Nutshell: How to excel at presenting

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Published
02 Mar 2020

02 Mar 2020 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Aristotle’s three modes of persuasive speaking form a framework that can help us to master public speaking and win the hearts and minds of our audiences.

In 1963, civil rights activist Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I have a dream…” speech, calling for equality and freedom for black Americans - and setting the bar pretty high for effective public speaking. While King was almost certainly born with the innate passion and charisma required to move and inspire an audience, his impact was surely enhanced by practice. 

“It’s believed that King gave 2,500 speeches in his lifetime,” writes Harvard University’s Carmine Gallo in What it takes to give great presentations. “If we assume two hours of writing and rehearsals for each one (and in many cases he spent much more time than that), we arrive at the conservative estimate of 5,000 hours of practice. But those are speeches. They don’t take into account high school debates and hundreds of sermons. King had easily reached 10,000 hours of practice by August of 1963.”

No matter how competent we are at presenting, there is always room for improvement.  And for those of us who are not natural presenters, it’s a skill we can learn. Which is just as well, as presenting well can be integral to individual and personal success, especially in business. Doing it well enables us to get our messages across clearly and confidently to different stakeholders, reducing miscommunication. Doing it brilliantly allows us to persuade and influence, motivate, galvanise and lead.

A framework for presenting 

The power of a well-delivered, well-structured and convincing presentation is not new. Understanding and deploying the components of persuasive speaking have a long history. Once again, the ancients provide a prototype that still resonates today: Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – offer a practical framework that can set us on the path to presenting success.  

Aristotle identifies and explains his “modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word”:

  • Ethos depends on the personal character of the speaker; 
  • Pathos on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; and 
  • Logos is based on the proof, or apparent proof, provided “by the words of the speech itself.”

If it was good enough for Aristotle, how might we use his thinking in our presentations today? 

Ethos

Under Aristotelian thinking, ethos is the most powerful element of communication. While logos (logic or knowledge) is important – people will believe in you only if they understand what you are trying to say – and pathos (passion) is persuasive  - if people can connect and engage with your message they will consider you more favourably - it is ethos(character) that makes you credible in front of an audience.

Ethos boils down to a sense of purpose; to calmness, authenticity, credibility and warmth (trust builders), and to authenticity (a match between inner and outer worlds). While it involves charisma (“the gift of grace”), it is not just about surface charm, but is tied directly to ethics.

For our audience to believe in us, we must persuade people of our competence and character. With public speaking, there are three types of credibility: 

  • initial credibility: our credibility prior to our presentation, based on our credentials, reputation and level of renown.
  • derived credibility: credibility we develop while delivering our speech, based on our professionalism and the quality and delivery of our presentation. 
  • terminal credibility: the credibility we have gained or lost after delivering our speech – the lasting impression people have of us as a speaker. 

The aim is to build on any initial credibility by delivering a well-prepared and artfully delivered speech, and to finish with enhanced terminal credibility. 

One swift way to boost initial credibility when presenting is to highlight our relevant expertise. Drawing on our personal experience and reflections to support our points and arguments demonstrates authenticity and allows our emotions and personality to shine through. It all helps us to tell a story and to build rapport with the audience.

The ethos challenge

Establishing our credibility when presenting can be a tough gig. Research suggests that audiences form an impression about our competence within 30 seconds. It’s best to be forewarned and forearmed. 

Non-verbal signals that betray nerves, boredom or a lack of authority can be especially undermining. For example, standing with a straight back and head held high exudes confidence, while staring at the floor implies discomfort, and slouching suggests indifference (think Jacob Rees-Mogg). Fear can manifest in extraneous movements or freezing; involuntary behaviours may take the form of repeated throat clearing, tremors, leg-shaking, fidgeting, pacing and face-touching. Physiological giveaways include flushing and sweating.

If we add to these micro-expressions, which provide subtle clues to how the speaker is feeling, it’s no surprise that audiences often spend more time studying the tics of the speaker than paying attention to what they are saying.

Learning to appear more confident involves understanding what constitutes an assured demeanour and tackling any elements of kinesics (body language) that undermine ours. Start with mimicry – and practice ­– and real ‘stage presence’ should follow. 

When we present with confidence, we stand tall with our head up, in an open posture, removing barriers between ourselves and our audience. Rather than hiding behind a lectern, we move around the stage calmly, stepping forward at strategic moments when we want to encourage or persuade. Our micro-expressions match our messages; a simple smile at the right moment, for example, puts people at ease. 

We also ‘talk with our hands’, using congruent and purposeful gestures to emphasise our words. Hand gestures can be very telling. Key don’ts include placing our hands on our hips, constantly touching our hair or handwringing. Instead, we should use gestures to convey emotions and support points we are making: if we are presenting two options, for example, we might cup our left hand for option 1 and our right hand for option 2.

Eye-contact is a sign of trustworthiness. In How to Look and Sound Confident During a Presentation, Gallo suggests that we record ourselves practicing our presentation in front of a small audience. Then watch the recording and note all of the times we look at our slides instead of at our audience. Practice, and record again. “Every time you do, try to spend less time talking to the slides and more time making eye contact with your listeners. Rehearse until you have the presentation down cold.”

And don’t overlook the confidence-boosting potential of that ‘power pose’. According to social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, adopting confident postures can help us to become confident on the spot. She argues that assuming a ‘power pose’ before participating in a high-stress situation which demands peak performance increases our level of testosterone (the dominance hormone), and decreases cortisol (a stress hormone). Essentially “our bodies change our minds”.

How the voice persuades

Non-verbal communication is, of course, about more than just body language. It’s also about paralinguistics, how we use our voices. Monotonous speech patterns may bore listeners to (literal) distraction, allowing their minds to drift off elsewhere. Garbled sentences betray nervous energy.

Understanding and exploiting the acoustic properties of speech, such as pitch, pace, tone and volume, enables us to win our audience’s trust and alert our listeners to the nuances of our messages. By mastering paralanguage, we can hold people’s attention, making our voice pleasant to listen to, while coming across as more influential, persuasive and credible. Research proves it.

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger conducted four experiments on the use of non-verbal communication in persuasion, finding that speakers who modulate their voices appear more confident, which makes them more likely to succeed in convincing their listeners to take action. A speaker’s confident vocal demeanour persuades others by serving as a signal that they more strongly endorse the stance they take in their message.

Just, like, breathe

Improving paralanguage often amounts to simple things such as slowing down our speech, varying our tempo and adjusting our volume and pitch. Sexist as it may be, high-pitched voices tend to be perceived as less authoritative than low-pitched ones. We can also learn to use pauses to good effect and to regulate the emotion in our voice, so that it matches what we are saying and what we want audience members to feel; telling a tragic tale in a jolly tone is not the way to win hearts and minds.

As with kinesics, these techniques can be learned, practised and honed. Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing oxygenates the brain and keeps us in control of our voices, engendering calm and focus; warming up our vocal chords shortly before speaking loosens our muscles, broadening our range of pitch, helping us to enunciate and reducing vocal fatigue.

While being understood by all members of our audience is clearly paramount, staying true to our dialect lends authenticity to our speech. However, dreaded filler words - like “um”, “err”, “like” and “you know” - should be avoided at all costs. Also watch out for sentences that start with “obviously”; “basically”; “in fairness” and “to be honest”. Implying that you have been lying to people in all of your other statements is not a good look. 

Pathos

Because decisions are so often made emotionally rather than rationally, Aristotle’s pathos, the ability to move people emotionally, is a crucial element of persuasion, that all-important factor in delivering a message successfully. 

There’s no better way to speak to an audience’s emotions than through storytelling; during presentations, the simple act of telling a story can transform dull facts or impenetrable data into powerful messaging that resonates with audiences, intellectually and emotionally. That’s because our brains are essentially wired to process and store information as stories – which hold our interest, induce empathy, help us to learn, and aid our recall of points and arguments. 

How to tell stories

There’s an art to telling stories in business. At the basic level, we need to make sure we’re clear about our message, clarifying the takeaways or any call to action. We also need to understand our audience so that we can tailor our story to ensure that it resonates. While drawing on our own experiences helps give stories authenticity (and can be particularly powerful), it isn’t always necessary to make ourselves the hero.

Methodologies exist to guide us. For example, Gallo highlights a three-act formula that Steve Jobs borrowed from Aristotle to inject a little drama into product launches and speeches: 

  • set up 
  • confrontation
  • resolution

In ‘Act 1’, an incident occurs to upset the status quo. This leads to the confrontation in Act 2 and the obstacles for our ‘hero’ to overcome. The resolution comes in Act 3, with the hero beating the villains and ensuring all is right in the world.

This echoes the format of many a Hollywood screenplay – but then Jobs was CEO of Pixar before returning to the Apple fold. At Pixar, he was quoted as saying  that storytellers are the most powerful people in the world: “The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” If we can harness this power in our own presentations, we’re well on the way to taking our audiences with us. 

The Pixar Pitch

The now famous Pixar Pitch (as detailed by Pixar story artist Emma Coats) can be used to underpin any story-based presentation. Involving six sequential sentences, it provides a simple, clear and concise framework for stories:

1. Once upon a time _____  (scene setting; gives the context or background)

2. Every day ______ (issues causing problems, for example, the habits and rituals of staff or customers)

3. One day _______ (the catalyst for change)

4. Because of that _______ (how the status quo shifts, for better or worse)

5. Because of that _______ (the effect this has – moving towards an outcome)

6. Until finally _______ (the resolution/happy ending or – if you are pitching to a client, or speaking to colleagues – your solution).

It’s a powerful framework we can all look to deploy. 

Simplicity is also important. Overcomplicating stories, or padding them with excessive detail, could well lose your listeners. For Gallo, it’s no coincidence that some of the most memorable speeches and documents in history are among the shortest, including The Gettysburg Address (272 words), John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech (under 15 minutes), and the Declaration of Independence, which “guarantees just three unalienable rights.”

In brief: stop talking before they stop listening.

Holding attention 

According to Chris Anderson, head of TED, a speaker’s number-one task is “to build an idea, piece by piece… making it the through-line running through your entire talk, so that everything you say links back to it in some way”.

To do this, we must find ways to stir our audience’s interest – and then keep them hooked. 

This may involve using humour, sensory language, metaphors (to bring concepts to life and evoke an emotional response), alongside interesting visuals and the occasional prop. Microsoft’s Bill Gates famously released live mosquitos from a jar on stage while presenting a TED talk on Mosquitoes, Malaria and Education.

But, beware: overusing gimmicks and ‘devices’ can detract from our message, making our talk seem clichéd or emotionally manipulative.

Trying to tell jokes can fall flat if we are not naturally funny or our audience is not inclined to laugh, but a little gentle self-deprecation, the occasional raised eyebrow and a familiar story, with which our listeners can identify, goes a long way.  Again, understanding our audience is the key.

Starting a presentation with the unexpected (perhaps a shocking fact or provocative question) or an (appropriate) personal confession can help to grab an audience’s attention and build a connection with them. Where there is a line-up of speakers, linking our presentation with others from earlier in the day can add interest and help people to join the dots.

Injecting a shot of suspense into our talk with the help of mini-cliffhangers and a well-placed dramatic pause can also help to hold attention, while interactivity is to be encouraged; run quick polls (hands up or via tech); give people dilemmas to consider; ask the audience questions, or even invite members onto the stage for a demonstration. 

While it can be distracting, social media can also enrich our interactions, representing another channel for live and virtual audience participation. It can be used before, during and after an event to create anticipation, encourage interaction and sharing, and to gather feedback.

Logos

And so to logos, the rationale behind our argument. This, for Aristotle, is “the proof provided by the words of the speech itself”. According to Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols:

“If ethos is the ground on which your argument stands, logos is what drives it forward: it is the stuff of your arguments, the way one point proceeds to another, as if to show that the conclusion to which you are aiming is not only the right one, but so necessary and reasonable as to be more or less the only one.”

Or, in other words, a well-structured and logical argument is essential for the case we’re making. We need to ask ourselves questions like: Does what we are saying make sense? Is it set out clearly? Can we provide evidence to support our claims? Can we make clear the link between these findings and our conclusions?

Elements that strengthen arguments include data, facts, survey or research results, quotes, charts, diagrams and demonstrations; the onus is on us to ensure that they are accurate, up-to-date and from reputable sources. Using slides as visual aids can support our theories, but beware the all-too-familiar ‘death by PowerPoint’. Try making only one clear point per slide, avoid visual clichés, and keep graphs or charts streamlined and simple. Clarity and legibility are all. 

Once again, understanding (or researching) the demographics of our audience will help us to pitch information at the right level and to know when to avoid (or occasionally embrace) jargon. With ideas that are complex or unfamiliar, analogies, metaphors and practical examples can aid understanding.

While we can never have too much ethos (credibility), levels of pathos and logos will vary, according to audience type. For example, an informative presentation to an audience of academics is likely to have more logos, less pathos; a short speech at an awards ceremony will weighted the opposite way around. Thinkers have also viewed the UK’s Brexit referendum in terms of this pathos-logos continuum, with the Brexiteers’ pathos-led campaign resonating much more strongly with voters than even the most rational of the logos-based arguments that underpinned the Remain campaign. 

Presenting thinking with clarity

One way to structure logos-heavy presentations and to make them coherent and persuasive, is via the Pyramid Principle, developed by global management consultants McKinsey. Designed to clarify thinking and to set out complex ideas in the clearest terms, this was popularised by Barbara Minto, who headed the firm’s training in the early 1970s; she published The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking in 1985. 

“The pyramid is a tool to help you find out what you think,” she explains.

G to create diagram, based on the diagram here, attributed to McKinsey and Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/alumni/news-and-insights/global-news/alumni-news/barbara-minto-mece-i-invented-it-so-i-get-to-say-how-to-pronounce-it

Minto’s methodology adopts a top-down structure, inverting the traditional process of ‘presenting facts, before arriving at a conclusion’:

  1. Start with the answer or actionable point. This cuts to the chase, providing the key idea or takeaway at the outset, when our audience is giving us their most focused attention. Our introduction will briefly describe the situation and question to be addressed and provide a solution. Because we are being direct, we sound confident and assertive.
  2. Group and summarise supporting arguments. Minto suggests having three supporting arguments for our answer, breaking these down further until we have formed a pyramid of arguments. Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them, and the groups of ideas ‘mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive’ (MECE)
  3. Order supporting ideas logically. Finally, we order ideas logically, by time order (if there is a sequence of events that form a cause-effect relationship), by structural order, or in order of importance. Together, these arguments create a storyline that leads us to conclude that our answer is true.

For Minto “Extended thinking eventually ends in a single pyramid of ideas, at many levels, obeying logical rules, and held together by a single thought. Communicating the thinking requires only that you guide the reader [or listeners] down the pyramid.”

Despite Aristotle’s bold claim that ethos is the most important element of communication, we won’t get far if we can’t marshal the argument – the proof – that logos implies. However we choose to marshal our thoughts and hone our argument, we have to get our facts straight and to know how best to communicate them to others. 

Logic-driven theories are, of course, just one ingredient in the recipe for compelling public speaking. In an era packed with information, filled with distractions, it is increasingly challenging to grab people’s attention, never mind hold it. To get our messages across we must therefore learn how to blend a healthy dose of logos with just the right quantity of pathos and a whole lot of ethos. Only then will we influence the hearts and minds of our audiences and ensure that our words are heard, remembered – and even shared.

 

Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.