Now that you’ve identified your message — and how to best serve your audience — it’s time to build a structure. But first, let me share a story with you about building bridges.
Once upon a time two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side-by-side, sharing machinery, and trading labour and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding which grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. ‘I’m looking for a few days’ work,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?’
‘Yes,’ said the older brother. ‘I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbour, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore. Cool him down, anyhow.’
The carpenter said, ‘I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.’
The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge; a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work — handrails and all — and the neighbour, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.
‘You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.’
The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. ‘No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,’ said the older brother.
‘I’d love to stay on,’ the carpenter said, ‘but, I have many more bridges to build.’
The story you’ve just read has a specific ‘narrative structure’. Generally, the narrative structure of any work — whether a film, play, or novel — can be divided into three sections, referred to as ‘Setup’, ‘Conflict’, and ‘Resolution’. The ‘Setup’ is where all of the main characters and their basic situations are introduced, and explores the character’s backgrounds and personalities. A problem is also introduced, which is what drives the story forward. The ‘Conflict’ is the bulk of the story, and begins when the inciting incident sets things into motion. This is the part of the story where the characters go through major changes in their lives as a result of what is happening; this can be referred to a ‘character development’. The ‘Resolution’ is when the problem in the story boils over, forcing the characters to confront it, allowing all the elements of the story to come together and inevitably leading to the ending.
When you’re building your presentation, you’ll work first of all on the ‘Setup’ — focusing on how you have answered the ‘Who?’’ and ‘Why?’ questions; recognizing the issues that the audience have to overcome and focusing on the purpose of your talk. In ‘Building Bridges’, we got to learn just enough about the brothers, their proximity to one another and the problem. That part of the story creates a subtle desire for the brothers to solve their problem. In the ‘Setup’ section of your presentation you will acknowledge ‘Who?’ you are talking to, perhaps by referring to some of the challenges your audience faces, the issues they require to overcome. At this stage of the presentation, you’ll also share the purpose of your presentation (your ‘Why?’) in a way that compellingly shows that you can enable them to solve some of these issues and how life will feel with that solution in place.
Then you move to the second stage, described as ‘Conflict’ in the narrative structure. In ‘Bridge Building’ we saw the carpenter being instructed to do something that would heighten tensions, and then defy that instruction. In this part of your presentation, you’ll talk about the current state of the world in a little more detail, focusing on why it’s not working and what will happen if things don’t change, building an appetite in the audience members for the solution that you’re about to offer them. You will then go on to share the new way of working, or being, or the new information, with practical examples of how life will change. Acknowledge the challenges of a new way of working, stress the benefits once again. Help your listeners see that they are at a crossroads with a choice to make; either they continue along the same old road, doing the same old things and getting the same results – or they could switch to your way of doing things. Give them practical techniques for overcoming the challenges, and restate the benefits. This is where all the answers to the ‘What?’, ‘What?’, ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ questions come in to play.
The final stage is the ‘Resolution’ — the motivational refrain. This is where you get to restate the benefits and hail your call to action which is the first thing that they can do, will do, and are desperate to do when they get back to the office/factory/farm/sun lounger.
You’ll notice that I haven’t yet picked up the ‘How?’ (do you want them to feel) question. The ‘How?’ informs your tone; if you want them to feel inspired, engaged and empowered then talking to your audience members individually, in the first person and in a tone of voice that is imbued with passion is the only way to achieve it. But a word to the wise here: your listeners are savvy. If you don’t completely believe in your message then that will ‘leak’ out all over the stage. Your message requires you to be authentic because therein lies the power of it, even if you’re talking about income tax reforms.
And that brings me to the final point about building powerful content: what goes on ‘in your head’. There can only be one person on stage giving your presentation, so if your inner critic wants to join you, tell him/her/it/them to take a hike. Mental preparation follows from thoroughly engaging with the challenge of writing great content that I’ve set out above. Once you’ve done that, you might even begin to feel excited about sharing your message. If you procrastinate and leave things until ‘the wire’ then you’re storing up a shaky performance. By beginning preparations early, you are priming your mental antennae to pick up relevant information which pops up by happenstance; things that you just wouldn’t have been on your radar if you hadn’t been in ‘preparation mode’. By setting realistically optimistic expectations of how you’ll do, and visualising yourself serving the audience well, you’re using your mental resources to achieve peak performance, just like an athlete. There will always be ‘that guy’ in the front row of the audience who checks his smartphone constantly. If you master your mindset in preparation for the presentation, his lack of engagement won’t derail you. Instead you’ll focus on the person in the second row who is smiling encouragingly at everything you say.
Now, take that piece of paper and start building your three acts; your ‘Setup’, your ‘Conflict‘ (message) and your ‘Resolution’, by populating the acts with the answer to those first six questions.