Story Gets an Analysis and a Critique: Two Presentations

Two TED Talks came to my attention in the last couple of days — one that embodies an affecting story (as many TED Talks do) and another that casts a critical and suspicious eye on stories themselves.

I often see storied presentations, and I often see written pieces on integrating story into presentations, but a wonderful post by John Zimmer analyzes in detail a storied presentation. Zimmer is a Toastmaster who blogs about public speaking and often integrates Toastmaster-specific content.

The presentation, embedded below, is by Alberto Cairo, who runs the orthopedic program operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

I urge you to read Zimmer’s full analysis, which is enormously helpful to public speakers, but here’s my brief synthesis that applies the analysis to integrating story into presentations:

  • Establish your credibility with humility, and do it briefly (One of the most striking things about Cairo’s presentation, in my view, is how humble he is throughout.)
  • Foreshadow that you will delve into the past to reveal a story (which, in this case, had several sub-stories).
  • Forego charts and graphs; just tell the story.
  • If you use slides, make them striking photos/graphics that go with your story.
  • Own your emotions. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable as you tell your story.
  • Make your gestures natural.
  • Paint descriptive pictures, but keep them simple.
  • Use facial expressions appropriate to your story. (Here, I differ slightly from Zimmer’s analysis. Cairo tells a serious story, but he could have smiled occasionally. When he smiles at the end, you wish you’d seen that smile during the story.)
  • Don’t be afraid of humor when presenting a serious subject. (The audience indeed laughs several times; these would have been good places for Cairo to smile.)
  • Build drama with your physical presence.
  • Provide relief to that drama with lighter moments.
  • Don’t be afraid to inject pauses, even long ones.
  • Think about what you want the audience to remember, and be sure to articulate that message (What’s the moral of the story?). If an audience member were describing the story/presentation to a friend in a restaurant two weeks later, how would you want him or her to express your message?
  • When appropriate, become your characters.
  • Bring the story full circle by describing a transformation.
  • Provide a few supporting points that enhance the transformation’s impact.
  • You’ve told the audience what you want them to remember, but take that a step further by describing the action you seek.

The Toastmasters tradition is to constructively evaluate speeches and offer suggestions for improvement, even for high-quality speeches in which it’s difficult to identify ways it could be better. Zimmer calls Cairo’s presentation “a fantastic talk on so many levels,” but he does suggest a few minor improvements. One slide isn’t the best choice for its part of the talk, Zimmer opines, and it stays on the screen too long. Cairo could have employed longer pauses. And Zimmer feels Cairo could have stood closer to the audience, although he suspects, as do I, that the TED folks had him stand in a certain spot for filming purposes. I would add that Cairo could have used more energy. His humility became a bit like an enveloping cloak that made him just a wee bit plodding. Again, a serious subject, but a bit more spark would have enhanced my engagement. He’s not a native-English-speaker, though (he’s Italian), so it’s possible he would speak more energetically in his native tongue. In Toastmasters, he would have been dinged for saying “um,” but I caught no more than two or three of those in a 19-minute talk.

The second TED Talk is a two-year-old deep critique of stories themselves by economist Tyler Cowen (thanks to Stephanie West Allen for alerting me to it). Cowen is suspicious of stories because they (a) are too simple, (b) end up serving dual and conflicting functions, and (c) are often the wrong stories, as served up by marketers and politicians. This third point is the popular manipulation argument often leveled at storytelling.

Throughout the speech, I found myself thinking: What’s the alternative? We have no choice but to think in story form. While he acknowledges that it is impossible for humans not to think in stories, Cowen wants to see more messiness, ambiguity. He wants us to scrutinize stories more critically and suspiciously before buying into them. It’s a provocative talk, and I’d be interested in what story folks think of it.

Interestingly, I was just as engaged in Cowen’s talk as I was in Cairo’s even though Cowen tells few stories — possibly because I had my defensive story hackles up and wanted to understand what he sees as the problems with stories.