5 Storytelling Lessons from Obama’s “We Do Big Things” Speech

We can learn a lot about how to use storytelling in presentations from President Obama’s “We Do Big Things” part of the State of the Union Address. What looks like just a great speaker doing his thing actually has a lot of masterful technique – and science – behind it.

Below is the three-minute segment. Pay attention to how Obama engages the audience completely in the first two minutes, then transports them into the present so they can imagine an equally big future.

There are five storytelling principles Obama executes masterfully, which you can consider the next time you prepare an important presentation.

  1. Introduces a hero (0:16-0:26). Every story needs a hero; someone the audience can identify with. Obama not only introduces Brandon Fisher by name, but the video captures him sitting humbly in the audience. Obama elaborates that he owns a small drilling equipment business in Berlin, Pennsylvania. Why is the city important? Because it’s a humble city from a humble state. Surely many in the audience consider themselves ordinary people and can relate to this ordinary business owner, who will soon prove to be extraordinary.
  2. Introduces conflict (0:28-0:48). Obama introduces the Chilean miners with the troubling statement “and no-one knew how to save them.” The situation seems dire, doesn’t it? Brandon is an unlikely hero, and his plan is even known as “Plan B”, which makes the challenge even more daunting. Increasing the odds against the hero is a great technique to capture your audience’s interest.
  3. Uses pictures…sparingly (0:43-1:58). President Obama shows two pictures during his description of the successful rescue: a picture of the drill designed by Fisher’s company, and a picture of the drill in action in the barren Chilean desert. Why those two pictures? Because it helps the audience visualize what the drill looked like, something they otherwise would have had no mental image of. The second picture drops them right into the middle of the story, as if they were actually there as part of the rescue team. Both of these techniques help the audience visualize what’s going on and deepen something called the “storylistening trance” (explained next).
  4. Uses picture words, and (sparingly) actual pictures (0:16-1:58). A good storyteller engages an audience by helping them visualize the story, paying attention to their inner visions and ignoring distractions around them. This is called a “storylistening trance”, where people’s eyes get a faraway look, their breathing becomes shallow and seem to experience a semi-trance while their minds visualize being inside the story. Limited pictures help keep the audience’s attention on their own internal images (actually, the second picture was shown too long. It should have ended at 1:22 so the audience could direct their attention back to Obama’s storytelling and resume the storylistening trance.) 
  5. Uses analogy as a bridge (1:56-2:58). Obama uses the ending phrase of the story “we do big things” as a bridge to his final message – ordinary Americans can do big things. When we hear two stories that are analogous, we unconsciously transmit the features of one story onto the other. For instance, when you compare a first kiss with a sports car, research shows you automatically transmit the feelings of excitement and newness of a first kiss onto the car. By telling the story of an ordinary American who did big things, the audience can naturally transfer those feelings and thoughts onto themselves.

It’s especially impressive that Obama packed all this efficiently into under three minutes. An amazing feat of technique and science by an engaging speaker. And 5 great lessons for anyone who wants to use storytelling in their own presentations to communicate more clearly, convincingly and memorably.

You may want to check out two slide makeovers; one for the Republicans and one for the Democrats.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

9 Tips for Handling Tough Questions During that Exec Presentation

You have an upcoming executive presentation. People in the room will develop opinions about you and your ideas based on your PowerPoint slides, which you have carefully prepared, and your presentation skills, which you have refined over the years . They will also judge you by how you answer questions, which is more difficult to prepare for and can hurt your credibility if handled poorly, or enhance it if handled well.

Some people fear questions during their presentation. But questions should not be feared; they should be anticipated, embraced and encouraged. Questions usually mean the audience is interested. When a presentation ends and the speaker asks “any questions”, flat silence is a sure sign the audience lost interest long ago.

So, here are 9 tips for handling tough questions to enhance your credibility:

1. Ask to hold questions until the end if possible, rather than allowing questions to interrupt throughout your presentation. You want people to follow your argument in the order you’ve planned it and constant interruptions will break up the flow of your presentation and muddy the line of reasoning. Thorny debates can completely derail your presentation. Holding questions until the end is most appropriate if you’re presenting to a large group than in a meeting room with a few colleagues.

2. Within 5 minutes, invite questions from higher ranking executives. Say “have we captured your definition of success?” or “do you agree with the segmentation strategy?”. Execs are impatient and see the weaknesses in your presentation early and are chomping at the bit to ask questions. It makes you look in control of the meeting if you invite those questions yourself rather than having the exec interrupt you.

3. When answering a question, use it as a chance to repeat your main argument. For instance, if your argument includes “students are our next growth opportunity” and someone asks ‘in which countries was the research conducted?” don’t answer “US, UK and Japan”. Instead, say “US, UK and Japan because they have significant student populations where the growth opportunity is the greatest.” Constantly repeating your main message makes it stick in the audience’s mind.

4. Do not flatter the questioner by saying “great question!” You will set up an adversarial atmosphere where others in the room feel their questions were not great. If their boss is also in the room they will try to save face or otherwise jockey for position by trying to ask even better questions. Instead, say things like “I’m glad you asked that” or “that goes back to my main point about…” but don’t use words that grade their questions.

5. Reverse the question to find out how to sell your ideas. For instance, if the exec asks how you plan to reach the student audience you can either answer them directly, or reverse the question and say “What are your thoughts on how we should reach them?”. Sales people use this trick. When a customer asks “what color does it come in?” a smart sales person can learn what is important to the customer, and how to close the sale, by reversing the question: “what color did you want?”.

6. Never try to embarrass the questioner. No matter how tempting it is; no matter how big a target they give you by asking a foolish question, avoid a hurtful answer. They will take their resentment out by withdrawing their support or actively discrediting you behind your back and sabotaging your idea. Even answering someone’s question with “we already covered that” can bruise the ego. Always treat each question with exquisite respect or you will make an enemy and make the job of selling your idea harder.

7. Defend the idea, not yourself. There are some people who will ask questions to try to discredit you and replace your idea with their own. They may even try to attack you personally or make snide comments like “that’s the dumbest idea I ever heard.” Don’t defend yourself personally. Instead, always focus on defending your idea. By consistently ignoring the personal jibes and always steering your answers back to your idea, you earn the sympathy of the rest of your audience. Entering into a discussion about your credentials and experience and personal virtues makes people less sympathetic toward you.

8. Raise hot objections proactively. If you know some of the attendees are opposed to your ideas and are likely to raise questions to try to discredit you, raise the objection yourself. Say, “John, I know you may not agree with the new price list. I know your belief is that we are losing too many customers, but the pricing team’s feeling is that we are capturing the most profitable customers.” By stating the objection yourself, you present it in an objective way and avoid John’s emotional phrasing that could bias the rest of the group against you. You also increase your chances of winning John over later because you acknowledged and showed respect for his concerns.

9. Pause a full 10 seconds after you ask “Are there any other questions?” at the end of the meeting.  This seems like a long time, but leave that pregnant pause to hang in the air so people know you are serious and want someone to fill it. Don’t ask the question and then give up after three seconds. Even after you ask for any last questions, they may stall. Leave a long enough pause and any questions that surface are clearly still burning in someone’s heart.

Handling questions well can help to enhance your credibility and is critical to a successful business presentation. For other suggestions about handling questions, check out Moving Mountains by Henry Boettinger and In the Line of Fire by Jerry Weissman.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

9 Tips to Nail Your Next Exec Presentation

Remember the last time you presented to an executive? How did it go? Did you get what you wanted? Did the exec? Did you nail it or just stumble through? When the meeting ended, did the exec think more highly of you, or less?

Presenting to executives is different than presenting to your colleagues. Executives are more impatient, they feel more pressure but less control to deliver results, they are always on the lookout for people they can trust with more responsibility. You are more likely to get your idea approved, and leave a favorable impression, if you approach an executive presentation differently than a peer presentation.

So, before you go into your next executive presentation, consider these nine tips inspired in part by the book The Simplicity Survival Handbook:

1. Organize your content to tell a story that addresses the exec’s concerns, which are usually about two things: 1) are things going according to plan, and 2) how do I minimize my own personal risk. Executive presentations are about helping the exec feel confident things are under control, or can be under control if your plan is approved.

2. Assume you’ll present for 1/3 the allotted time and the exec will talk/ask questions the other 2/3 of the time.

3. Make your main point in the first five minutes, before the presentation can get derailed by questions and pet side topics. Presentations can seem unfocused when they lead with data and don’t get to the conclusion until the end. Peers may tolerate this, but executives will get impatient and take control  if the presentation lacks focus.

4. Use the words and phrases the exec uses. Execs feel confident in people who “get” their vision. Using their words shows you are in tune with their vision and onboard to help them be successful. Even if you don’t agree with the vision, using their pet words will build trust necessary to start suggesting modifications to the vision.

5. Don’t be intimidated. It’s natural to feel nervous presenting but those who sell to executives, or work closely with executives, say the secret is to treat them as a person, not a title. How do you do that? First, remember that no matter how much the exec knows, you know more about your specific topic area and you were hired because you are qualified to be the expert. Second, don’t be afraid OF executives; be afraid FOR them. Execs are under a lot of pressure to deliver, so focus on what is scaring them and how you can relieve those worries.

6. Socialize your presentation with the exec’s lieutenants ahead of time. Let them fine-tune the wording, order the slides, re-use existing slides they’ve created. You want the lieutenants’ fingerprints to be all over your PowerPoint slides. You want them on your side during the presentation, not poking holes in front of the exec.

7. Invite the exec’s questions within the first 5 minutes. Execs will interrupt early to ask questions, so invite questions proactively and it looks like you’re controlling the floor (eg. “Have I captured your idea of success correctly?”, “Would you prioritize the target countries differently?”,  etc)

8. Be very specific about what you’ve already done and what you need from the exec. Don’t come in expecting the exec to solve your problems.  Say “We need you to do a 30-minute presentation to the operations team about our three-year vision” and not “The operations team won’t support our requests for faster fulfillment. What should we do?”. Do 90% of the work and ask the exec for a few very specific things you need to get over the goal line.

9. Always come prepared to ask the exec a few questions. Most exec directives are filtered through the ranks, so you don’t get the exec’s wishes firsthand. This is your chance to hear the exec’s wishes in their own words. How do they see the competitive challenge? What’s their measure of success? You get the idea.

Nailing the executive presentation is always good for your career. Pick up a copy of The Simplicity Survival Handbook for more tips about approaching the executive presentation.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.