The Coach: A Well-Told Story is the Best-Remembered Story

by Nick Mills on March 16, 2011

Nick-Mills-speaking

From the dawn of human language to the invention of writing, most communication was accomplished through speech.  Family histories and tribal lore were passed down through the generations orally, often in the form of stories, songs and poems that could be understood by all, memorized by some, and passed along to future generations.  Still today, in the age of Twitter, the spoken word dominates our interpersonal and mass communication, and those who use it most effectively have an edge.

Human beings are hard-wired to love a good story, and a good storyteller. A story puts information into a widely recognized and easily digested form, with its predictable structures such as problem-examples-solution.

And the well-told story is the best-remembered story. That’s where I come in.

For a number of years I have worked with high-profile clients of The Rendon Group as a “presentation coach,” helping them improve the quality and effectiveness of their spoken-word presentations.  These presentations encompass a range of media – radio, television, small-group discussions and large-audience speeches. I try through my coaching to make my clients better storytellers, and hence more effective presenters.

My qualifications include many years as a news broadcaster at the major-market and national network levels, and years of teaching university students the tools and techniques of radio and TV broadcasting. I have coached presidents, prime ministers, high-ranking military officers, corporate executives and many others.

In this blog and others to follow I’ll tell you what I do and how I do it, and how you can improve your own presentations.

First, a definition of terms:  By “presentation” I mean any encounter with one or more people in which you want to affect the outcome, be it a sales pitch, campaign speech or interview.  By “coach” I mean someone who can help you improve the way you play your game.

Now let’s take as an example a client I helped once in Boston who used the presentation-as-storytelling way of thinking.  William (not his real name) was the editor of a magazine that featured articles on cutting-edge science and technological innovation.  He landed a gig as the sci-tech commentator on a TV channel and wanted to know how he could make better presentations on TV.  He gave me video tapes of a few of the segments he had already done, and I watched them, first alone and then with William.  I turned down the audio, so that we could only watch his face and his body language.  On the screen, William’s face – a sharply featured, handsome face accented by Elvis Costello-style glasses – was scowling and serious.

After a couple of minutes I turned to William and said, “If you didn’t know what that person on the screen was saying, what would you guess he was talking about?”

He studied his own face on the TV screen.  “Hmm.  Not good news, I would say.”

“I would guess you were discussing some disaster, some tragedy,” I told him.  “All the stuff you are talking about is interesting and fun to know about, but your facial expressions tell me just the opposite.”

With the audio up, so that we could hear the questions and the answers, it appeared that the news anchorwoman’s questions sometimes took William by surprise, causing him to stumble a bit with the answers.

“Who prepares her questions? I asked him.

“She does.  I send her the latest issue of the magazine and she reads it and makes up the questions.”

I told William that he should prepare the questions for the anchorwoman, so that he is prepared and can launch into the answers with enthusiasm and good humor.  That way, he can inject a critical element into his presentation:  a smile.  I told him the news anchor would appreciate it if he prepared the questions, saving her time.  Now, when she asked a question, William’s face could light up in a smile and he could respond, “Oh, Christine, this is such an interesting development!”  Feeding her suggested questions in advance would not violate journalistic ethics as this was an  “info-tainment” segment and she was free to ask additional questions if she desired.

On camera, William also committed another rookie mistake:  He swiveled nervously in his chair.  That sort of nervous tic distracts a viewer from the speaker’s message, but many speakers do similar things – they may pace rhythmically from one side of the stage to another, or chop the air with one hand like a metronome.

Four easy pieces – preparation, body poise, enthusiasm, and smiles – and virtually overnight William made much better TV presentations.

In my next installment I will tell you the dirty little secrets of spoken-word presentation and how to make them work for you.

Nick Mills is a Professor of Journalism at Boston University, and an international media consultant and speech coach.

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