk about other, less relatable topics? Like website design? Or finances? The reality is, a speaker can and should address every topic with the question, “why should the audience care?” Find that emotional trigger. In both the examples above, money is the clear choice, but often there is more. After careful analysis of your audience, you’ll find it. And, if you can’t find it, it might not work as a topic for that particular audience.
For more information about using the pentad, see this article about using narrative in your communication.
Ohio State University. (2010, February 11). TV drama can be more persuasive than news program, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100209144153.htm
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