I recently wandered into the room while my girlfriend was watching an episode of Ken Burns' latest documentary series on Country Music. Since the episode was just starting, I decided to sit down and see what era and what stars were to be included.
There were the expected shots of old-timey trains and rural front porches. Peter Coyote's familiar and comfortable voice launched into the narration. And suddenly I found myself spellbound. I paused the remote and excitedly turned to my girlfriend.
"This is a master class on how to set up a presentation for an audience! I have to figure out how to write about this."
I can't include a clip, as there isn't a legal public video of it online. I'll have to make do with a bit of transcription from Dayton Duncan's brilliant script:
In the 1970s, defining country music would be debated as never before. But that argument would spark one of its most vibrant eras, making room for new voices and new attitudes.
Two women, from nearly opposite backgrounds, would lead the way. One would come into her own as a writer and singer of songs drawn from her impoverished childhood in the mountains of East Tennessee. The other, from the folk clubs of the East Coast, would become an unlikely convert to country music. And with her angelic voice, convert millions more.
Two musical outcasts would make their own rules about what is and what isn’t country music. One would have to leave Nashville to find his true voice in Texas. The other would upend the relationship between artists and their record labels in Music City.
A married couple, each possessing a remarkable voice, would create some of country music’s most enduring records, while seemingly living out their songs’ tragic lyrics.
And, as a new generation of artists came of age, two children of two music legends – one, the son of the Hillbilly Shakespeare; the other, the daughter of the Man in Black – would strike out on their own and prove as their fathers did, that country music, though grounded in tradition, has always been moving forward.
What is this little speech? It's the equivalent of an agenda slide. In a conventional business presentation, it would end up sounding like this:
Welcome. Today I'm going to be talking about country music stars in the 1970s. You can see from the bullet points on this slide that we'll start with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Then we'll look at Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. After that, I'll cover George Jones and Tammy Wynette. I'll finish up with Hank Williams, Jr. and Rosanne Cash.
So let's get started…
What tricks does Mr. Duncan use to create his compelling introduction and avoid agenda apathy?
The first two sentences are deceptively simple. Don't be fooled. Can you spot the techniques cleverly hidden in those lines?
- First, he establishes conflict. Conflict is inherently interesting and promises dramatic engagement for an audience. Words such as "debated" and "argument" are catnip for listeners. We subconsciously lean forward, waiting to hear the story and take a side.
- Second, he refuses to just restate the presentation title or topic. Instead, he opens with a premise. You know where you are headed… What you are expected to take away with you at the end. The rest of the two and a half hours is supporting evidence to support the speaker's position. In debate class, this is analogous to an opening statement: "Resolved, the 1970s was one of the most vibrant eras in introducing and diversifying country music performers."
Now Mr. Duncan moves on to the "bullet points" describing the major sections of his presentation. But instead of just listing a bunch of names, he provides a mini-teaser for a story you will hear in each segment.
In each setup, he compares and contrasts two performers. Conflict! Dramatic tension! Look at the terminology he uses to tease your interest… "an unlikely convert," "musical outcasts," "would upend the relationship," "living out their tragic lyrics," "strike out on their own."
Fans of the genre know exactly who he's talking about (helped by imagery of the celebrities shown with each paragraph). They are automatically engaged… "Oh, I know this one… It's Dolly Parton!" Neophytes are intrigued… "Ooh, that sounds fascinating. I want to hear that person's story!" It's so much more satisfying and engrossing than being spoon-fed a bulleted list of section titles.
The final sentence in the introduction closes out the "agenda" - seemingly just referencing the final segment on the younger stars. But actually, it's another sneaky piece of craftwork.
The final eleven words are:
… country music, though grounded in tradition, has always been moving forward.
Here, Mr. Duncan reestablishes the dynamic and contrasting theme of the episode, while promising a cohesive overall flow to the presentation. We will "move forward" together through these stories to arrive at the endpoint promised in the first paragraph… the 1970s introduced a vibrant era of new voices and new attitudes.
This kind of structuring does not just happen. It is the result of careful thought and laborious editing. You can use similar techniques in your presentations if you are willing to spend the time on crafting a compelling introduction.
- Let your audience know your premise rather than your topic
- Highlight dramatic tension
- Establish the progression you will use to escort the audience towards the promised conclusion
- Encourage them to take an active role in mentally defining the story elements that will be presented along the way
- Ditch the list format and try using a series of slides with a graphic for each story element you will introduce
Is this harder than just building a bullet list agenda slide and reading it to your audience? It sure is.
The results are worth it.