“Imagine you open a door to a white room. The room is completely empty except for a box of Crayola crayons which has been placed on the floor directly in the center of the room. You walk over to the box and pick it up. You open the cardboard lid, gaze over the perfectly sharpened tips, and pull out a single color. I’m about to uncover why you might have been drawn to that certain color over all the others.”
This powerful hypothetical example was the opening of a speech on how color is tied to mood and personality. And it held the audience captive.
Examples are so common in communication that it’s easy to forget the power they hold. So today we’ll look at a speaker’s tool that we might have taken for granted, the example. Let’s explore the three most common types of examples and how to use them in our presentations.
Brief examples can be covered in a few sentences or less. This is probably the most common form of examples, as it’s nearly impossible to teach something without the use of them. Here are three specific ways you might choose to use a brief example.
First, use an example to show reality by providing concrete evidence that illustrates the idea about which you are speaking. Second, use an example to clarify new or confusing material. In the classroom setting, a teacher normally provides a lesson and then works through a few examples to show that lesson in action. Most of us would have trouble learning without the use of specific examples which illustrate more abstract concepts. Third, use a brief example to highlight important information. Just like bold, italics, underlining, or font size works to show what is important in print information, examples give weight to certain points in oral presentation. When you use an example, the audience’s attention increases because they understand this is something they need to pay attention to.
Extended examples are expanded to run throughout a larger portion of the presentation. If your presentation covers a topic that might be foreign or difficult to understand for a majority of your audience, consider using an example that you revisit often throughout the duration of the speech. The example becomes familiar and takes on a safe feeling for them. You set out to talk about new things, but you keep coming back to something they trust, know, or understand.
For example, elementary teachers often use “the hamburger method” as a lesson structure when teaching young students about public speaking for the very first time. This extended example tells them to make an introduction (the top bun), then get to the most important stuff in the middle of the speech (the meat), and then to finish with a conclusion (the bottom bun). This takes something they are familiar with, a hamburger, and relates it to a new concept, speech preparation.
The example I shared at the beginning was a hypothetical one. The speaker made it up for the purpose of the speech. No one in the audience really thought this room existed somewhere, but it allowed us to imagine and to enter into the world the speaker wanted to create.
Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, James K.A. Smith, explores the power of imagination in his book You Are What You Love, saying, “The best art, Aristotle says, makes plausible what might otherwise seem impossible. It is a matter of mimetic persuasion: convincing us that this could be.” Sometimes you’ll need to transport your audience with use of a hypothetical “what if.” This can set off a journey which is entertaining or open a door which is otherwise closed, allowing you and your audience nearly infinite possibilities for how to approach a topic.
The 19th century American preacher William Ellery Channing said, “Precept is instruction written in the sand. The tide flows over it, and the record is lost. Example is graven on the rock, and the lesson is not soon lost.” He was right. Any lesson that is backed with an effective example sinks in and has staying power. Try one or more of these three types in your next presentation. You might find that when you use more examples, you increase both the interest and understanding levels of your audience.
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