Today in my “learn from the best” series I’ll be breaking down Nancy Duarte’s well-known talk about the structure behind some of the best known speeches in modern times. Here's a little clue - it’s not “3 main points,” nor is it the basic story arc. For best results, watch it here first and then read on to find out just what this structure looks like. I’ll start by summarizing Duarte’s talk and then highlighting the take aways you won't want to miss.
Duarte begins by asserting that an idea communicated effectively has the power to change the world, and that the most effective way of communicating this idea is by telling a story. She notes that a story can actually create a physiological effect in our audience, for example, people might get goosebumps, or move to the edge of their seat. In contrast, a presentation often leaves our audience limp.
Duarte wanted to find out why. So she did a lot of research over several years, from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to a German dramatist named Gustav Freytag, who created the classic story arc. She discovered that unlike bad presentations, the best speeches have a particular shape, or structure. This structure is the basis of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Steve Jobs iphone launch speech in 2007, and the Gettysburg address, as well as many others.
Above, you can see the structure that Duarte discovered. At the beginning, the speaker describes the status quo, and then compares it with her idea of “what could be”, emphasizing the difference between the two. In the middle of the speech, the speaker toggles back and forth between more vivid description of the status quo and more details of what the future looks like with that idea in place. During this middle section, the speaker makes a point to demonstrate how unappealing the status quo is, especially in comparison to the incredibly bright future ahead. The toggling helps to break down any possible resistance to the idea. At the end of the speech, the speaker gives a call to action, encouraging the audience to adopt her idea, because in doing so, they will help to usher in that great future that she described.
During the rest of the TED talk, Duarte demonstrates in detail how both Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King used this style, while also including techniques such as modeling what they want their audience to feel and rhetorical devices such as repetition and metaphor.
Duarte begins her closing in a classic way, by circling back to her original point, that ideas which are communicated well can change the world. And then she surprises us all by getting really personal. She tells a mini life story that demonstrates how she herself overcame hardship, believing that she was born for something big, for her own world changing moment. (This part makes me cry every time I watch it.) And she encourages her audience to change their world and create the future they want to see.
The Take Aways
Wow! What a great talk. Here’s what you don’t want to miss….
1. Use this structure for a motivational/inspirational talk.
This format works great for encouraging people to take action around one big idea. Begin by talking about the status quo, focusing on how bad it is, and then describe the future, when your idea has been adopted, focusing on how great that future will be. Toggle between these two ideas in the middle of your speech, and end on a “high” by urging your audience to accept your idea and live that wonderful future for themselves. It’s simple, genius and effective, all at the same time. Remember, you don't have to give equal time each time you talk about the status quo or the better future. You can reduce the time between each toggle (as Nancy demonstrates in King's speech) to create a heightened level of excitement.
2. Know what your audience cares about and meet them there.
Steve Jobs talked about the difficulties of using old style smart phones, a problem every cell phone owner was acutely aware of. They wanted an easier to use, more efficient phone, and Jobs delivered. Dr. King used and made reference to songs and Scriptures of resistance, resilience and overcoming that were especially meaningful to his audience. These familiar, emotionally charged words inspired them to keep fighting for equality, in spite of the difficult path ahead. What does your audience care about? What songs, people, phrases and images will touch them? Be sure to incorporate those important points of identity into your speech.
3. Don’t be afraid to get personal.
If you’re a nerd like me, it’s easy to get excited about Duarte’s discovery of this speech structure as an awesome presentation device in and of itself. But stopping there would be missing her point, which is - go out, use this structure to communicate your great ideas, and change the world! She concedes that being a world changer is not easy, and that we are prone to give up. That’s when she segues into the personal, describing her own life as an example of what it looks like to believe in yourself and overcome hardship. So Duarte didn’t just share her idea of the speech structure, but by getting personal, and moving to a more emotional level, she inspired me (and probably a lot of others, too) to not give up on my own “big idea.”
Try this structure during your next inspirational keynote or presentation and let us know how it goes! If you found this post helpful, hit one of the “share” buttons so it can help your friends, too.
And, if you want to use this structure but feel like you need some advice, schedule a session with me here. I’d love to help you make a difference!