Where there's smoke let there be fire

Few sights are more dramatic than red hot lava rising up from an active volcano. At least that’s what I thought while I hovered in a helicopter and watched molten rock ooze from a vent on the island of Hawaii last winter. Surrounding the vent was a huge swath of what looked like crumpled asphalt. Yet, here and there plumes of smoke wafted up, providing proof that red hot lava still flowed beneath the dull layer of rock.

Although I didn’t appreciate it in the heat of the moment (pardon the pun), that scene offers a good analogy for how to construct a speech or presentation to keep it interesting and engaging from beginning to end.

A good speech or presentation starts strong to earn the attention of the audience, maintains energy through the middle while the speaker rolls out his or her arguments and ends in a memorable way. Like the smoke that indicates lava is still flowing below a cooling crust of rock, using concrete examples, analogies and stories are good ways to refer back to and reinforce your key points. For a great example of how to weave those elements together take a look at a speech delivered by General Peter van Uhm, the former Dutch Chief of the Defence Staff, during TedX Amsterdam 2011. Note: The General’s speech is about his desire to prevent war rather than wage it, although you might think otherwise as he begins his talk.

Standing on the stage in full uniform, General van Uhm forges a connection with his civilian audience despite holding a high-powered rifle in his hands. His explanation of why he "chose a gun” involves a story about a wartime event that haunted his father. Along the way he also covers some abstract conflict governance concepts. By connecting the philosophical points he makes with the gun he holds and his father’s story, he keeps his arguments real, compelling and easy to follow. His ending, in which he shifts the focus to the experience of a young soldier who also appears on stage, is riveting.

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