The art of digging deep

TED has popularised the art of presenting big ideas. What gets easily overlooked is how another art is even more essential to a great TED talk: the art of digging deep.

This is the art of not only identifying the stones but actually picking them up and looking under. The art of scratching our heads and asking further. The art of looking for answers as opposed to stopping at the questions. So that we arrive at ideas that don’t just look big but actually are big.

For this, it’s not enough to copy the looks of a TED talk: the structure, the storytelling, the stage layout, the timing. That’s just the surface.

A big idea is not in how the idea looks.

A big idea is in what it inspires. What it changes. Such as a fundamental change of perspective.

More often than not, these ideas originate in the mud and dirt. By digging deep. And getting your fingers dirty.

People on the TED stage are standing there because they have an important story to tell. One that originates from doing the work. Sweating the details. Looking beyond the obvious. Asking the questions and looking for answers.

The problem with our world of inspirational TED-like speeches is that it’s copying the looks of a great TED speech while missing the work that precedes it. These people copy the TED part but not the digging deep part.

Yet, digging deep is the most reliable way of arriving at a big idea talk. Dig deep and do the work. And then, tell a true story about what you worked out.

This is how you light the path.

Applause is seductive

Getting applause for your talk and having an impact are two very different goals for a presentation.

A good round of applause feels great. That’s for sure. But the enthusiasm of the moment is no guarantee that your message will stick. Or that it changes a mind.

Even worse: applause is seductive. When you get some, you want more. When you get a lot, you want even more. And it’s quite possible that you do because once you get the hang of it, you’ll have a good sense of what makes your audience cheer for you. The temptation to strive for that applause is not a small one.

And yet, the talks that resonate the most are often the ones that cause the audience to become quiet. Pause. Reflect upon what they just heard.

Applause and impact are by no means mutually exclusive, but they also don’t necessarily come together. Faced with the choice, I’d always prefer the talk that makes a difference rather than the one that makes for a good round of applause.

But let’s look at it from a different perspective: If the audience is still resonating with our talk a month – or a year – after … because that talk made a profound difference in their life … now, that’s a reason to be really proud of.

First things first

How can I surprise my audience? How can I make my slides more punchy? How can my gestures reinforce what I’m saying? How can I involve the audience?

No doubt, these are all valid questions. But only after we have answered an even more important question: What change are we trying to make? Where does our audience come from and where are we leading them? What do they believe before the talk and what do they believe afterwards?

Because only the answers to these questions enable me to identify what kind of surprise will grab my audience’s attention. What kind of punch will hold their attention. What kind of involvement will incite action.

A wow effect is a means to achieve an aha effect. The better you understand what exactly the aha looks like from your audience’s perspective, the better you’ll be able to identify the kind of wow that leads them to that aha.

If your product changes things for the better

If your product truly changes things for the better then all you need to do is to speak the truth.

I’m amazed by how often people just don’t trust in that truth. They will look for all sorts of fluff and stuff to decorate the truth to make it look more appealing.

Fascinated by the breathtaking shows of the competition, people will go to great lengths to hunt down an even more breathtaking wow factor – looking for fancier titles, more bang in the visuals, and of course expensive tech equipment.

Don‘t get me wrong, all of this can be very useful. Make things sound and look as good as you can.

But in the end, it’s not about how great things look but how well they resonate. Audiences enjoy a great show, no doubt about that. But would you rather care about “what a great show” or about “what a great idea”?

If your product is actually amazing, then what you need most is clarity. And empathy. These two are the prerequisites for a great story.

Start there. Focus on the truth not the decoration. Work on making your story resonate as strong as possible. And when you’ve got that kind of aha, the wow will take care of itself.

Low hanging fruits

Several months into the pandemic, remote formats still have a firm grip on businesses and events. From online meetings to online conferences, we will be seeing each other mostly on screen for quite some time to come. The good news is that there are still a lot of low hanging fruits in that new world of speaking.

Although many speakers and businesses have levelled up their technical skills and adapted their talks to online formats, many still struggle to fully embrace the possibilities that online brings along. We still see a lot of talks transferred onto the video format rather unchanged.

It feels a lot like back in the days when television still largely looked like filmed theatre. Now is the time to change that. After all, Netflix and YouTube is always just a click away. So that’s the new competition.

And that’s why now is the time to look for creative ways to make your talks even more instructive and entertaining. To make use of technology that just isn’t feasible in an on-stage setting. Rather than to try to mimic a stage setting, the right thing to do is to embrace the fact that you’re not in the same room, anyway.

Give me a call to analyse what’s possible for you.

The presenter’s job

This is usually easy: to make sure that the information in a presentation is correct. That there are no mistakes in the data. That it’s complete. That we didn’t miss anything.

This is usually much harder: to make sure that our audience gets it. What does the data mean? How does this work? Why does it matter?

This is the least we should strive for.

Too many presenters stop at being correct. They consider their job to be to deliver the info.

It’s not.

Their job is to create understanding. The purpose of a presentation isn’t to be delivered but to be understood – if not to change minds.

When someone grants us 30 minutes of their time, the least we should do is to speak with clarity so they get what we mean.

The WTF moment

Marketers strive for a WOW moment. But the WTF moment is even stronger.

WTF is short for “I can’t believe that this is possible!” It occurs when you’ve given your audience exactly what they need and much more than they expected. It’s a solution to a problem that matters a lot to them.

Therefore, it’s also the trigger for “Tell me more!” It opens the flood gates.

Of course, this will get much easier if your product is a WTF product in the first place.

The show is part of the substance

When you believe in better, it’s your obligation to speak with the clarity that’s required for your audience to resonate with your message.

Change requires being heard. It’s a huge misunderstanding – and a source of big frustration – for quite a lot of difference makers who make better things and then stop at making them. The resonance that their competition gets for their arguably inferior products by putting on a show feels like an unfair advantage to them. You’ll often hear them complain that “show” seems to be more important than “substance” to their audience.

It’s not, of course. Because the show is part of the substance.

Your audience doesn’t care for the things they don’t see or understand and it doesn’t have to. It’s not their obligation to see why your thing matters. It’s yours. Resonance is actually required to get results.

The good news is this: If your product really does change things for the better, then you’re in a much better position to make your message resonate. Because what resonates most is relevance. So, the actual unfair advantage is to make better things. Because better things create relevance. Then, turn relevance into resonance!

What you say vs. how you say it

I keep reading this but it’s still as wrong as the first time:

“It doesn’t matter what you say but how you say it!”

What this is probably meant to say is that how you say things has a strong influence on whether what you say actually makes an impact. And because of that it might happen that inferior ideas beat superior ones simply because they were communicated better.

Yet, if you care then you’ll always start with what you say. It’s why you show up in the first place. It’s what makes the difference. It’s what separates the bullshitters and the hot air producers from those who actually want to change things for the better.

For them, things might not always appear to be fair. Sometimes, it feels that these slick and sneaky marketers are just naturally talented to sell things. But, if you look closely, it’s often not that they are actually more charismatic or more eloquent. It’s just that they understand better what resonates with their audiences.

When you care enough for your cause, it’s part of the game to do the hard work of empathy so that you understand what resonates with your audience, too. And if you do, magic happens. Because when you say the things that you believe in in a way that deeply resonates with your audience, change happens and trust is built.

The loooooooong pause

Many people tend to believe that tension is created by holding back information and having people wait for the reveal. Casting shows love to do that (“The winner is … looooong paaaauuuuuse … the winner is … even looooooooooonnnggger paaaaaaaauuuuuuuuse …”).

Often, though, a much more satisfying experience of tension is created by the opposite approach. By providing information leaves your audience in awe and begging you to tell them more. When you manage to create tension precisely by the things you say then it’s not the performance but the information itself that creates the tension.

If that’s the case you’ll know that you really hit a nerve. Also, it’s the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. Instead of being satisfied by the piece of information they receive, audiences become curious by it. Instead of feeling relieved by the information, tension is built up by the information.

What is a piece of information that you could give your audience that makes them want to know more?

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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