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Create Powerful Images with Figurative Words and Phrases

Here is Part One of my series on using figurative language to (figuratively) grab editors and readers by the lapels.

Following is one of the greatest pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever encountered. It’s from a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about the investigation of an airplane crash. Here is how reporter David Hanners described the wreckage:

The fates seem capricious in what is torn apart and what isn’t when a large airplane crashes. Large pieces of metal dot the pasture, but between them lie tiny bits and pieces, indistinguishable now in their deformity.

 
It is a fertile garden of disaster. Strands of writing lie here, a few rain-soaked playing cards lie there. A shredded Diet Pepsi can lies on the ground, while a few feet away, the door of the Westwind 2’s cabin refrigerator lies flattened — the row of small cans of tomato and orange juice that line the shelf flattened neatly along with it.

Figurative writing expands on the literal meaning of words to create an evocative mental image. There are different types of figurative writing that you no doubt confronted in high school, such as metaphors, similes, and personification.

 
We’ll define those specific techniques later in this section, but at this point simply focus on the technique Hanners used (It’s a metaphor, actually) and why it works so well.

 
Why is it so powerful?

 
• It creates an image in the mind. “Fertile garden of disaster” brings to mind a concrete, vivid scene.
• It uses specific images that we all understand and can visualize. Weak figurative language lacks this quality. For example, “it crashed with the force of 25 pounds of TNT” means little to me because I don’t have any TNT around and don’t know what 25 pounds of it would do, specifically, other than make a big mess.
• It is reinforced with authentic and arresting detail — the playing cards, the flattened refrigerator, the shredded can, the scattered pieces “indistinguishable now in their deformity.”
• It’s clever and compact, drawing attention to its poetic use of language. And the figurative nature of the description is exponentially more brawny than an extended descriptive list of the debris or vague and pedestrian descriptions like the one I just used as a joke: “a big mess.”

Look for opportunities to use creative interpretations of language to create a memorable image; use the four points above for guidance. Be careful because if you over-do it the result can be self-conscious, obviously mechanical or obscure. But take this risk. Remember that the four words “fertile garden of disaster” supplant an entire page of mundane description.

Presentation Humor that Never Fails…It May not Always Get a Laugh, But it Can’t Backfire

Funny material in a presentation is virtually fail-safe if it is personal, completely relevant to the topic at hand, and, if possible, self-deprecating.

I can’t prove it but I believe self-deprecating humor goes over well because it gets the audience on your side — feeling sympathy for you in the literal sense of the word. “Sympathy” means identification or being in sync with. Audiences not only feel sympathy with you but also identify with similar situations in their own life.

For example: Here is a fool-proof joke (it has a setup and a punchline) a former professor of mine used to open each semester’s new classes. I take this description from the my book Write Like a Pro:

One of my professors when I was an undergraduate taught a large lecture class and began by taking attendance and reading the names from a roster. Some of the names were challenging, and of course many names have varying pronunciations. He invariably butchered a couple of names and asked for the correct pronunciation.

After the third act of butchery he recalled how he began his career as a television announcer, and learned that a cardinal rule of saying an unfamiliar name on the air is to first make every effort to learn the correct pronunciation, but if you can’t, never hesitate before you pronounce it. If you hesitate, you’ll sound wrong, even if you are right.

He then recalled the time when, as a TV reporter, he had to fill in at the last minute when the sports announcer fell ill. He was required to read, with no time to check out the pronunciations, a list of current boxing champions. He did all right with names like “Larry Holmes” and “Marvin Hagler,” but when he got to lightweights, mostly international boxers with names like Sot Chitalada and Jorge Ahumada, he just barreled through and brazenly bluffed. He even added the lilt of a foreign inflection as he grew bolder.

He was pulling it off, but the camera crew dissolved into a fit of laughter when he announced a bantamweight champion as a “tough little scrapper” he phoneticized as TEET-lay Vah-CAHT-ed. He of course added a confident bit of Spanish inflection to the name, which of course was actually “Title Vacated.” (Here he wrote “Title Vacated” on the chalkboard.)

He used the joke at the beginning of every semester, and sometimes in public appearances where he had to meet and address people with unfamiliar names. The joke invariably worked, or at least never failed.

Even if it fizzled or most people don’t get it, the joke is a relevant part of the presentation and there is a reason for it to be there – unlike the awkward and all-too-common scenario where a novice speaker suddenly inserts an irrelevant story about a horse walking into a bar.*
The second reason this is never-fail joke is because the humor is about the teller, so there’s no reason for anyone to become indignant.

In sum: Keep humor somehow relevant to the topic at hand, make it slightly self-deprecating with yourself as the key player, and even if it doesn’t get much of a laugh you aren’t standing there squirming after a bad, out-of-place joke.

—————–

*The bartender says, “Hey, pal, why the long face?”  Sorry.

Tip from the Presenter’s Toolbox of Technique: Clearly Ask for what You Want

Audiences feel cheated if, at the conclusion of a presentation, they don’t know exactly what it was about or, specifically, what you want from them.  They might not agree with you, and might not give you what they want, but if you don’t include a specific call to action, your listeners will:

  1. be confused and frustrated, and worse, from your perspective…
  2. NEVER give you what you want because they don’t know what it is.

Do you want their vote?  Give them good reasons to vote for you and then ask.  Do you want them to join you in supporting a cause?  Tell them why they should and ask.

Do you want their help in achieving a goal?  Professional speaker Brian Tracy uses this example of a call to action at the end of a speech:

“We have great challenges and great opportunities, and with your help, we will meet them and make this next year the best year in our history!” 

Imagine an exclamation point at the end of your call to action, pick up your tempo and energy as you approach it, and drive the final point home.  “Regardless of whether the audience participants agree with you or are willing to do what you ask,” Tracy writes, “it should be perfectly clear to them what you are requesting. [i]


 

[i] Brian Tracy, “Nine Tips to End Your Speech with a Bang,” accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.briantracy.com/blog/public-speaking/how-to-end-a-speech-the-right-way/

 

The Secret Structure of a Compelling Presentation

Every compelling story has movement within its structure. You probably can recognize these common structures from films and mythology:

  • Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy retrieves girl.

-or-

  • Mythic hero has a call to adventure, is convinced to step up to the plate by a mentor, begins a quest, overcomes enemies, endures an ordeal, narrowly escapes death, and returns to ordinarily life a victor and a wiser person.

And every compelling presentation has a structure, too. Here are a couple examples:

  • Introduce your main argument, state your case, outline your main points, prove your case, counter conflicting arguments, and conclude by showing how you have made your case.

or

  • Start with a story illustrating a problem, leave the audience in suspense as to the resolution of the problem, describe possible solutions, refute objections, funnel your audience toward agreeing with your proposed solution, and close with the opening story – how the person you are using for illustration overcame the problem.

None of these structures is complicated or new.   The first bullet point above (Introduce your main argument, state your case, outline your main points, etc.) was devised more than 2,000 years ago by the Roman orator Cicero, and became the basis for Western classical rhetoric — the art of verbal persuasion and motivation.

Everything has a structure: pop music, TV sitcoms, symphonies, and speeches. You may not be able to perceive the structure because it seems so natural, but that’s the nature of a useful structure – it seems natural and doesn’t call attention to itself.

Your favorite song on the radio doesn’t sound to you like intro/first verse/chorus/second verse/second chorus/eight bars of variation on the melody/third chorus/closing chorus, does it? But that is a very common underlying structure — so common that people in the music industry will abbreviate it and say, “Here’s a song that’s a plain old ABABCBB.” (If you don’t believe me, listen to a few songs on the car radio on the way home; you’ll see how many songs fall into this pattern.)

Again, one presentation structure is not inherently better than another, although it might be better-suited to a particular application. The important factor is to have some sort of structure designed to carry you through from beginning to middle to end with some sort of perceptible motion and closure.

Note that this advice applies to any sort of communication that you can conceivably classify as a presentation: speech, training session, on-camera response to a media inquiry, podcast, and so forth.

Hausman’s Laws About How Much Material to Put into a Presentation

Here are three immutable facts of life. Let’s call them Hausman’s laws:

Law 1: Everyone worries about having too little material for a presentation and running short.

Law 2: Nobody ever has too little material and runs short.

But because people relentlessly continue to believe in Law 1, we inescapably come to…

Law 3: A lot of people giving presentations therefore have way too much they want to cover, they try to cram in and regurgitate too much information, and thus they turn the occasion into a desultory data dump. And they talk too quickly as a result of their panic to wedge everything in.

It’s reasonable that you will start with too much material to cram into a presentation. In fact, that’s the way it should be. I won’t invent any more laws, but if I did, the next one would be something like, “whether in an article, book, or presentation, you know the content is going to be good when you have too much good information and it becomes difficult to pare it down.”

carl-at-lectern-daytimeSo feel free to collect a huge pile of facts and figures for your presentation, but chop down the pile relentlessly until every piece of material sticks to the spine of your main takeaway, until they all fit into your organizational structure, and are relevant to your audience’s knowledge level and needs.

My Newest Western Narration on Audible…

trail-of-a-wanted-man-coverEdited Photo of Podcast

My audiobook narration of Jeff Breland’s “Trail of a Wanted Man” has just been released on Audible. It’s the third book in the series I’ve narrated and I think the best. I like westerns…must be because I’m from Western New York. Check out what happens when a train robbery turns deadly and the first-time conspirators realize they will face the gallows — unless they can silence those who can give away their secrets.

 

How Speakers Can Deliver What their Audiences Want — Employing a Lesson from One of the Greatest TV Commercials Ever Made

Your audience will always be appreciative if you give them something they want. To be fair, what they want might not always be obvious and the audience members might not be sure of it themselves. You need to clarify the benefit to the audience and deliver and make it clear that they will gain something from what you offer.

For example, one of the best presentations I ever saw was a presentation on how to give a presentation. The salient point was that  a speaker needs to capture attention with a good opening and not clutter it up by droning meaningless thank-yous and chit-chat at the beginning.

The presenter was greeted with polite applause as he took the lectern, but cut it off and said, “I haven’t earned that yet. But I will.”

And he went right into his speech – a crackling cascade of useful information, beginning with the lesson to start the speech cold and don’t thank people. Save that until later.

The point is that I had a general idea of what I needed to know but not the specifics. The presenter had a fair idea that most of the audience were relatively experienced communicators who didn’t require elementary instruction but needed some quick techniques to up their games. So he provided us with a technique that works well in the hands of a reasonably competent presenter, he did it right off the bat, and in the process captured our attention at the beginning so he could effectively lead us through the middle and end.

Businesses and organizations routinely do what they call “needs assessments” to figure out what their customers want. It becomes a jargon-heavy process, with needs sometimes defined as essential things for “well-being” or things that will create a state of “deficiency or deprivation” if denied. You can assess needs by doing surveys or, in a method that always appealed to me, simply talking to people.

Advertising agencies typically convene focus groups to assess the needs of their audience; let me tell you one story that perfectly illustrates what you’re trying to do here.

Back in the 1990s something called the California Milk Processor Advisory Board hired a veteran advertising executive to help stanch the loss of customers for milk.

The problem was that choices of beverages in typical stores were multiplying exponentially – with introduction of new soda flavors and new types of beverages such as sports drinks. But there is not a lot you can do with milk. You can flavor it with chocolate or strawberry but beyond that it would just get weird. Nobody’s going to drink carbonated milk, and since it doesn’t keep forever it is not really portable.

Armed with the information that most milk consumption takes place in the home, a San Francisco advertising agency set up focus groups (supervised conversations with groups of typical customers) to determine what those people’s needs were…what actually prompted them to pay attention to the need for milk.

The groups didn’t produce much that was useful until something happened by accident: It was getting late and one participant noted that if he didn’t leave in time to make it to the store to buy milk there would be hell to pay the next morning.

And there you have one of the Eureka Moments of “needs assessments.” What motivates people to want to buy milk is the fear of what happens if they run out. (I don’t know about you, but when my children were little and I didn’t have milk they gave me the impression they were going to drop a dime on me and call a social services agency.)

You know the rest of the story, because you certainly remember the “Got Milk” commercials, entertaining mini-dramas in which a man couldn’t win a telephone quiz contest because he was chewing on a peanut butter sandwich and ran out of milk. Another commercial featured a snarling business executive who is run over by a bus and winds up in what appears to be a big kitchen in the sky, fully stocked with milk cartons and giant chocolate chip cookies.

“Heaven,” he muses, stuffing himself. And then, naturally, he reaches for the milk carton. But it’s empty. And so are all the rest.

The realization is horrifying. “Where am I?” he asks — as flames begin to engulf the Got Milk Logo.

And there you have the central lesson in needs assessment. Deduce what scares people, what they feel deprived without.

Figure out what hurts – and offer a solution.

Maybe you’ll have to explain why they should feel deprived, or why they should worry, and that’s OK. But without that hook, without that perceived need you are filling, the audience will have no real interest in listening to you.

Gauge, as best you can, what the audience needs. Talk with the event organizer, or people who will be at the meeting. What bothers them? What solution are they seeking, for what problem?

Maybe they are tense and upset, and need a laugh. Perhaps they are worried about meeting sales quotas, and need some advice on how to head off failure. It may be that they are concerned about a new policy, and need assurance that it will be in their best interests. It could be the case that they are worried about loss of productivity in their office, and need the type of product you just happen to sell.

Or possibly they are concerned about giving a presentation, in which case you can advise them to buy my forthcoming book, Present Like a Pro.

How to Create an Environment, Schedule, and System that Supports Your Writing Goals

I am going to shift into infomercial mode and sell you on a concept that I believe can make career-altering changes in the quality and quantity of your work.

Here is my pitch: If you write on a professional writer’s schedule you can drastically increase your productivity and effectiveness.

I am aware that very competent and sometimes brilliant writers have oddball habits and schedules that work for them, and there is no point in arguing with success. But I’ve made something of a study of writing methods, and firmly believe that these recommendations are as good as any and better than most:

  • Put yourself on a regular quota. Four or five double-spaced pages a day is a good target. Even one page a day is better than nothing. One page a day can translate to a book a year. Schedule work time. Clearly, the demands of your job may take scheduling out of your control, but you can find time if you really want to.   The problem with waiting for inspiration is that it may never come. And, as artist Chuck Close noted, “Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.”
  • Don’t over-do or under-do. The utility of a writing quota is that you don’t give yourself an out; you have to produce the four pages or wither to a skeleton in your chair. But there is a carrot as well as a stick: When you finish the four pages, you’re done. Turn off the computer or go to YouTube and watch cat videos or do whatever you like. I try not to keep going after reaching my quota even when I want to, even when I’m on a roll. If you stop when you look forward to continuing you are more likely to actually continue the next day.   But if you press to exhaustion, you are less likely to climb back on the horse, and if you do get in the saddle, you’ll plod from fatigue.
  • Create the environment where you work best.   If that environment involves a mahogany desk and fancy leather chair, go for it, but remember that your goal is production, not opulent surroundings. If you look at the desks of the men and women who really crank out quality manuscript, you’ll usually notice a blue-collar aura about the setup. Find out what helps your productivity and incorporate it. For me, it’s two or more computer screens, with the ability to cut and paste from one to the other. Even on a single screen, I generally divide the electronic real estate in two. Personally, I don’t see why any writer would want to be limited to one screen, flipping back and forth between source material and manuscript. I also like plenty of light, and more than one observer has remarked that my office looks more like an operating room than a study.
  • Get up early. Night owls may disagree, and they may be right, but I believe most people write better in the morning, especially when they have “slept on it” (meaning their work) the night before. There is some scientific basis to the benefits of letting your subconscious work on a problem overnight. Perhaps my preference for the morning writing is simply that my brain is too cluttered and clouded at the end of the day to be productive. I usually lay out the next morning’s work at night, take note of what I hope to accomplish the next day, and extract myself from the bed as early as I can manage.

Source: Write Like a Pro: Ten Techniques for Getting Your Point Across at Work (and in Life)

Learn the Art of Persuasive Design with a Quick Tour of Sites that Make Graphics for Criminal and Civil Trials

Give yourself a crash course in persuasive graphics by doing a quick Google search on “Trial Graphics” or “Litigation Graphics.”  
There is a burgeoning industry in producing illustrations and videos for lawyers who need to not only persuade but to communicate complicated concepts to jurors and judges.
Before you concoct your next illustration or PowerPoint slide take a look at how high-stakes designers do it.
You’re in luck because firms that specialize in this sort of thing have no choice but to put their best examples online.   Don’t copy, but use them as inspiration and note the basic concepts used in designing an evocative graphic.
— Source: Carl Hausman, Write Like a Pro

Improve Your Speaking Voice and Inflection by Reading Selections of Public-Domain Books and then Comparing Your Delivery with Professional Narrators

You can do this for free: Find free audiobooks from www.librivox.com, which come from public-domain classics, and then find the print version at www.gutenberg.org.

Listen to the pro’s passage, record your own version of the same paragraph on your smartphone, and compare.  Do multiple versions until you’ve refined your delivery.  The goal is not to ape a particular narrator but to develop the ability to adapt your own performance to meet a particular standard.

Adapted from Frances Ponick, Communities Digital News.