Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments
Thou shalt not simply trot out thy usual shtick.
NBC NEWS ANCHOR BRIAN WILLIAMS covers war, politics, and the economy. He doesn’t cover presentations. Why should he? There are millions of PowerPoints delivered every day, so presentations, even those given by CEOs and other famous leaders, do not qualify as “breaking news.” Williams made an exception for billionaire Bill Gates, who spoke at TED in February 2009.
Gates wants to solve big problems related to global poverty and childhood deaths. He can’t do it alone. He needs to engage audiences. Remember, the brain does not pay attention to boring things. Gates knows this, so he came up with a unique hook to grab his audience’s attention. It caught Williams by surprise, too. According to Brian Williams that night:
Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, wanted to make a point when he appeared at a conference of some of the biggest leaders of the tech industry. While on stage, he opened up a glass jar and said, “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. I brought some here. I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.” We’re told the audience just sat there stunned, as any of us would be. Moments later he let them off the hook, letting the audience know the mosquitoes he brought were malaria free, but he did it to prove a point and point taken. Gates and his wife Melinda have dedicated their lives and their fortune to a lot of different charitable causes … including the eradication of malaria in poor countries in Africa and Asia where there are up to 500 million new cases every year.1
I know this might come as a shock, but television news reports often get things wrong. They did in the Williams piece. Gates did not say that there’s no reason why only poor people should be infected. He said, “Malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitoes. I brought some here, just so you could experience this. We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit. There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.”2 Also, the audience did not sit in “stunned silence.” They roared with laughter, cheered, and applauded. Gates effectively demonstrated:
Secret #5: Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments
The jaw-dropping moment in a presentation is when the presenter delivers a shocking, impressive, or surprising moment that is so moving and memorable, it grabs the listener’s attention and is remembered long after the presentation is over.
5.1: Bill Gates releasing mosquitos during his TED 2009 presentation. Courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/TED (http://duncandavidson.com).
Why it works: Jaw-dropping moments create what neuroscientists call an emotionally charged event, a heightened state of emotion that makes it more likely your audience will remember your message and act on it.
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GATES WASN’T FLIPPANT AT ALL. A few sentences earlier, Gates was talking about how many children’s lives are saved due to better medicines and vaccines. “Each one of those lives matters a lot,” he said. He delivered an empathetic presentation, saying that millions of people die from malaria every year. Gates used humor and a shocking moment to drive home his main point.
One popular technology blogger wrote the headline, “GATES UNLEASHES SWARM OF MOSQUITOES ON CROWD.” Well, it wasn’t exactly a “swarm” of mosquitoes (the small jar contained only a few). Regardless, the presentation went viral. A Google search returns 500,000 links to the event. The original video on the TED.com site has attracted 2.5 million views, and that doesn’t include the other Web sites that link to it.
Entrepreneur and Path CEO Dave Morin was the first to announce it on Twitter: “Bill Gates just released mosquitoes into the audience at TED and said: ‘Not only poor people should experience this.’” eBay founder Pierre Omidyar tweeted: “That’s it, I’m not sitting up front any more.” A memorable moment gets shared, spreading the message much farther than in its immediate audience, often around the globe.
Gates spoke for 18 minutes. The mosquito shtick took up less than 5 percent of his total speaking time, yet today the mosquito moment is the part of the presentation people remember the most. Most water-cooler moments last as long as it takes to grab a drink of water before heading back to your office. Gates’s water-cooler moment still gets noticed, discussed, and shared five years later.
In journalism we call the mosquito shtick “the hook.” It’s the wow moment, the showstopper, a rhetorical device that grabs your attention and persuades you to read or to share the story (“You’ve got to see Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes,” you might tell a friend as you e-mail the link).
I’m not suggesting that you bring a jar of mosquitoes to your next presentation, but I am suggesting that you think about your content and identify the most important points you need to make. Then find a novel and memorable way to communicate those messages. Sometimes you need to surprise your audience in order to get them to care.
What’s the first thing you should do when creating a PowerPoint presentation? If you’re like many people you’ll say, “Open PowerPoint.” Wrong answer. You should plan the story first. Just as a movie director storyboards the scenes before he begins shooting, you should create the story before you open the tool. You’ll have plenty of time to design pretty slides once the story is complete, but if the story is boring, you’ve lost your audience before you’ve spoken a word.
I like to tap in to several senses when planning the story—seeing, touching, feeling. Stand up and go to a whiteboard, pick up a pen or a yellow legal pad, use a drawing application on a tablet, or even think while taking a walk—anything that engages several areas of your brain. Above all, regardless of the software you use (PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.), don’t open the software as your first step. Your presentation will be uninteresting and uninspired if you do.
PowerPoint gets a bad rap, but it’s not a bad tool. It can—and is—often used to create stunning presentations. But if you don’t have the story in the first place, your gorgeous slides won’t matter. Every memorable story, film, or presentation has one scene or one event that everyone remembers because it’s so impactful. It’s such a well-known psychological device, researchers have at term for it.
UNLEASH AN EMOTIONALLY CHARGED EVENT
When Gates unleashed his “swarm” of mosquitoes, he hooked his audience precisely because it was shocking, unexpected, and different. It was what brain researchers call an “emotionally charged event.” As with every technique in this book, it works because your brain is wired for it.
“An emotionally charged event (usually called an ECS, short for emotional competent stimulus) is the best-processed kind of external stimulus ever measured,”3 says molecular scientist John Medina. “Emotionally charged events persist longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories.”
Medina says it all has to do with the amygdala, which is located in the prefrontal cortex. “The amygdala is chock-full of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and it uses dopamine the way an office assistant uses Post-it notes. When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say the Post-it note reads ‘Remember This!’ Getting the brain to put a chemical Post-it note on a given piece of information means that information is going to be more robustly processed.”4
5.2: Illustration of Dopamine’s influence on the brain. Created by Empowered Presentations @empoweredpres.
You’re more likely to remember events that arouse your emotions than events that elicit a neutral response. Some scientists refer to such events as “flashbulb memories.” As it turns out, there’s a reason why you remember where you were on September 11, 2001 but you forget where you put your keys this morning. And understanding the difference can help you create more memorable, “jaw-dropping” presentations.
REMEMBERING 9/11 AND FORGETTING YOUR KEYS
When you experience an emotionally charged event (shock, surprise, fear, sadness, joy, wonder), it impacts how vividly you remember that particular event. You can probably remember not only where you were on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, but you also vividly recall what you were doing, and whom you were with, the expressions on their faces, what they may have said, and other small items in your environment that you otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to. People remember vivid events; they forget mundane ones.
The University of Toronto psychology professor Rebecca Todd discovered that how vividly a person experiences an event influences how easily he or she can recall the event or the information later. Todd published her research in the Journal of Neuroscience. “We’ve discovered that we see things that are emotionally arousing with greater clarity than those that are more mundane,”5 says Todd. “Whether they’re positive—for example, a first kiss, the birth of a child, winning an award—or negative, such as traumatic events, breakups, or a painful and humiliating childhood moment that we all carry with us, the effect is the same. What’s more, we found that how vividly we perceive something in the first place predicts how vividly we will remember it later on. We call this ‘emotionally enhanced vividness’ and it is like the flash of a flashbulb that illuminates an event as it’s captured for memory.”
Todd and her colleagues found that the brain region responsible for tagging memories, the amygdala, was most active when experiencing a “vivid” event. The researchers showed participants photographs that were “emotionally arousing and negative” such as scenes of sharks bearing their teeth, “emotionally arousing and positive” such as mild erotica, and “neutral scenes” such as people standing on an escalator. The researchers then performed two different studies to measure how much detail the participants retained. One study was done 45 minutes after they viewed the photographs and a follow-up study was performed one week later. “Both studies found that pictures that were rated higher in emotionally enhanced vividness were remembered more vividly,” says Todd.
“Why did the audience remember Bill Gates releasing the mosquitoes?” I asked Todd in an interview for this book.
“It’s memorable precisely because it’s emotionally arousing, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant,”6 she said.
“In the brain when you’re emotionally aroused you produce higher levels of norepinephrine as well as stress hormones. We’ve known for some time that emotional arousal enhances memory. Our study was the first to show another effect of emotional arousal is that you actually perceive events more vividly at the time they occur, and that, too, increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Bill Gates’s mosquitoes must have evoked surprise and fear in the audience members given that they didn’t know the mosquitoes didn’t carry malaria. Surprise and fear are both high arousal emotions.”
Todd discovered that we actually encode important events in a far richer way than ordinary events. “It’s as if the event is burned more vividly into our perceptual awareness,” she told me. “Part of the reason is that the amygdala, a brain region that is key for tagging the emotional importance of things, talks to the visual cortex—the part of the brain that allows sight—and ramps up its activity so that we are actually perceiving those events more actively.”
“Bottom line—what does your research teach people who are delivering presentations or communicating information that needs to be remembered and recalled?” I asked Todd.
“If you connect to an audience’s emotional responses then they will perceive the information more vividly, be less distracted, and will be more likely to remember it. Use very concrete and meaningful examples to illustrate abstract points. Use images skillfully, whether they be beautiful, surprising, or disgusting.”
The brain was not meant to process abstract concepts. Earlier I told you about my experience preparing executives at Toshiba America Medical Systems to present a new CT brain-scan machine. They told me that the machine was “the first dynamic high-volume CT that utilizes 320 ultra-high-resolution detector rows to image an entire organ in a single gantry rotation.” I told them it was too abstract. “Can you make it concrete? Why should I care?” They said, “If you enter the hospital having suffered a stroke or a heart attack, doctors will be able to make a much more accurate diagnosis in far less time and that could save your life. Let’s put it this way: our product could mean the difference between going home and living a full life or never recognizing your family again.”
The clearest messages require specific, tangible explanations. You can’t “wow” your audience if they don’t understand you.
THE ICKIEST PRESENTATION
Recall neuroanatomist Dr. Jill, whose TED talk has had more than 10 million views. It was also the ickiest. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to avoid watching Dr. Jill’s presentation. If you’re brave enough, you’ll see a real human brain with a 17-inch spinal cord attached.
Two minutes into Dr. Jill’s presentation she said, “If you’ve ever seen a human brain, it’s obvious that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another. And I have brought for you a real human brain. So this is a real human brain.”7 With that, she turned to an assistant carrying a tray with a brain. Dr. Jill put on gloves, picked up the brain, and let the brain stem and spinal cord flop over the tray. The vocal expressions of disgust were audible from the audience. “This is the front of the brain, the back of brain with the spinal cord hanging down, and this is how it would be positioned inside of my head,” Dr. Jill said as she held the organ for everyone to see.
Dr. Jill explained how the sides of the brain are positioned, how they communicate, and what roles they play. Many people in the audience squirmed, shuffled uncomfortably, and pinched their lips in disgust. But if you look carefully at their facial expressions you’ll find something remarkable. People were leaning in, literally on the edge of their seats. Some people had their hands over the mouths; others placed their index fingers on the cheek, completely immersed in the presentation. They were deeply involved. Disgusted, perhaps, but emotionally aroused and engaged—really paying attention.
If more teachers gave “icky” presentations—emotionally charged ones—students would retain more of what they learn in high school and college.
Dr. Jill trotted out her real-human-brain prop again in 2013 for a presentation for TEDxYouth. “This is a real human brain. And when I look at this brain I am reminded that we are neurocircuitry … we know more about the human brain than we’ve ever known before and we’ve learned things in the last ten to twenty years—most of your life span—that have completely shifted the way neuroscientists think about this organ and our relationship with it.”8 By holding the brain as she opens her talk, the audience is riveted and more vividly focused on her words, not just the prop in her hands. Now they are receptive to her fundamental theme and key lesson: teenagers’ brains are vulnerable, but teens also have the ability to choose their thoughts, which trigger a positive or negative physiological response. “This is your brain. This is your instrument. This is your tool. And this is your power,” she concluded. In 16 minutes, Dr. Jill gave the teens in her audience one of the most profound and memorable presentations they’re likely to see in school.
So, back to the original point made earlier in this chapter: why do you remember the details about an event such as 9/11 but tend to misplace your keys? Why do we remember Dr. Jill’s demonstration or Gates’s mosquitoes but we forget 99 percent of PowerPoint presentations that we see? The brain is wired to recall emotionally vivid events and to ignore the ordinary, the mundane. If you want to stand out in a sea of mediocre presentations, you must take emotional charge of your audience.
“The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect.”
—John Medina, molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules
THE UNDISPUTED KING OF WOW
Steve Jobs was the king of the emotionally charged event, the “wow moment.” In every presentation, he informed, educated, and entertained. Jobs transformed a presentation into a spectacle worthy of a Broadway production. His presentations had heroes, villains, props, characters, and that one memorable showstopper when you knew that the price of admission was well worth it.
Years before PowerPoint or Keynote software were even invented, and even years before TED exploded on the scene, Steve Jobs was doing TED-like presentations that kept the audience on the edge of their seats.
In 1984, more than 2,500 employees, analysts, and media filled the Flint Center at De Anza College for a product launch that would revolutionize everything about the way we use computers—Macintosh. The 16-minute product launch also stands the test of time as one of most dramatic presentations ever delivered by a corporate titan.
First, Jobs described the power and the features of the new computer, along with pictures. “All of this power fits into the box that is one-third the size and weight of an IBM PC,”9 he said. Most presenters would have wrapped up, telling the audience when the product would go on sale and what its price point would be. Instead Jobs wowed the crowd with one extra, unexpected surprise.
“You’ve just seen pictures of Macintosh. Now I’d like to show you Macintosh in person. All of the images you are about to see on the large screen are being generated by what’s in that bag.” Jobs walked over to a small table in the middle of the stage. A black canvas bag was the only item in the middle of the table. Slowly, and without saying a word for nearly one minute, Jobs lifted the Macintosh from the bag, placed it on the table, reached into his pocket, pulled out a floppy disk, carefully inserted the disk into the computer, and walked away. The lights dimmed, the Chariots of Fire theme began to play, and a series of images filled the screen, fonts and art that had never been seen on a personal computer.
The audience cheered, hollered, and applauded. If Jobs had ended there, it would have been one of the most memorable presentations of its time. But Steve Jobs didn’t become Steve Jobs by being understated. He had one more wow moment to pull on the audience. Jobs said he would let “Macintosh speak for itself for the first time ever.” On cue, Macintosh spoke in a digitized voice: “Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’d like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: Never trust a computer you can’t lift.”
The video from the event has been viewed well over three million times on YouTube. It was a profound moment—unexpected and unique—an emotionally charged event that left an indelible stamp on the audience in the room that day and on millions who have watched it since.
The 1984 Macintosh presentation was far from being the only dramatic presentation Steve Jobs ever gave. Fortunately for presenters everywhere, he continued to refine his style and deliver wow moments with every major product announcement, most of them captured forever on YouTube. Here are just a few examples of how Steve Jobs built wow moments into his presentations. They should give you some ideas, too.
“We See Genius”
In 1997 Steve Jobs returned to Apple after a 12-year absence. With about two minutes left in his first public presentation since his return, Jobs slowed the rate of his speech, lowered his voice, and said, “I think you always had to be a little different to buy an Apple computer … I think the people that do buy them are the creative spirits in the world. They are the people that are not out just to get a job done; they are out to change the world and they are out to change the world using whatever great tools they can get. And we make tools for those kind of people … A lot of times, people think they’re crazy. But in that craziness, we see genius. And those are the people we’re making tools for.”10
A showstopper can be as simple as speaking to the audience from your heart—no slides, no props, no video, just you. If you’ll recall from chapter 1, it’s often as easy as filling in the rest of this sentence: What makes my heart sing is…”
1,000 Songs in Your Pocket
In 2001 Apple introduced the iPod. The MP3 music player was not the first portable player on the market (remember the Sony Walkman)? The MP3 did transfer music faster from a computer, but that wasn’t the wow moment. Jobs had decided to focus on the size of the device as his showstopper.
“What’s so special about iPod?”11 he asked the audience. “It’s ultra-portable. iPod is the size of a deck of cards. That’s tiny. It’s also lighter than most of the cell phones you have in your pocket. But we didn’t stop there … this amazing little device holds 1,000 songs and goes right in my pocket. I happen to have one, as a matter of fact.” Jobs reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the first device that could store that much music and fit into your pocket.
Jobs was a genius at using statistics as showstoppers. Apple executives continue to do the same, introducing statistics in such a novel way that the stats themselves become memorable. Introducing the iPad Mini for the first time, Apple vice president of marketing Phil Schiller said the tablet is “7.2 mm thin. That’s about a quarter thinner than a fourth generation iPad.” Schiller knew the statistics alone wouldn’t be memorable so he chose a novel way of representing the data. “To put it into context, it’s as thin as a pencil,” he said as a pencil appeared next to the iPad Mini on Schiller’s slide. “It weighs just .68 pounds. That’s over 50 percent lighter than the previous iPad. In context, it’s as light as a pad of paper. We were going to say a book, but books are much heavier!” I’ve talked to bloggers who covered the event—most don’t remember the exact specs of the tablet but they all remember the pencil and the pad of paper. Schiller’s novel approach to numbers created an emotionally charged event.
Three Products in One
In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Remember, an emotionally charged event can include the element of surprise. Steve Jobs did just that. He told the audience that Apple would introduce three new products. “The first one is a wide-screen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.”12 He repeated the three products again. Then he said, “An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone, are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.”
The audience erupted with laughter, cheers, and applause. This is one of my favorite examples of an emotionally charged event because it proves that you don’t have to be extravagant or to have elaborate props to elicit a memorable moment. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising, creative twist on the message.
CREATE A HOLY SMOKES MOMENT
I call the “emotionally charged event”—or what some refer to as the wow moment—the “holy smokes moment.” It’s the one moment in a presentation when you drive your point home, your listener’s jaw drops, and she says to herself, “Holy smokes, I get it now!” It’s the first thing they remember about your presentation and the first thing they say to someone else who didn’t see it but wants to know about your presentation. A holy smokes moment need not be fancy. It might be something as simple as a short, personal story. Here are five ways to create a holy smokes moment in your very next presentation (each of these has appeared in TED presentations).
Props and Demos
Mark Shaw created Ultra-Ever Dry, an invention with one astonishing feature—it repels liquids and stays dry. At TED 2013, he demonstrated his superhydrophobic nanotechnology coating that he said acts as a shield against most liquids.
Shaw took a bucket of red paint and threw it on a whiteboard. As the paint dripped down and off the board, letters began to be appear—the giant capital letters were coated with Ultra-Ever Dry. Slowly the audience saw a T followed by an E and finally the D to spell TED. The audience cheered and rose to their feet. Shaw had created a memorable demo that uniquely connected with the conference and its audience. It would certainly be a demo they would always remember.
When I worked with a group of nuclear scientists at one of America’s top labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy, I learned two things about nuclear science. First, nothing is more complicated than nuclear technology. So, don’t ever make the excuse that your content is too complex or technical to be explained simply. Second, America’s nuclear labs are involved in a lot more than protecting the stability of our nuclear resources. They provide important research and data in the areas of global climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, clean energy, and counterterrorism.
This particular group in the organization had the task of developing presentation material that scientists would take to Congress to ask for funding projects. One of the projects involved next-generation weaponry. One example was a bomb that could be remotely guided into a room filled with bad guys, wipe out the room, and leave the neighboring rooms and adjacent homes or buildings unscathed.
I realize it’s controversial, but the technology can save lives by taking out the bad guys—the terrorists—and saving the innocent.
The scientists decided to build an emotionally charged event into their presentation. They marked the meeting room in which the presentation would be delivered with two rows of tape on the floor. During the presentation, they would point to the floor. “Everyone standing within xx feet would be eliminated [they never told me how many feet]. Those of you beyond the second row of tape would survive without a scratch.” I wasn’t in the room when the presentations were delivered, but I’m sure the lawmakers in that room experienced a jaw-dropping moment.
Suffice it to say they received their funding.
DOES YOUR PRESENTATION NEED A PROP? Let me share an example of why it might. I work with a lot of agribusiness clients, and I know more about sustainability and protecting against food-borne illnesses than most people due to my extensive work with growers who supply most of the nation’s produce. One client was launching a product to help growers track crates of produce back to the source and the technology for this product was housed in a green box that contained all the necessary tools to execute the “trace back.” While preparing them for a major presentation that would roll out this product to the larger agricultural community, I realized that something was missing. I asked the group, “Are you going to incorporate the actual box into the presentation somehow?” They responded, “No. We didn’t think about that. We just intended to show PowerPoint slides.”
Far too often presenters “don’t think about it.” It’s highly possible that your presentation could benefit from using a prop of some sort to emphasize a key message. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help you figure it out, so don’t hesitate to show your content to a friend or colleague for his or her input. The minds working together may come up with the perfect idea.
Unexpected and Shocking Statistics
Nearly every popular TED presentation contains data, statistics, or numbers to reinforce the theme of the talk. Every presentation intended to influence a decision should do the same. However, some of the best TED speakers are known to deliver statistics that are more than a bit shocking. Among them:
“This country is very different today than it was 40 years ago. In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”
“Why are we ignoring the oceans? If you compare NASA’s annual budget to explore the heavens, that one-year budget would fund NOAA’s budget to explore the oceans for 1,600 years.”
“One in a hundred regular people is a psychopath. So there’s 1,500 people in this room. Fifteen of you are psychopaths.”
I work with many executives to help them craft their stories. Delivering statistics in new and novel ways can often result in jaw-dropping moments. I recall a meeting with an executive who represented the strawberry industry in California—the same executive I discussed in chapter 1. Most Californians do not realize that strawberries are an important crop to their state, even those people who live in the counties where strawberries are grown.
A full 90 percent of all strawberries consumed in the United States are grown in California. Importantly, strawberries enrich the communities where they are grown. In my conversation with the spokesperson, I learned that strawberries make up only .5 percent of California’s farmland yet create 10 percent of all agricultural jobs in the state. I learned that the payroll taxes paid in one California county alone were equivalent to the combined salaries of all elementary-school teachers in the county and that the average strawberry farmworker made more than the average retail-store employee. These statistics were intended to explain the importance of the industry to the California economy, but the raw numbers themselves would have lost their punch without context. The stats were not new to the executive, but they were to the majority of people he had to influence (consumers, press, retail buyers, partners).
STATS CAN ROCK. Persuasion occurs when you reach a person’s heart and head—logic and emotion. You’ll need evidence, data, and statistics to back up your argument. Make numbers meaningful, memorable, and jaw-dropping by placing them in a context that the audience can relate to. A statistic doesn’t have to be boring. My advice: never leave data dangling. Context matters. If your presentation has a number or data point that is groundbreaking or paramount, think about how you might package it and make it appealing to the listener. Enlist the help of someone else on your team. Sometimes it takes a brainstorm to package statistics in the best, most memorable way.
Pictures, Images, and Videos
Raghava KK is an artist who uses brain waves to manipulate his art in real time. As he spoke to his TED audience, Raghava was wearing a biofeedback headset that recorded his brain activity. The headset was connected to the computer on which he was displaying the images.
The audience saw a photo of an old woman’s face that Raghava affectionately called “Mona Lisa 2.0.” The borders of the slide revealed his brain wave activity. In the live demo, Raghava said that not only could the audience see his mental state (attentive, meditative, focused), but he could actually project his mental state onto the woman’s face. “When I am calm she is calm. When I am stressed she is stressed,”13 he said. Sure enough, when his brain waves or mental state changed, so did the woman’s smile. Her frown grew more intense before turning up into a smile.
Visuals have punch. An evocative slide, a funny or insightful video clip, a thrilling demonstration—all are novel elements that could really move the needle with your audience.
Stewart Brand is a futurist who presented a bold prediction to the TED 2013 audience in Long Beach. Biotech is accelerating four times faster than digital technology, he said. In Brand’s opinion, that means we can bring extinct animals back to life. “We will get woolly mammoths back,” he said. We will get woolly mammoths back. In media training, we call that a sound bite—a short, provocative, repeatable phrase that is likely to be retweeted, posted on Facebook, and repeated in the news cycle. At this point in my career, I know a sound bite when I hear it. Sure enough, Brand’s prediction blew up on social media networks, including Twitter thanks to a retweet from the National Geographic Channel.
When I started training executives to appear in the media, the sound bite was critical to getting the story across in newspapers and television news. Today, social media make the sound bite even more important. The key to being a great spokesperson is also to craft a succinct message that conveys your big idea. When people share quotes via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks, it’s even more important that you feed those platforms with catchy, repeatable quotes.
The sound bite is so important that TED has a site and a Twitter handle dedicated to the best quotes from its speakers (@TEDQuote). Here are some of most popular ones:
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
—Sir Ken Robinson
“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
“Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”
“Behind most Afghan girls who succeed is a father who recognizes that her success is his success.”
“Numbers are the musical notes with which the symphony of the universe is written.”
If you’d like to see more quotes, you can visit TED.com/quotes and read more than 2,000 quotes from speakers. You can search all the quotes, the top quotes, or browse by category. Repeatable quotes are so important in spreading the message that TED actually attempts to find the most memorable quotes of the talk on which to hook viewers.
Hook people. Craft and deliver repeatable quotes. Your ideas deserve to be remembered.
I dedicated a whole chapter to storytelling earlier, but it’s impossible not to discuss stories here again because personal stories often become the jaw-dropping moment in a presentation. Freeman Hrabowski tells stories to attract publicity for his cause. Hrabowski is the chancellor for the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He has been featured on 60 Minutes and was named one of TIME magazine’s most influential people for his work to inspire more minority and low-income students into graduate school for science and engineering.
In February 2013 Hrabowski mesmerized a TED audience with stories—success stories showcasing his students as well as stories of his personal transformation. He began with a story about a transformational experience in his life at the age of 12.
One week in church, I didn’t really want to be there, I heard this man say, “If we can get children to participate in this peaceful demonstration here in Birmingham, we can show America that even children know the difference between right and wrong and that children really do want to get the best possible education.” I looked up and said, “Who is that man?” They told me it was Dr. Martin Luther King. I said to my parents, “I want to go.” And they said “absolutely not.” We had a rough go of it. Somehow I said, “You guys are like hypocrites. You make me go to this, make me listen, the man wants me to go and now you say no.” They thought about it all night. They literally cried and prayed and thought, “Will we let our twelve-year-old participate in this march? He’ll probably have to go to jail.” They decided to let me … while I was there in jail, Dr. King came in and said, “What you children do this day will have an impact on children who have not been born.”14
Great communicators are good storytellers. Stories create impact moments. Not only do they make an emotional impact, as we learned in chapter 2, well-told stories that reinforce your theme will draw in your audience.
I always challenge executives to let their guard down, to break down the barrier between themselves and the audience, and to teach us something about themselves that will help their audiences see them in a different light. The stories they tell are often very emotional. I worked with one woman who had a leading role at one of the world’s largest and most admired technology companies, Intel. She grew up poor in an African-American home of six children. That little girl fell in love with science and math and became an engineer. The story didn’t end there, however. All of her five siblings became successful engineers as well. By the time this Intel engineer finished her story, her colleagues in the room were left in tears and truly inspired by this “new” information. The story wasn’t new to her, but it was to the rest of us.
ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE
While I was writing this book, I took a break and accompanied my wife to a concert by the pop musician Pink. I like some of Pink’s songs and expected an okay performance, in other words, the usual shtick. But, like a great TED presentation, Pink didn’t trot out the usual pop-music show.
Near the end of the concert, Pink, dressed in a gold bodysuit, jumped into a harness that propelled her high in the air like Tinker Bell and carried her across the entire length of the sold-out 17,000-person arena. Perches were stationed around the arena, where Pink would land for a few moments, closer to fans, then get pulled away to zip across the stadium while belting out one of her anthems. A reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter called it the showstopper. “It was beginning to seem like just another pop show with song-and-dance routines, but she pulled out all the stops with the encore of So What … The stunt was so mind-blowing that most of the crowd attempted to capture it on their camera phones, while others watched in amazement.”
Pink’s “mind-blowing” moment in the show was designed to leave the artist—and audience—on a high note. Everyone needs a showstopper: musicians, actors, and performers of all types, including presenters and public speakers. The showstopper seals the deal and permanently brands the message in our minds.
As we’ve discussed, a showstopper might be something as simple as a short personal story. I was in a conference room with the business-development officer of one of the world’s leading oil-and-energy companies. His staff and I had created a narrative for his presentation at the annual global meeting of internal employees. He had solid information about the past year’s results and a positive message about the future. We structured the story so that it was concise, clear, and memorable. But it was missing a jaw-dropping moment.
I turned to the executive and said, “Why are you really passionate about this company? Set aside your talking points and your PowerPoint. Just tell me, from your heart.”
What happened next offered an astonishing lesson in developing an emotionally charged event. The executive paused, thought about it, reached into his pocket, and pulled his business card from his wallet. “Carmine, this card gets me an audience with prime ministers and presidents. It opens the door. But it’s our commitment to protecting their most precious resources that keeps the door open.” As he spoke, the executive’s eyes began welling up with tears, and his voice broke. He continued, “When Russia awarded us with an exploration contract for the Baltic Sea [a contract worth $32 billion], the Russian president said to me, ‘We’ve given you access to Russia’s most prized asset because we trust you to protect it.’ Our partners trust us because our people do business with integrity. I’ve never been more proud to work for any organization in my life.”
We all looked at one another across the table, a little uncomfortable because the executive was clearly moved and so were we. After a short pause I quietly said, “Have you ever said that in a public presentation?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, you will now,” I said.
The executive delivered his presentation to thousands of employees and concluded it by taking the card out of his wallet and repeating the same thing he had told us in the conference room. I didn’t think he would get emotional again when he delivered it publicly, but he did. The employees saw a different side to their leader. They gave him a standing ovation, some employees could be seen wiping tears from their eyes, and at least one person approached the executive and said, “I’ve never been more proud to work for this organization.”
Several weeks later we reviewed the surveys employees had been asked to fill out. They gave this particular executive the highest marks of any leader in the company’s long history. Now he designs a showstopper in every presentation. It’s usually a story, a video, a demonstration, a surprise guest, or simply a personal anecdote. All tactics get results.
Secret #5: Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments
Every performer has at least one jaw-dropping moment—an emotionally charged event that your audience members will be talking about the next day. Every presentation needs one. Get one and use it. Your presentation content will make a better impact if it can be stamped onto the minds of your listeners.