Sunday, 15 September 2013

Tips on giving a presentation

Ever wondered why some speeches can leaving you feeling sad or proud or ready to right some injustice, and other speeches just leave you cold – you either give up listening or start to hate the speaker? What’s going on?

Well, the answer is verbal trickery – or, to give it its Greek name, rhetoric. Since the time of the Greeks, people have spent ages studying why some talks persuade you to take action and some leave you completely indifferent. They have even named these tricks – and there are lots of them – and some of those names we use every day without thinking about it (like paraphrase and parenthesis, like analogy and anecdote, like hyperbole and innuendo).

We talk about ‘figures of speech’, and, although we don’t say ‘tropes’, which is Greek for ‘turn’, we do say ‘turn of phrase’ and ‘twists in the plot’. The third member of this family of tricksters is called schemes. It’s not a forgotten art, it’s something that we all do quite naturally – almost without noticing it. But if you’re hoping to persuade someone, or a group of people, of something, it’s worth using some of these techniques. Or, if you’re listening to a political speech or an advert or someone else’s presentation, you might want to spot the techniques they are using to cynically manipulate us.

Rhetoric has nothing (necessarily) to do with the truth. There’s nothing for Mr Spock in rhetoric. It’s all about how the speaker can make us feel – it’s an emotional response. If you can get the rhetoric right, you can make a crowd of people (I nearly said mob) feel that any action is the ‘right’ one to take. Powerful stuff eh?

Let’s take an historical perspective for a moment. Medieval universities taught three subjects (called the trivium), and they were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This study prepared students for the quadrivium – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. No media studies in those days. And it was Aristotle who identified three ways of appealing to an audience, which he called logos, pathos, and ethos (and which everyone thinks must be the names of the three musketeers!). You’ll notice, yet again, that the word ‘truth’ doesn’t appear in the list.

Ethos is where you show the audience how qualified you are to give your opinion on the matter. Think of Troy McClure in the Simpsons, who started every advert by saying: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such films/TV shows/etc as…” This, although done for humorous effect – and bad rhetoric is painfully funny – illustrates an appeal to a higher authority.

Pathos is an appeal to the emotions of your audience. You talk about kittens, puppies, very young children having dreadful things done to them – surely we can’t let that happen? And you use the language of the people – you’re one of them – make them empathize.

Logos is the snake in the grass because you think this must be the logical reasoned argument. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the ‘nine out of ten doctors agree that’ approach. You had to search far and wide to find those ‘nine’. I’m not saying it’s untrue – I’m just saying that logos allows facts to be spun, whichever way you want, to make your argument seem truthful and logical. Remember Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal? He had his own special definition of what was meant by the word ‘sex’. That’s the use of logos.

By the time of the Romans, the design for a successful speech or PowerPoint presentation had been set out. There are five components and they’re called: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (although they were given Latin names at the time!).

Invention is finding arguments that support your case and arguments to knock down your opponents. Arrangement is pretty much how you would have been taught to write an essay at school – although they may not have used the names. This comes in six parts: introduction, narrative, partition, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion. We’ll come back to these.

Style is how you use words, structure your sentences, and what figures of speech you use (going the extra mile, moving the goal posts, etc). You need to choose between the plain style for instructing an audience, the middle style for moving an audience, and the high style for pleasing an audience. And you can dodge around a bit during your speech to include all three.

Memory includes tricks to help you remember what you plan to say. Nowadays our PowerPoint slides do the work for us. Delivery refers to the management of the voice and the gestures we use. It’s the theatrical part, and it really is the most important part. Great speakers need to have great delivery or else everything else is pretty much a waste of time. Appropriate jokes are good. If someone is laughing with you, you’ve got them on your side. This is the part that many presenters (you know who you are!) need to work on. And remember, audiences read your body language too.

For those of you still awake at the back, let’s pick up on those six parts of arrangement. The introduction (exordium) should draw in listeners and introduce the topic. The narrative provides background information. The partition tells the audience which parts from the narrative will be discussed further. The confirmation gives reasons to agree with the speaker. The refutation shows why you shouldn’t disagree with the speaker. And the conclusion (peroration) pulls all these arguments together. If it’s done properly, you not only agree with the speaker, you want to do something about it!

Next time we’ll have a look at some of those tricks that can be used to wow your audience, get them on your side, and get them to agree to whatever you’re proposing!!

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