How to Make Your Boring Lecture Exciting
A good presentation doesn’t sound like an Excel spreadsheet. It sounds like a fairy tale.
Why do all fairy tales begin with the phrase “Once upon a time…”?
The answer is relevant for anyone with experience in public speaking: If we present hard facts within familiar narrative patterns, the listener becomes more engaged and attentive. They also remember more of what you tell them. It’s about structure even more than delivery.
The sociolinguist William Labov argues that an effective oral narrative should accomplish two specific tasks: It should follow a clear sequence of events, and it should convey a point. Within that structure, it should also make room for reflection, emotion, and growth.
Here’s Labov’s theory of narrative structure, as applied to fairy tales:
- Abstract: How does it begin? (“Once upon a time…”)
- Orientation: Who, where, and/or when? (“A king and queen had a daughter…”)
- Complicating action: What’s the problem to be solved? (“But all around the castle, a hedge of thorns started to grow…)
- Resolution: What’s the solution? (“Then he stooped and kissed Sleeping Beauty. And she opened her eyes for the first time in many, many years…”)
- Evaluation: What results from it? (“And they lived happily ever after.”)
- Coda: What’s the takeaway? (“And the moral of the story…”)
A lecture should be structured along the same lines — an idea that goes back as far as Aristotle, who wrote about the importance of emotion in speechmaking. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the communication researcher Walter Fisher reinforced Aristotle’s belief with a somewhat bold thesis: that people do not want to hear logical arguments, but good stories.
Fisher’s idea is summed up in his famous “narrative paradigm.” He states that we do not evaluate a story on the basis of its arguments, but on the basis of how much we trust or believe in the story (can I identify with the subject or the people?) and its coherence (does the story make sense?).
It tracks with how we move through the world. Our lives are not an Excel spreadsheet with hard data points that line up in a straight column. Rather, we experience events as a story with ups and downs. We make up our minds based on what personally resonates with us and our lived experience.
So, the next time you have to say something in front of other people, start your talk with this sentence: “Let me tell you a short story…” Then let your message flow.