Why present? JFK said it all…

traffic lightsOn her excellent public-speaking blog, Dr Michelle Mazur published a post this week called The Most Overlooked Step in Creating Great Presentations. In it, she says you’re likely (if you’re like most people) to start preparing for a talk by making slides, whereas you’d be better served by first working out what type of talk you’ll give:

Do I want my audience to know something,
to do something immediately after my talk,
or to feel something?

I agree about how most speakers prepare, as I wrote here, but I disagree about there being 3 types of presentations:

  • Informative (Know something)
  • Emotive (Feel something)
  • Persuasive (Do something)

Let me explain why I disagree with that 3-part model.

To me, John F Kennedy beautifully summed up public speaking when
he said (as quoted by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate):

The ultimate purpose is almost certainly action

“The only reason to give a speech
is to change the world.”
John F Kennedy

That’s why, in any presentation, I believe the ultimate purpose is almost certainly action.

And by the way, the change you make can be small and involve just your world. As Seth Godin put it recently:

“Every presentation worth doing has just one purpose:
To make a change happen. … A presentation that doesn’t
seek to make change is a waste of time and energy.”
Seth Godin

Informative talks

Is there any point letting people know something unless they do something as a result? I believe there’s not.

Speakers tend to just present information, and assume the audience will know what to do

Sadly, most talks do end up being just informative (Know), when they should really be persuasive (Do). But that’s simply because most presenters fail to fully grasp the true purpose of their talk. So speakers tend to just present information, and assume the audience will know what to do with it. Big mistake!

The real danger with “Know” talks is twofold:

  • The speaker can’t tell how much of their wide knowledge to include.
  • The audience can’t tell what the point is!

On the other hand, speakers who try to get audiences to do something can better judge whether each prospective piece of content helps to either persuade or instruct the audience. And the audience typically knows what the point is because it’s all about them taking some concrete action.

Emotive talks

There’s no point getting people to feel something unless they act

Like with purely informative talks, the same is true of talks that focus on emotion. So there’s no point getting people to feel something unless they act as a result.

Why do TED talks often use emotion and other inspirational elements? I’d say it’s to get people to act, so that we change the status quo.

Emotion is really the best way to stir people out of inaction. As Kevin Daley (founder of Communispond Inc.) once said, in one of my all-time favourite quotes:

“Decisions are made on feelings about facts, not on facts themselves.”

So if you want someone (even a serious business leader) to decide to do something, emotion’s the key – backed up by solid facts to underpin your case.

Persuasive talks

Every effective talk is a persuasive talk Tweet this

To me, every effective talk is a persuasive talk – it gets you to do something.

Ineffective talks let you know something – or get you to feel something – without causing you to do anything as a result.

The vast majority of biz presentations are ineffective

I’d say the vast majority of business presentations are ineffective. That’s because they’re full of information but they have no clear call-to-action. So the audience is unclear what to do with all the words, numbers and diagrams.

At the other end of the spectrum are poorly-planned motivational speeches. Those make you feel all fired up at the time, but they’re typically devoid of hard facts, and afterwards you realise, again, that there was no clear call-to-action. So like most business presentations, poor motivational speeches are ineffective.

What’s the solution then?

Rather than dividing talks into informative, emotive, and persuasive types, to me it’s more useful to treat each piece of content as having 2 dimensions: informative and emotive. Plotted on the chart below are four common types of content: emotive informative dimensions

For instance, a photo of a child in distress is highly emotive but not informative. In contrast, raw data in a table or spreadsheet is highly informative but not emotive. An effective, persuasive talk uses content from diverse points on both the informative and emotive dimensions.

So don’t content yourself with just informing people, like most business presenters do. And don’t be like a bad motivational speaker either – emotive but equally ineffective. Instead, get people to do something – and you and your talk will tangibly change the world!

Over to you

  • What’s your take on dividing talks into informative, emotive, or persuasive?
  • Where would you plot different content types on the emotive/informative chart?
  • I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.


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26 thoughts on “Why present? JFK said it all…

  1. Hi Craig – absolutely agree with you that there are 2 parts to every presentation. When I am mentoring my clients I use our Trischel formula EBC = Ic + Ec. Effective business communication = Intellectual Content and Emotional Connection. They don’t have to be in balance however there needs to be elements of both to be an effective presentation. Whilst I use the term business communication it equally applies to presentations. So I think we are very much on the same wavelength


  2. Hi Craig, I’ll spare you the compliments, as my “consistent flattery” might put you to sleep :-p.

    I wonder whether the insistence on “informative” is related to the fear of ambitious goals. Often I’d ask: “what do you want them to DO?” only to get a quick “Oh no. No no, I just want them to be aware of this…”

    I suppose even “make them go find out more” or “make them tell friends about this” would constitute better purposes than “make them aware”…


    • “Make them tell friends about this” – yes, what a fantastic goal for any talk!

      Maybe politeness holds presenters back – they don’t want to be seen as “bossy”. Yet the implication of making their audience aware is that they want people to act, and if people don’t act, then the presenter has failed – and has wasted everyone’s time.

      (P.S. My own sheepish admission – to balance yours (in these comments) – is that I’ve moved on to writing other blog content and still haven’t finished writing the last 2 posts in the “FiRST framework” series.)


      • One of the great things about commenting in somebody’s stream is you get reminded when others comment on an amazing post. This is one of them, Craig.

        I just re-read my previous comment below … My goodness, that feels like a lifetime ago, when I was just starting my serious public speaking journey. I’m still on the journey – I hope I always feel that way – but now I’m just about to embark on a new journey into speech coaching. And it is in that vein that I’m glad I saw this again.

        I feel more than ever – what’s the point of them learning something if they don’t do something… and even to learn they have to actively (not passively) receive the information, which requires an act of the will.

        I like Craig Valentine’s modification of the old advice: “tell a story and SELL a point.” I realize selling the point is probably my weakest area in speaking… and I will remedy that.


          • Somehow I missed that one. I say “somehow” because I pretty much live on every word that drops from Craig’s mouth. 🙂 I was actually familiar with nearly every one of one of those phrases, as I have nearly all his learning materials, but having this list is nice. I note you got in a few of your own: well done! I especially like your “simple is hard.” This connects with a principle we use in my “day job” of software development: “it’s easy to make a system that’s hard to use, but hard to make a system that’s easy to use.”


  3. I hope this isn’t getting monotonous, but this is excellent! In my work (software architect), most presentations are “informational,” but I’ve noticed before as a result they usually are not very effective. People learn a lot about some new software or best practice, but unless they understand why it’s important, why should they pay attention?

    I’m sorry to admit that for most of my working life, people would have come away NOT caring. However, given this focus, it could have been different. Thankfully, you can teach old dogs new tricks, thanks to great blogs like yours and Alex Rister’s (and Alex has even coached me personally, on her own time!). Thank you very much!


  4. This is a terrific article because it is an illustration of your main point…it inspires me to think differently. As a speech coach who also presents a keynote about taking action, this point about the ultimate purpose of a speech resonates with me. If you’re not getting your audience to change the way they think, feel, or act, and then DO SOMETHING about that new way of thinking, you haven’t served them well. Thanks for helping me think differently about this key speaking concept.


  5. Pingback: What a Presentation Must Do Video 3: Create Action | CARL KWAN

  6. Action is where it’s at! If we can’t help people move to action, then a presentation might be fun, “motivational” (although I believe motivation is an inside-out job:), informative, but if we don’t add the additional piece of “how to take action”, it will remain like many dusty reports on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. Read but never gone back to. Read but never taken action upon. Nice to see you over on my blog and meet you here. Hope you’ll drop by often: the welcome mat’s always out. Cheers! Kaarina


  7. Pingback: Presentation Quick Tip #10 – Where to Stand When Giving a Presentation | CARL KWAN

  8. Fantastic! Yes, you’re right that getting people to do something is the ultimate key. It doesn’t have to be big, world-changing action. It just needs to be a first step.

    I tell clients to outline the steps the audience should take, instead of just to go and do it. The presenter could also directly lead the audience so no one has to feel obligated to be first. It’s easier to follow than lead, right? 🙂


  9. What a great blog, nicely presented and easy to read…there’s some excellent resources in here for presenting. I agree with you that every presentation is a persuasive talk. In my role I’m often required to present on some fairly dry legal topics and the danger is in simply handing over the information. The challenge is to present the content in a meaningful way (no legal mumbo-jumbo thanks) and persuade the participant of its relevance and usability to them.


  10. Craig, I think your Emotive/Informative table is good. Though I’d suggest to add “Infographic” to it (although one doesn’t always fit on a slide…). For some creative ideas about drawing charts, have a look at this “periodic table of visualization methods” (http://www.visual-literacy.org/periodic_table/periodic_table.html) that I also mentioned in my “Living by numbers” post (http://b2bstorytelling.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/living-by-numbers/)


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