Making it Stick: Be Concrete

This is Part 4 of a seven-part series on making speeches and presentations memorable.  It is based on the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

Today I want to talk to you about planned initiatives to streamline functionalities in inter-departmental communications, thereby capitalizing on synergies and maximizing shareholder value.

Wait a minute. Stop. What?!?!?

Have you ever listened to people who talked this way? Did you understand their message? If so, more power to you, because it is incomprehensible babble to me. The words are so amorphous, so vague, that listening to them is akin to trying to grab a cloud.

And yet, this kind of talk peppers the language and PowerPoint slides of thousands of presentations every day.  Is it any wonder that our eyes glaze over and the message (assuming there is one) fails to stick?  The words are just too mushy.  And that is the opposite of how they should be: concrete.

Concrete blocks

Concreteness is the third characteristic of sticky speeches.

In Made to Stick, the Heaths give a witty example of what John Kennedy might have said, had he spoken like so many business executives today, about his dream of sending a man to the moon:

Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centred innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.

Now read what Kennedy actually said:

Our mission is to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

Kennedy’s message was concrete; people knew what he was talking about.  So, how can we make our messages concrete?

First, talk like a normal person.  As a lawyer, I often heard things in court such as “I observed the suspect exit the vehicle and proceed on foot to the premises.”  Why not, “I saw the suspect get out of the car and run to the house.”?  Most of us (thankfully) have little to do with the legal profession on a daily basis and so we are not that bad.  But we are far from perfect.  Why do we “make an application” when we can just “apply”?  Why do we seek to “come to an agreement” when we can “agree”?

Simplify your language.  This is not to say that you cannot or should not spice it up now and then – by all means, do so – but it would be best to recall the words of Ernest Hemingway in response to comments from William Faulkner that Hemingway’s language was too pedestrian:

“Poor Faulkner.  Does he really think big emotions come from big words?  He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.  I know them all right.  But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Second, use real examples, not abstract ones.  If you are trying to convince a company to adopt a certain policy, provide examples of other companies that have done the same and the results that they achieved.  Use metaphors and adjectives to describe situations and things in an effort to make your words more vivid.  For an effective example of how to be concrete using descriptive language, this story that the Heaths tell about the American beer Schlitz is good (even if everyone knows that Canadian beer is superior).

Third, use real things to drive home your points: props; pictures; videos; etc.  Anything to make your words more tangible, more concrete.

The Heaths correctly note that our memory works in different ways depending on what it is we are trying to remember – a song, a face, a childhood experience, a technical concept.  To make our ideas concrete, we have to make them like Velco; we need to put enough hooks into our audience’s mental hoops so that our messages stick.

Let’s see concreteness in action.  In a moment, you will meet Daniel Kraft, a physician working in the field of stem cell research.  He gave a talk at a TED Conference about a device that he invented that allows him to harvest bone marrow much more efficiently and painlessly than has been done in the past.

In the time allotted to him, Kraft had to (1) explain what bone marrow is; (2) explain how it is used; (3) explain how it is extracted; (4) explain how his device can do the job better; and (5) explain how this is relevant to us.  And to cover this complex subject, he had less than four minutes!

Watch the video and then read on for the analysis.

Pretty impressive.  Both the subject matter and the way in which Kraft was able to convey so much information, so memorably, in such a condensed period of time.  Let’s break the speech down a bit and look at the different ways in which Kraft was concrete.

  • At 0:35 he holds up a bag of bone marrow so that we can see what we are talking about.
  • At 0:41 he shows a slide of a transfusion.
  • From 0:50 to 1:05 he sets the scene in an operating room where he and his team performed an operation.
  • At 1:07 he shows a “small” needle that he used to get the marrow.
  • At 1:15 he demonstrates the action of punching the needle into the bone, noting, at 1:30, that he had to do this about 200 times.
  • He holds up the skeleton part for effect at 1:37.
  • At 1:50 he shows his new device.
  • From 1:55 to 3:01 he shows an animated video of how the device works, a slide that demonstrates that the device yields more stem cells than the traditional method, and a video of the device being used on a real patient.
  • At 3:02 he asks the key question for any speaker: Why should the audience care?  He then explains why.
  • At 3:35 he once again shows his new device.
  • At 3:52 he ends with a picture of 150+ people who are alive thanks to bone marrow transplants – a very concrete way to stress the importance of his work.

And throughout the talk, Kraft uses simple words wherever possible to make his message more accessible to his audience.  All in four minutes.  Well and truly a great example of concreteness under pressure.

For the next post in the series, please click here.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International