Success. It’s what drives us, propels us, beckons to us. But do you ever feel like it’s just out of your grasp? When you stand before an audience, what can you do to get the results you want? Is there some secret formula for success?

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Curator of TED, Chris Anderson, outlined the three things he believes create a successful presentation. He says, “presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker.” This week on the Ethos3 blog, we are looking at each part of his equation. On Monday, we talked about the quality of the idea, discussing how both novelty and timeliness add to the worth of the presentation content. Today, we’ll be looking at the second part of his formula, the narrative.

The word narrative can be a bit fuzzy. What does it mean exactly? Story? Personal lens? The structure? Let’s zoom in on this fuzzy term and bring it into clearer focus.

One of the best discussions I’ve come across on narrative comes from Book Oblivion. Here, Jessica S. Manuel breaks down the subtle differences between narrative, story, and plot, giving us a picture of how they work together to help create meaning. She says, “The narrative is the architect’s design or how he intends others to interpret the building . . . The story is the material that the builders will use to erect the structure of a house . . . The plot is how the material is pieced together when building a house.” So if we follow this helpful metaphor, referring to the narrative as the design, then the narrative of a speech involves both the speaker’s perspective and plan.

The Perspective

Have you seen the work of artist M.C. Escher? His 1953 lithograph “Reality” might be helpful to us. Take a minute to study it.

Some thinkers argue that perspective is all we really have–that there is no reality apart from perspective. Whether you agree with that or not, it can help us to understand a speaker’s purpose more clearly. A speaker’s job is to help the audience see the world, the topic, the idea, or the company from a certain perspective. A speaker needs to understand that, like the figures in the art above, audience members come to a presentation with different perspectives. The speaker’s job is to get the audience on the same staircase, to get them to view the world through their unique perspective for just a little while. The speaker can accomplish this with the use of clear definitions, strong imagery, and appeals to emotion. Without a defined perspective, the presentation can quickly become confusing, boring, or hackneyed. And the audience leaves without understanding the speaker’s perspective. They leave without a new worldview.

The Plan

While at first glance the plan seems to be something that occurs only in the beginning stages of presentation development, Manuel makes an important distinction when she says, “The narrative is the architect’s design or how he intends others to interpret the building.” How he intends others to interpret the building. Although content organization and speech structure is part of the plan, it’s not all of it. The plan a speaker makes doesn’t just involve which point comes first or where a story might fit best. The narrative plan involves audience analysis. How will the audience use this information? What is most important to them? What flow will make the most sense to them? Long after the speaker has returned to her seat or the conference room lights are turned off, how will the narrative of the speech continue? A speaker must use the narrative to carry the ideas of the speech beyond the speech act itself by planning for how the speech will serve the audience in the long run.

When you develop a presentation with a unique and clear narrative, success is within your reach. On Friday, we’ll dissect the last part of Anderson’s formula, the passion of the speaker.

Ready to work on your narrative? At Ethos3, we’d love to help you develop a strong perspective and plan for your next big presentation. Contact us to get started.


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