Recently, I felt privileged to be in an audience of thirty successful entrepreneurs, listening to top-notch advice from a Superstar Mentor. He shared startling statistics that only ten percent of people follow through on great advice, or could bring about change in instances that required adjusting habits.

Being the way I am, I immediately started looking around in the room to spot the other two candidates who were going to take this advice to heart. This was information that could set a company apart from its competition. With little extra effort and no financial investment, these were action steps any CEO or Founder should take to gain the competitive edge. And only three of us were potentially going to follow through with it!

I’m going to share this important tip with you now, because I don’t want you wondering about it throughout reading the rest of the article: The central thought is to spend at least fifty percent of your time, with committed focus to building yourself, your company of today and the company of tomorrow.*

Being in media, this powerful philosophy really inspired me to focus on exploring how one ensures the competitive edge with content, for a speaker, author or coach. Let’s face it, on a daily basis we bump into people who share ideas with us.  And often it comes with much obfuscation and encoding. There is so much noise. That’s why I started working to develop new formulas that could ensure effective knowledge sharing in talks.

The complexity around simplifying a key message is not for the faint-hearted. But my first port of call, whenever I face an obstacle, is usually to go back to the source material. That’s what writers do. We find the essence of ideas. The earliest notes on the structure of poetry and plays come from Master Thinker, Aristotle. Remarkably, he identified basic structure as three acts, called Complexity, The Knot and Unraveling. Writer, Syd Field, first refined the classic Hollywood three-act structure or Paradigm, for feature films. He labeled the three acts the Set-up, Confrontation and Resolution.

In this structure there are critical plot-points or “beats”, which he felt essential in creating a powerful hook and then taking audiences along on the journey of any movie.

Feature films or series have little chance of engaging with audiences if they can’t arrest their attention. Producers allocate large portions of budgets to develop scripts. Hollywood needs a bankable blueprint, before they will invest millions in any project. The risk is simply that big.

The same is true for speakers. You’re only as good as your last talk. Everyone is obsessed with stories that hammer home key learning points. Few bother to understand the emotive drivers that strike a perfect chord and keep audiences in. It’s more than trite zero-to-hero or  man-in-a-hole stories. Forget about traditional fish-out-of-water clichés. In writing we say: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!”

You have to get the emotion of the piece just right.

With the focus on emotional beats, the speaker should explore plotting the intended journey of a talk in simple concepts. I often use library cards or post-it notes, one for every idea. Each beat is a pearl of wisdom in a beautiful string of jewelry.

You can’t let one bit of information break too early. It will feel like that movie where you had no idea what was happening in the plot. Give away too much, too soon, and your audience will get bored. Remember the TV series where you’re always three steps ahead of the detective? The worst script is the type where information lands up in an endless repetitive exposition loop, which makes you wish YOU could just have taken the blue pill.

Audiences are smart. Sometimes we need to shake the urge to spell it all out for them!

That’s the real point I’d like to make as we “work the knot” of this piece. It’s a struggle to keep an audience’s attention. Always be respectful of their time. Set up the context in which you want to deliver the message. Focus on points that help drive that message.

Edit at least one third of it all away again, as you refine the beats. Then edit some more. Work to deliver the story with clarity and precision. Always keep in the back of your mind, to the honesty and truth of the central idea you’re trying to share.

And so we hurtle towards the unraveling, final act.

The fascinating world of storytelling in feature films and TV series can be of great value in helping us tailor powerful massages for talks and presentations. I’ve only just scraped the surface with some of the most important aspects here. One needs to pay attention to plot, a rising tension line, character and “B” and “C” storylines – to mention a few more.

Thank you for following this line of thinking through to the end with me. As one of the three in that room with the mentor, I hope that my own discovery has also made you curious about the structure of talks. I’ll be sure to keep sharing more.

And if you’re going to need to work on a presentation next, I trust that some of the ideas here could stand you in good stead to “excite your people out there in the dark”, as Norma Desmond wanted to do in Sunset Boulevard. Engage with them. Bring them along on a wonderful journey of discovery with your own talk.

Remember to keep working at it. By practicing these skills you can expect to dramatically improve your successes at reaching an audience with impact.

As Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do!”

– by Nico Steyn, 7 June, 2018


*I’d like to thank Jason Goldberg, from 10xEntrepreneurs, for the wonderful inspiration he imparted during his mind-altering workshop. I’m also grateful that Aristotle nailed those formulas, more than two thousand years ago. All we need to do is listen, interpret and pass the message on.

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