William Safire, New York Times columnist, makes the following point in his book “The Lost Art ot the Great Speech:” “Suppose I’m describing the reaction of baseball fans on that unforgettable evening when Henry Aaron hit the home run that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime record. I might say, ‘Aaron was given a standing ovation by fifty thousand fans. The tribute continued for at least five minutes.’ That’s accurate. It’s what happened. No doubt about it.”
But compare that description with this. ‘Fifty thousand fans sprang to their feet, clapping, screaming, cheering wildly in a pandemonium that went on for a full five minutes.’ That’s also what happened. Is there a difference?”
“You bet there is. The first version tells what happened all right, but it doesn’t involve the listener. There’s no fire, no passion. …The second version paints a word picture that puts the listeners right in the stadium, making them part of the clapping, cheering crowd.”
Painting pictures in the minds of your listeners is the key to effective presenting and persuasion. Yet many people dismiss this part of a presentation as just so much fluff. They may change their minds when they understand how the human brain processes information.
The “Committee” Inside Your Listener’s Head
Anyone who sells knows that a committee buy is a committee sell, meaning you have to satisfy everyone on the committee to make your sale. The “committee” in your listener’s brain consists of the left brain and the right brain. Think of the left brain as Joe Friday, the famous detective who was known for arriving at the scene of a crime and, ignoring the victim’s distress, would dispassionately say, “Just the facts, ma’m. Just the facts.” Joe responds to facts, details, logic, and order. Think of the right brain as Robin Williams, the zany, creative star of movies like “Mrs.Doubtfire’ and his outrageous HBO comedy shows. Robin responds to images, color, emotions, music, and the big picture. They both need to be reached if you want any action out of someone.
Two more unlikely partners in decision-making would be hard to imagine. Yet they work very well together communicating back and forth millions of times a day across an electronic hallway called the corpus callosum (and you think you have too many emails!). When you buy a car and consider miles per gallon, horsepower, price, and trunk size, Joe is at work. When you say, “And I’ll take it in red with brown leather interior!” Robin is exercising his power.
Logic and emotion. We make all our decisions that way and,when you think about it, you’ll see that emotion frequently trumps logic. “I had a budget, but I just loved the view, so we paid more for the apartment.” “Okay, so I didn’t want a dog, but look how cute that puppy is.” “Yes, it cost more, but it makes me look so thin.”
Images evoke emotions. Images are concrete and are instantly grasped. When General Eisenhower asked his sargeant for a situation report, the sargeant replied, “Sir, think of a doughnut. We’re the hole.” No further explanation necessary.
Concrete Trumps Abstract Every Time
Imagery can be used anywhere in presentations or speeches. They can be used to immediately win over a hostile audience, to anchor a message, to communicate a concept, close a deal, inspire action.
Avoid irrelevant jokes, but use current events, anecdotes, a startling fact, or a prop. For example, suppose you want to address an industry audience and recommend some controversial changes. You could begin telling them that you believe the industry is in trouble or you could do what one speaker I heard do in a marketing forum. He said, “On a plane recently, I sat next to a woman with a large, unusual ring on her middle left hand finger. I don’t normally engage in personal conversation, but I could not take my eye off the ring. So, I asked her what it was and she replied that it was her wedding ring. When I asked why it was on the wrong finger, she said, “I married the wrong man.” When the laughter died down, the speaker said, “I wonder if, instead of being married to the wrong person, as an industry are we married to the wrong strategies?” He then presented what the industry was currently doing, what he thought they should be doing. His anecdotal opening relaxed the audience and eased them into his argument. Robin loved the anecdote. Joe was now ready to listen to the facts to back up the speaker’s premise.
We are all asked what we “do.” This description of a tax consulting firm (taken, sadly, from an actual presentation is representative of what too many people and companies say about themselves: “We help identify opportunities for increasing revenues, decreasing costs, and for SR and ED tax credits eligibility. We implement actions to realize these gains, drive sustaining change to hold the gains, and become more effective in achieving these results on an ongoing basis. We help improve organizational effectiveness through 1) recommending business, operational, financial strategies; 2) developing benchmarking and performance measures; 3) establishing standards for service excellence.” There are four more similar activities in this list from their presentation, but I will spare you those (!)
Why does this last description fail? It is deadly dull and too abstract. Robin right brain cannot “see” identifying opportunities for increasing revenue. Robin is not involved emotionally with the vague phrase decreasing costs. But Joe and Robin would respond to, “We take the pain out of tax work while lifting your bottom-line by as much as 50%.
Okay, so tax consulting is not very colorful, but even in a colorful industry, you can fall into the trap of being dull and forgettable. For example, supposed you were selling advertising in a fashion magazine to a luxury company. You could say your magazine reaches a youthful, loyal, and affluent female market (factually correct), or, you could say your magazine reaches Manolo Blahnik-wearing Sara Jessica Parker wannabes, who pack the aisles in Bloomingdale’s and Neiman’s? (visually vivid).
You are Prudential Financial marketing retirement planning. You “tell” people in your advertising that protection and growth characterize your approach to retirement. You take another hundred words describing what you do and the 3 million people you help and the six thousand institutions who rely on you for intelligent retirement solutions. There is nothing wrong with what these words say. However, you sound like every other retirement planning organization. After all, no one says, “Hey, this is a crap-shoot and maybe your plan will grow and maybe it won’t.” What saves these words and makes them memorable is the picture of a mother elephant standing protectively over a very cute, innocent looking baby elephant. Joe hears the facts about Prudential and Robin gets the message visually and emotionally.
Bottom-line, when you present intangibles, talk the bullet-points of your information, but show an actual image representing the concept behind the facts. And if you cannot actually show a visual, then use verbal metaphors or analogies to make your point.
People remember the last thing they hear, the rule of recency. End a presentation or speech with a visual tie-in and you will be more likely to close the deal or inspire a group to action. Our opening speaker above could return to the women’s ring from his opening anecdote and say, “In conclusion, none of us wants to be ‘married to the wrong guy.’ The new strategies we reviewed today, a…., b…., and c….will ensure a much more successful relationship going forward with our clients.”
You’ve just given a presentation and you sense a certain amount off complacency on the part of your buyer. Instead of appealing to the logic of acting now, you could say, “Will Rogers once famously said, ‘Even if you’re on the right track, if you just sit there, you are going to get hit.’ You don’t want to ‘get hit’ by your competition because of their more advanced systems. By working with us today, we can ensure that you not only stay on the right track, but that you continue to move along it quickly, efficiently, and profitably.”
Tell Joe. Show Robin. Get Results.
When I asked one of the consultants in my book, Metaphorically Selling, for a quote, he said with a sigh, “I think of myself as such a big thinker and all that people remember are my stories and analogies!”
Images in the form of metaphors, analogies, and stories, are among the most powerful weapons of mass understanding and retention that you have to wield on the plains of competing products, services, and ideas. They belong in all your communications. As this Arabic proverb says, “He is the best speaker who can turn men’s ears into eyes.”
c.2005. Anne Miller