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How the Best Speakers Tell Analog Stories in a Digital World


January 31, 2014

I truly enjoy my morning walk to the PRSA offices. I take in the sights and sounds of New York City:  flower vendors, the smell of fresh coffee from shiny carts, blaring taxi horns.

Lately though, no matter how I bob and weave on the sidewalk, I’ve noticed more people bumping into me because they’ve got their heads down, smitten by their devices.

For most of us, our fixation isn’t about the technology itself, but what it allows us to do:  Connect with others and better share our lives and stories, which of course is what PR professionals do every day. Ours is a profession of storytellers.

But to tell truly great stories, we need to be great writers — something that is elusive and requires practice, discipline, and constant work and attention.

At PRSA, we’re here to provide tools and reminders that good writing depends on fundamentals that don’t change. Regardless of what technology is in fashion, our annual Tactics writing issue is consistently our most popular of the year.

And while writing fundamentals remain constant, it is also true that we need to adapt how we are writing to reflect the channels we use today. Obviously, a tweet can’t tell a story in the same way as a 700-word blog post, or a 700 page e-book.

Storytelling is evolving

Although we don’t think about it as being driven by technology, one of the “communication channels” that is evolving is that of the personal presentation.

Not too long ago, it was common for presenters to omit their personal views, stick closely to the message and present without audiovisual support.  Like legendary “Dragnet” Sgt. Joe Friday, the style was “Just the facts.”

The next step was PowerPoint — although after the novelty wore off, many of us found ourselves suffering through endless presentations with slides consisting of dense text blocks read word-for-word by the speaker. This dark plague became known as “Death by PowerPoint.”

Here at PRSA, we get to see many types of presentations and styles (you can read more about that here). Whether we are auditioning speakers for PRSA’s professional development program or a webinar on a topic of interest, we don’t just look for content — we look to see how speakers tell their stories. And lately, we’ve been noticing a change.

The best speakers present in a direct and genuine way that is miles away from that “Death by PowerPoint” approach.

First, great speakers craft their stories to be both specific and general. They deliver a particular message “on topic” but also leave room for audience members to interpret the lesson and apply it to their personal situation.

Second, great speakers tell the story themselves — they don’t rely on the technology.  We’re seeing more speakers use PowerPoint just to project simple images, pictures or cartoons to drive home an overall point.

Third, great speakers put themselves in the story.  They are willing to share their foibles, triumphs and frustrations. Audiences want speakers to show their humanity.

Finally, the best speakers have a sense of humor.  This is especially difficult, as humor often relates to personal values or can be misunderstood, crude or mean. Talented speakers can navigate those shoals and make a tasteful joke or two to show that they don’t take themselves, or their topic, too seriously.

So what does this have to do with writing?

The fundamentals of good writing don’t change, but channels matter and evolve — even non-technical channels.  As PR professionals, whether we’re writing for someone else or for our own presentation, we need to think about the specific channel that we’re using.

When crafting material to deliver through a personal presentation, keep in mind that the “last mile” that the story has to travel is more challenging than ever before.  Even if your (likely) sleep-deprived audience members don’t nod off, they still have the option to switch on their technology — and switch you off.

 

William (Bill) M. Murray, CAE, is the chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
Email: william.murray at prsa.org



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