Case study: Arrangement matters in your presentations, and so does delivery.

A fellow speaker, Jim Niswonger, asked that we review his speech. It started like this:

Initially it is untrue but through a false definition of reality, a misunderstanding, or possibly an outright lie it is believed to be true. That distorted belief evokes new behavior. The new behavior causes the untruth to become true. This is the “self-fulfilling prophecy”, a term first coined by 20th century Sociologist Robert K. Merton. A falsehood consistently acted upon as if it were true, often becomes true.

My initial advice was to reverse the sentences. But… does that small piece of advice help someone understand why? Will it help you to understand why, and how you can use that advice in your own presentations? No. So let’s start by seeing what that paragraph will look like in reverse order.

A falsehood consistently acted upon as if it were true, often becomes true. This is the “self-fulfilling prophecy”, a term first coined by 20th century Sociologist Robert K. Merton. Initially it is untrue but through a false definition of reality, a misunderstanding, or possibly an outright lie it is believed to be true. That distorted belief evokes new behavior. The new behavior causes the untruth to become true.

So how did we get there?

First, this is the opening paragraph of a speech. When you open a speech or presentation, you need to get right to the point. Do you get that? Get right to the point.

How many times have you sat in a presentation and known it was going to be another long… boring… time-wasting event until lunch arrived? Don’t do that to your audience. Get right to the point and put it right out there so your audience knows why they are there.

His point in that sentence was the last line. It was taking too long to get there. I suggested that he start right there: “a falsehood consistently acted upon as if it were true, often becomes true.” That was the point of his whole speech. It’s where his speech also ended and what the audience was going to think as they walked away.

But then… another speaker looked at the speech and said it all sounded a bit intellectual, cerebral, and was very hard to read through. His feeling and another’s was that it was all written at a very high reading level and would be that much harder to follow in the spoken word.

Yeah, you can imagine how I then had to go back and re-read and figure out why I had not seen that. I figured that out and this is what I told him:

— I have to say that I don’t agree with John and Joe. At least not completely. The first paragraph lost me because it started with the most complicated sentence in the paragraph which was not even the main point. I believe that your main lesson is that you allow a falsehood to become true in your mind by consistently believing or repeating it. That is “A falsehood consistently acted upon as if it were true, often becomes true”.

But if you reverse the sentences, make that one first, AND pause after the first sentence. It becomes understandable to me.

I believe when you do that you follow Fripp‘s advice of starting with the power phrase and giving them the pause to digest it. This one needed a big pause but I believe people can take it in if given the time.

As for the higher-level writing. I did not dismiss it immediately because I do believe that some people and audiences are on that level. To level it down MAY be varying from your own style or personality or might be deviating from your target audience. I don’t know if that is you or your audience, so I didn’t try to dissuade you.

However, it does remind me of something David Brooks once said. I believe it was the 2006 or 2007 contest. David said he had read a written speech he was asked to review. He could not imagine how it was going to stretch to 5/7 minutes and was amazingly and happily surprised by the delivery style that managed to achieve just that. Forgive me, I don’t remember who it was.

I suppose I was imagining the delivery as I read the speech and interjected my type of pauses and voice inflections where and how I would do it.

I will try to illustrate with that first paragraph. The first sentence I felt was the most “high-level” and confusing. Again I would move it to the end and change the delivery as such:

A falsehood consistently acted upon as if it were true, often becomes true. <LONG PAUSE>

This is the <INSERT FINGER QUOTE MOTION HERE> “self-fulfilling prophecy”, a term first coined by <USE FASTER RATE THROUGH THIS LONG TITLE> 20th century Sociologist Robert K. Merton. <SLOW DOWN TO NORMAL> <stress> INITIALLY it is untrue <pause> but through a false definition of reality, a misunderstanding, or possibly an outright lie <small pause> it is believed to be true. That distorted belief evokes new behavior, a behavior which causes the untruth to become true, <pause> at least in your mind.

Do you always need to “dumb” down your speech for your audience? Absolutely not! But you need to make sure that the speech is matched to the audience and understood by the audience. The most perfect speech, with the world’s most valuable knowledge, is completely worthless if the audience has absolutely no understanding of it. That’s just the way it is.

By the way, the speech of which David Brooks spoke was from the 2006 World Championship of Public Speaking, and the speaker was Rich Hopkins… he took third place.

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