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I was sitting in the back of a conference room waiting for a speaker to finish her presentation, so I could have my turn to take the stage and wow the audience. I was at a professional development conference, so the room was filled with corporate executives from every industry you can imagine; health care, law, finance, real estate, manufacturing, and the like. Everyone was there to gain an edge on their skills, so they could either keep climbing the ladder, or not be bumped off the rung they had achieved. If you have ever given a presentation, you know that the person speaking before you will greatly affect your success. If your lead-in bombs, you have to work twice as hard to reel the audience back in. The entertainment world has a phrase for this, digging a hole on stage. If someone bombs, they dig a hole on the stage that you have to fill in before you can gain traction with the audience.
As you have probably guessed, the reason I am writing this now is because the speaker before me didn’t just dig a hole, she excavated an open pit for me to fall into. If you had taken a brain scan of the audience, they would have flat-lined. The speaker who was following me looked in my direction with an expression of, “Please fill in the hole before it is my turn.” It took the first fifteen minutes of my session to perform emergency resuscitation on the audience. And, as much as speakers get a feeling of accomplishment bringing an audience back from the dead, we would just as soon not have to.
I know what you are thinking. “Stevie, please tell me what that speaker did wrong. Tell me how I can avoid the fate of not only boring my audience to death, but of inciting the wrath of those who share the stage with me.” The speaker’s chief failure was in not recognizing the difference between the brain of a speaker and the brain of a listener. Communication is not as simple as one person talking and the other person receiving the information, analyzing it, storing it, and recalling it later. Human communication is complicated, (and not just for parents of teenagers). In fact, communicating with another human being is so tricky that it demands more brain resources than any other mental function. Knowing how the brain changes from speaking function to listening function is the key to delivering a great presentation.
The women who dug the hole on stage for me provided the audience with piles of data to support her position. That approach would seem logical. After all, you can’t expect an audience to support you without evidence to back you up. However, as easy as it is for a speaker to recall and recite statistics, the listener’s brain doesn’t absorb data at all well. Statistics can be delivered easily, but not received easily. In a nutshell, this is one of the greatest challenges facing workplace presentations. The reason is it easier to recite statistics is because the speaker is relying on memory. The listener’s brain is not prepared for such data-heavy input, so it is searching for the general meaning behind the information. The brain of a listener is constantly asking, “So what?” The speakers brain is relying on evidence, whereas the listener’s brain is seeking meaning. How can you speak to a group if the very process that works for the speaker doesn’t work for the listener?
The answer is, use metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another thing that is not the same, but that can be connected in theory. Investing in this stock would be like planting a seed on a rock. The seed is good, but there isn’t any soil for it to grow. The comparison between two unlike concepts provides clarity through comparison. Metaphors break a message down to its core meaning by comparing ideas on a visceral level. Metaphors also play a trick on the listener’s brain by bypassing analysis and jumping directly to basic understanding.
This is not to say that information is unnecessary; far from it. However, unless the core meaning of the message is first accepted by the listener, all the data in the world will go in one ear and out the other. If you look at the beginning of this column, you will see metaphor in use when I mention getting bumped off the rung of a ladder, taking a brain scan of the audience, or someone digging a hole on stage. Imagine how much less impact would have been achieved if I had written “lost the status they had previously achieved” instead of “bumped off the ladder.”
Metaphors foster instant recognition of your message; an “I get it!” response. And, when people understand a message more easily, they are less likely to resist it. In a sense, we believe what we understand. So, here is your homework. When you prepare your next presentation—a big speech, a staff meeting, or a sales pitch—look at the key concepts you are trying to convey and create a metaphorical comparison for each. For maximum effect, end your entire presentation with one overriding metaphor. This leaves the audience with a picture in their head, not a head full of numbers. Ending with a metaphor is like closing a book at the end of a good story. See what I did there?
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.