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The Missing Link in Speeches and Presentations: Why Show Beats Tell, Every Time

December 15, 2016



When I was a young associate in a law firm, I walked past a senior partner’s office and overheard him dictating a letter. In a loud, confident voice he started “[Dear so and so], I was amazed and shocked…” He then paused for a moment. After a few seconds, he rewound the tape and re-recorded “I was shocked and amazed…” Pleased with the change, he continued.


Why do I tell this story? All too often we agonize to find the perfect words – usually incorporating overused adjectives or resorting to hyperbole - to convey emotion. The reality though is people are spoken to and at all day long. The competition for registering an idea or comment with their busy brains is fierce. So why make it harder on them by burying the one gem you’d like to impart?


Here’s what you can do. In speeches and presentations, consider using visual imagery and storytelling over telling to ingrain key points with your audience. And by storytelling I am referring - in the broader sense - to a “show, don’t tell” approach to descriptive expression. It is one of the most under-utilized, yet most penetrating and memorable, vehicles for delivering your message. Storytelling, as someone once said, is “data with a soul.”


Let me take my own advice here, and provide a few illustrations:


1. Pitch by a real estate agent


Recently, I was watching a show featuring realtors selling high-end residences in Los Angeles. In one scene, a realtor pulled out all the stops for a couple that was demonstrating interest in buying one of his listed homes, but just weren’t quite ready to commit.  


He tried everything, describing in detail: how the house and price stacked up against comparable homes; the value of upgrades; and the desirability of the neighborhood and schools. All to no avail. With little left to sell, he instead asked two brief questions: 


Is this the house that you see your family living in?


If so, how would you feel if you lost the property?


With that, he got their attention.


2. Business presentation to an executive


I was leading an executive review once on a project I had initiated in Southern China to build a closer connection to an emerging center of technology. I had 20 minutes and too much to choose from to discuss. I could have used all my time providing a historical overview of the locale. Shenzhen was a small farming town 20 years ago. Since that time, it had developed into a metropolis of manufacturing, organized by district. It has a semiconductor district, a television district, an auto district and many others, and now boasted a population of over 12 million, up from maybe 30,000 just a few decades earlier.


We had loads of data and forecasts and revenue projections. But after pulling together a briefing deck, heavy on analytics, I decided on a different path. This was a unique market. Racing to the business plan, I feared, would obscure what truly made it so.


I prepared three slides, made up mostly of photos I had taken on my last trip. The title slide contained nothing but a picture of the sign that welcomes you to Shenzhen International Airport. Out of all the information I could have drawn from to set the context, the quote on the sign did the best job of capturing the essence of the city. It read:


       “Time is Money, Efficiency is Life.”


The story behind this quote was told through the pictures I then shared of the marketplace of componentry that ran throughout the city, where manufacturers of nearly anything and everything would come to source their parts. It was an atmosphere not unlike that experienced at a Saturday-morning Turkish bazaar; except the finished products from this marketplace ended up as 360-degree cameras, drones, and 4K OLED TVs stocked for sale at Apple Stores, Costco and Walmart.


Little more needed to be said.


3. Top TED talk


In one of the most watched TED talks ever, civil rights lawyer and advocate Bryan Stevenson told the story of how he came to discover his special purpose in life. He started by sharing a private moment he had with his grandmother when he was just a child. He recounted that his grandmother explained how greatness awaited him, but that he had to live by three uncompromising rules: (1) always love your mom (her daughter), (2) always do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, and (3) never drink alcohol.        


Years later, his older brother was teasing him for continuing to say no to alcohol, letting him in on a family secret that their grandmother had given the exact speech to all of her grand kids. Brushing aside the taunt and building toward his main message, Stevenson said:


“I’m 52 years old and I’ve never had a drop of alcohol. There is power in identity.”[2] Rather than tell the audience how much he cared for his grandmother, he showed them.




Storytelling can involve a parable, a historical reference, or an anecdote. It can be the quote from Shenzhen or from your favorite author or poet. It can even be a question that forces deep introspection, like the realtor’s (oh yeah, they ended up buying the home). It’s whatever allows the listener or reader to take a mental picture of the idea or meaning you are trying to convey. And for my money - whether you are making a speech or presentation, or negotiating a deal - it’s among the most effective ways of anchoring your message with your audience. Put storytelling to work for you, and see just how powerful and fun it can be.


I’d love your comments about your own discovery and use of show-don’t-tell imagery. And if you enjoyed the piece, please share it.  


[Nick Psyhogeos is the author of Confessions of a Global Negotiator. How I Learned to Close Large Deals and the 5 Rules for Business Development Professionals to Do the Same, which will be published by Authority Publishing in February 2017]    


[1] Brene Brown.





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