Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Power Line

Many scientific presentations fail because the presenter lacks the energy and enthusiasm to connect with the audience. In this post I offer some advice on what to do whether you want to present or not to fix your key point in the audience's mind. The method is called Power Line Power Button.

One of the reasons why so many scientific presentations suck is that the presenter fails to connect with the audience. Geology professor Jay H. Lehr knows this. In 1985 he wrote a 4 page article called Let There Be Stoning (click here to download it as a pdf file) describing the landscape of scientific presentations. This article ought to be a compulsory reading for all college students (and professors). Yes, your guest is right; I strongly encourage you to read it.


Some scientific talks will be inherently bad because the presenter has no passion for that topic he or she must present. In an ideal world these people shouldn't be allowed to present that topic. If you find yourself in that place, I advise you to either talk to your professor, adviser or boss, and tell him it would be a win-win situation if you talk about something else that you feel passionate about, or ask if it would be  possible to find somebody else to do give that talk. But if this is not possible, then make yourself and the audience a favor and keep your presentation very short. Reduce the number of evidence and data to the acceptable minimum and keep the number of key ideas or findings below three.

On the contrary, if you are enthusiastic about your topic, follow the same advice, only stretch it just a nudge. That is, keep your talk short. If you hit the right note people would like to talk you after the presentation. There you can further explain and show more data. Provide the right amount of data and evidence during your presentation  to get the audience interest in you. And to keep that interest alive never provide more than three key points or finding. You would be lucky if your audience remembers one of them.

A way of how to engrave the most important key point is given by the American presidential speechwriter James C. Humes in his book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln.  Humes' engraving method is a double punch one. He calls them Power Line and Power Button.  The Power Line is almost self-explanatory. While preparing your talk prepare one sentence (a line) that sums up your most important key point. To help coin that Power Line Humes  explains the C-R-E-A-M method. C-R-E-A-M stands for Contrast - Rhyme - Echo - Alliteration - Metaphor.  Let me describe them briefly.

Contrast is about pairing antonyms in your Power Line to create tension. Use one word in the first part of your line, and resolve in the second part using the other one. Here is an example for Humes' book.
There is only one answer to defeat and that is victory.
                                                               - W. Churchill
Rhyme is an old trick of storytelling. The best way to explain this is through an example.
There is no hope for those who use dope.
                                          - Jesse Jackson
Echo is the repetition of a word or a phrase. There are three possibilities, repeat a word in the second phrase that you used in the first, repeat the noun and repeat the verb.
Ask not what your country can do for you,
but rather what you can do for your country.
                                              - J. F. Kennedy
Alliterratation is the repetition of  consonant sound on two of more neighboring words.
That we shall pay any price, bear any burden...
                                                   - J. F. Kennedy
Metaphor is meant to leave the audience with a vivid image of the message you are trying to get across. In the context of war this example does exactly that.
A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.
                              - General George Patton
That's the C-R-E-A-M method to help you coin that Power Line. In the next post I'll address the Power Button to engrave that Power Line in the audience's mind

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