We've all been there: stuck in an awful Zoom Meeting secretly playing chess in the background, or back in the days before COVID-19 forced to sit through a presentation that could have been an email. Public Speaking has been around for a long, long time. Aristotle published his treatise on the perfect public presentation nearly 2355 years ago. So what gives? Why are we still so bad at performing?
The problem, more often than not, is that we begin with a logical fallacy. We believe the audience already understands us. We think they can see into our mind, follow our points precisely, and give nuance to our quirks and personalities. But they can't.
The exciting thing about any form of public dialogue is that there are certain expectations. It is almost as if these expectations are universal because of their cross-cultural and political boundaries. This is what separates dramatic story telling from something like a novel. Can the two borrow elements from each other, absolutely, but a novel can never be transposed to the screen correctly. After all, what would the internet have to argue about if the movie and book were equally good?
For example, every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is where the classic Three Act structure comes from, and whether we choose to break it or not is up to us, but we must do so willingly. To disobey the rules simply because we do not know them is a cardinal sin.
Whether it's a speech or a play, if it is performed in public, it needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The tips below are based on the works of Robert McKee's Story, Aristotle's Poetics, Syd Field's book Screenplay, and Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, as well as ideas by Dan Harmon and Joseph Campbell.
"Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination." - Lajos Egri
What is your story about? What is its theme? What is the dramatic question you are seeking to answer? A premise is the most basic form of your story. All stories are based on ideas, and there must be a thematic truth of your presentation. In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri urges the playwright to narrow it down to the purest form of the idea, or as Eames, Tom Hardy's character in Inception, puts it, "You need the simplest version of an idea in order for it to grow naturally."
In his book, Egri deposits something that the Premise of Macbeth is, "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." The inspiration for Macbeth was the Biblical quote, "The sins of the fathers are visited on the children." Every bit of verse written by Shakespeare returns to ambition and destruction.
Translated literally, Premise is a proposition or a basis of argument leading to a conclusion. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis all flow out of and form the Premise. Let me translate that: the basic idea, it's counterpoint, and the merging of those two ideas to create something new.
We all had to write a thesis statement in college, summarizing our main point. We all also had to come up with arguments against our position and had to either prove or disprove its merit. Lastly, we had to come up with a resolution between these conflicting ideas. When we wrote those essays, we probably thought they were God's gift to literature; however, they're probably better left on whatever burned hard drive they died on.
Today, if you want the audition to incept your idea and walk away feeling changed, you need to understand what the fundamental version of that idea is and build it.
"O, for a Muse of Fire--" - Shakespeare
Now that you have that idea, whatever it may be, you need to create an image for it. This is where the prologue comes in.
In classic drama, the prologue was usually a speech given by the chorus to set the stage for what was to come. In Shakespeare's Henry V, an actor, thought to be Shakespeare himself, stepped on stage and laid out the scene to come for the audience with beautiful verse and intense imagery. He invoked the muses, apologized for the inadequacy of the special effects of the time, interlaced some propaganda for the warrior king, but most importantly, he sets the stage for the battles to come.
While most people consider a prologue to be a useless piece of information that hackneyed thrillers writers cram into stories because audiences expect it, the prologue is actually one of the most useful elements in a story. Today, while we do occasionally still use a text-based prologue as in Star Wars or a bit of narration before a movie, we are more likely to scene an additional scene added before the actual plot of the movie begins.
Robert McKee wrote the bible on screenwriting. Whether or not it must be adhered to is another story entirely, but Story lays out the foundations for good screenplays. In his book, McKee lays out what a good prologue is: a single event or sequence of events that encapsulates the themes of the story.
The idea of a prologue is a miniature version of your story. It works as a hook. It can be used like Shakespeare's opening scene in Romeo and Juliet, where the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is set up with a fight, or the dramatic black and white image from Casino Royale in which we experience James Bond's first kill.
If you know what your Premise is, you can base your opening image/prologue on that theme. Go back to Egri's Premise in Macbeth, "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." How did Shakespeare welcome us into the dark and mysterious world of the play? With witches, talk of kings, and violence.
Three Act Structure
"The gods too are fond of a joke" - Aristotle.
Joke telling is storytelling. There is a setup, a turn, and a punchline. In dramatic writing, it is known as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.
In 1979 Syd Field wrote his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, where he broke down the foundations of dramatic structure as he saw it. Although Field gets credit for putting it in print and detailing it so that the masses can understand it, this structure is almost innate.
Every presentation needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We need to be introduced to the world and its characters, we need to see these characters face challenges and obstacles. We want to know whether or not they succeed in the end. Every audience expects this.
Literature loves to play with the narrative. Some people argue there are five acts, others seven, and some people say there are no acts only actions one leading to the next. For our purposes here, we should honor the fact that we need the Three Act Structure to save mental space for our audience.
Like Joseph Campbell's archetypes and the hero's journey, the three-act structure gives the audience a way into the presentation. They know where they are, so they can focus on other things, namely, you.
Now, certainly, you can rearrange your presentation but do so at your own peril. Yes, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino love to play with time and cuts. Still, you don't have the power of the edit or the luxury of entertainment. Sadly, reports and presentations don't always offer the benefit of gangsters doing gangster stuff or amnesia.
It's important to note here as well that while the structure is used to give the audience a latticework to understand where they are in time and space of story, and perhaps when they can take a potty break, it is not mandatory. What is more important than hitting particular beats is capturing the flow of the narrative. Some screenwriters, like Stanley Kubrick, likened cinematic storytelling more to a mood like a piece of music. So remember use structure to your advantage, but don't cram it down people's throats.
Climax and Catharsis
What brings us back to drama again and again? Why do romance novels and thrillers hook us, or why do we still enjoy seeing the hardboiled detective catch the crook? Catharsis.
Like any good writer, Aristotle made sure not to define this word he made up anywhere in Poetics, leaving it instead up to history professors and theatre nerds to define the term.
Thanks to this, catharsis and it's meaning get bandied about a lot in writing circles, and odds are you heard your Theatre Appreciation teacher loft it about and had no idea what the hell they were talking about.
In essence, catharsis is the emotional release we feel when we watch a story. It's laughing at someone else's pain in a farce or crying during the Red Wedding. It is gasping when Juliet wakes up and feeling that emotional release when you hear, "I'm Jean-Valjean!"
The words also go hand-in-hand with a term Aristotle did define anagnorisis. This word, according to Aristotle, is when the character makes a crucial discovery. Think Oedipus when his world flips upside down, Old Boy when he finds out who his daughter is, or any Sherlock Holmes movie made within the last two decades.
It is the sudden awareness by the main character when meaning is thrown on them like a bucket of water, often reversing the understanding of the world or the antagonist.
This is the "I am your father," moment, or, in the case of Macbeth learning MacDuff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped.
When giving a presentation, how are you trying to change their minds? What are you driving at? And when do you want to hit?
A premise is meant to be understood early, so the audience knows where they are going, but catharsis and anagnorisis are meant to land like a knock-out punch in the 12th round. Save this for the end, it's your big reveal and what you want to leave the audience talking about.
Brave New World
"O brave new world, That has such people in it!" - Shakespeare
The ending. Get the ending right, and the rest doesn't matter. Think about how many movies muddled the first part or wasted your time in the middle, but as long as they stuck the ending, it was all worth it.
Like Stephen Covey noted, "Begin with the end in mind." What message do you want to leave people with? Hopefully, it's your Premise, and the question is, "How do you lead them to water?"
When giving a speech a great way to think of it is like this: here is the world as it is, here is the problem we face, this is what the world will look like after today. Steve Jobs used this model to present the iPhone.
The secret here is how you think about the presentation. When we watch something, we cast ourselves as the lead. Therefore, as you craft your narrative, remember who the hero of your story is: the audience.
The person who is going on the adventure is your audience. You are the storyteller. Keep that in mind, when creating your speech. You are not the protagonist, they are. Like a poet of old, you already know the story and how it ends. The audience is going on the journey.
Use these tools, and you will start creating better presentations today.
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Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.