How to TED Talk your next pitch: the engineering beneath the magician’s hat

A while ago, a former colleague of mine named Jess got a new gig as a consultant to help the CTO of an 8-billion-dollar company build his 5-year IT strategic plan.

Shortly after, she emailed me to see if we could meet and chat. The title of her note said, “Can you please share some magic?” She remembered from our time together at the same consulting firm that helping executives “tell their story” is exactly my cup of tea, and she wanted to pick my brain about her project. I suggested we go have coffee.

“This is high-stakes,” Jess said, as we sat down at a table of my favorite French cafe in downtown Seattle. “We want to convince the board to support a new idea and that means a big increase in the technology budget. We also need to align and motivate everyone about it. We know the tech stuff, but we only have one chance to hit them with something compelling at a town hall meeting in a few weeks. And frankly, I am starting to sweat a bit about this because I don’t feel like we have our story straight.”

“Look, Jess” I said, “a great high-stakes presentation is just like a magic show. The “magic” result you see is reliant on good old engineering and a lot of prep work. Referring to her email, I added, “Sorry to disappoint, but there is no magic.”

I could tell by Jess’ look that this metaphor made her engineer left-brain tick, so I grabbed my notepad end went on to draw four of my favorite story-engineering principles, so she could see what’s beneath the “magician’s” hat.

Just like Jess, if you have a high-stakes presentation coming up, like a TED Talk-style keynote, a chance to show thought leadership, a pitch to your leadership team, a board presentation, or your yearly team strategy meeting, and you want to tell a persuasive story, focus on structure first. Here is how.

1. Get rigorous with your purpose

How can you achieve a strategic goal if you don’t know what it is? Before anyone says you “don’t have your story straight”, do yourself a favor and define the purpose for your pitch. Then you’ll have something to measure it against and you’ll know if it’s straight or not.

For example, the purpose of your story could be to “move people from believing that service is the only way the company can make money to understanding that there is a future in delivering software as a revenue stream.” A bad example is something like, “we just want to inform”.

My advice:
  • Answer these questions – What business outcome are you hoping for? What effect are you hoping to have on your audience? What do you want people to DO with the information you are providing?
  • Challenge your team. When I work with clients through several weeks of story development, I like to gently quiz them along the way, to check that everybody is still aligned.
  • Put it down in writing, in one sentence and in no more than 140 characters.
  • Print it and have it always handy or posted on your wall.
  • Test your whole pitch against it. Challenge every single piece of content against it.
How you know you’ve done it? Tell your pitch to somebody and ask them what it makes them want to do (your call to action). If they can tell you at once, you’re good.

2. Tell them their own story first

We all want to jump right in and talk about ourselves, our stuff, and our selling points. In part, because we’re passionate about what we’re pitching, but also because we think that’s the way to convince people.

That is a mistake.

We live in a post-advertising age, where nobody wants to be “sold” anymore, nobody wants to be interrupted. Instead, we want to be compelled. That’s what stories do and that’s what you’ll often see in TED Talks.

My advice:
  • You’re not the star of the show. Your audience is. Keep this in mind.
  • Be a mirror when talking to people and make it clear that you understand their life and their need before you introduce your idea.
  • Run an exercise called an empathy map with senior executive teams. It is a collaborative tool that will help your gain deeper insight into your customers.
  • Stretch your soft skills, be an active listener, and demonstrate empathy. It will show a sincere desire to better understand what the other side would possibly understand.
  • Proactively answer the most frequently asked questions of your audience in your presentation.
How do you know you’ve done this? Here is a tip I got from nonfiction writer William Zinsser. During your pitch, count how many times you say “you” rather than “I” or “we”. Another solid technique is to check your presentation and make sure you’re not talking about yourself until at least a third to half of the way in, depending on the situation.

3. Use a clear storyline.

Great pitches use a powerful storyline. When Jess talked about her “story”, she is really just talking about a sequence of events or a narrative. That’s how we understand “story” in business. But as storyteller Robert McKee reminds us, a story has tension and should spark our imagination. So, strive for that.

My advice:
  • Use a classic story arc as a template. Here are some examples:
    • Situation → complication → resolution.
    • “Here is the situation” → “There is a change approaching” → “So we need a new direction: here is our vision” → “to get there, here is a typical solution” → “And now a better solution” → “If we do this, we will gain XYZ”.
    • “I saw the change first hand” → “There are millions like me”→ “So we built a solution”→ “Here is how the product works”
  • Adapt it to your specific situation. For a startup, it might sound a bit like this: “I started a video game company (situation), but as it grew collaboration became really hard (complication), so we built an app that helps teams collaborate and we started selling it to other startups. A new product was born (resolution). This is how the cloud-based collaboration tool Slack originated.
  • Build tension, through status quo, inciting incidents, imbalance and surprise. That’s your storyline.
How do you know if you’ve done it?

As you are telling your pitch, map the story on a large sheet of paper, using post-its and markers. Invite colleagues and friends to comment. If you have something that looks balanced, that flows, that tells a story, then you’re good. If you don’t, you need to keep working, or look closely at yourself to see if you really have a story to tell at all.

4. Talk about change and stakes, not problems

It’s tempting to try to make people care about your idea by telling them about the problems they have. The problem is that people have 99 problems already, and they don’t want another one. This is a burden especially for busy internal teams; I find that it tends to make them defensive and creates an emotional barrier between you and them.

Instead, talk about the inevitable (and impersonal) change that forces your organization or product to take a specific path. People work in new ways because if they don’t adapt, important things are at stake. If people aren’t spending energy debating whether they have a problem or not, they can more easily move onward to thinking about how to solve for the future.

For example, one of my clients was giving a keynote on the importance of innovation. He used the example of Sears vs. Amazon in the mid 90’s to show how a company can completely neglect a call in their industry – namely e-commerce. By doing so, he demonstrated to his viewers what they stood to lose if they resisted innovation in their own organization. As a result, people rallied around the value of innovation, instead of arguing about their lack of action.

My advice:
  • Research trends, competitors, and experts in your field.
  • Establish the “new laws” ruling your environment.
  • Look for the underlying cause of the problems you’re tempted to talk about. This will help identify or name the change.
  • Clearly expose what is at stake – the risk and rewards. Is it performance, a position on the market, people’s health, or simply the survival of humankind?
  • Make the change relatable to people. Global warming is not about polar bears anymore. Science communication has learned that talking about local impacts is more effective to trigger a change in behavior.
How you know you’ve done this?

Take a good hard look at yourself. If you’ve written something like, “our treatment of customer service requests is horrendous”, think about changing it to this: “Most of us know that our customers’ expectations have completely changed.”

Learn to engage by design, not by chance.

To be an inspiring leader, you need to know how to build better stories.

In the recent years, I’ve witnessed this:

We hear a lot about business storytelling, to the extent that it’s becoming a buzzword. The number of books that have been written on the subject could stock a hefty shelf in a bookstore, if such a thing as a bookstore still existed.

People want to ignite with their ideas. I would estimate that about eighty percent of my clients come to me with a TED Talk-style presentation in the back of their minds, whether they come right out and say so or not.

Being a good influencer, a persuader, is in everyone’s job description these days, whether it is explicitly spelled out in your list of duties-as-assigned or not. People expect their leaders to keep them engaged, excited, and motivated.

Like many things, a TED talk is a bit like an iceberg: you see the beautiful, effortless tip sticking out of the water, but what most of us don’t see is the effort and all the very intentional decisions put into their design.

So, get ready to test, rehearse, try things out, adjust, and think of the those techniques as a skeleton on which you need to hang the flesh of the story.

A golden pitch

I didn’t hear back from Jess for a couple months until she sent me a note that said this:

“We got our funding approved, and the team is jazzed about our new vision! Thanks for the tips, they made me look like King Midas when he turned everything he touched into gold.”

Yet another example of the power of a great pitch. Magic, or not.
When your Team Builds the Pitch Together: Alignment and the Power of Collaboration
Introducing the Graphic Facilitation Gallery: Key Takeaways from Influential Business Leaders