Much has been said in general about the ”new Al Gore” and his great success with An Inconvenient Truth. But we can say more in specific about how you can follow his lead to become a better speaker.

Of course, the presentation is compelling. It won Mr. Gore a Nobel Peace Prize, and his producers an Academy Award. An Inconvenient Truth stands as a treatise and rallying point for many in the environmental movement and beyond who simply care about the planet.  Whether or not you believe in global warming, there’s much to learn from An Inconvenient Truth, even in the first few minutes, about making your presentation more persuasive.

Wired How-To WikiThe Wired How-To Wiki gives you advice straight from Nancy Duarte, the design wizard who’s firm, Duarte Design, crafted the presentation for the former next president. There, you’ll find general suggestions such as these: Know Your Audience , Know When to Use a slide show, Memorize the Message, Keep Your Face to the Audience, Use Large Font, Use High Quality Images, Pay Attention to Image Rights, Choose the Right Tools . All these suggestions are good, of course. But Adam Pash of LifeHacker is right when he says they’re mostly common sense.

At Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds gives you more about Gore’s style as well as some nice links to a Newsweek critique and Lawrence Lessig’s comments.

Our charter here is to help you craft your message. And there’s a lot more you can take away from Mr. Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, if we look closer, step-by-step.

You can see the first 10 minutes or so on YouTube. I’ve laid below the series of rhetorical tactics Mr. Gore employs that help bring the audience along quickly and effectively.

Al Gore

Step one: Strong Introduction. Gore, a very recognizable personality and authority, opens the presentation in a simple and surprising way. “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States of America.” Because his bona fides are so strong, Mr. Gore can afford to touch on them only briefly and give us a bit of self-deprecating humor at the same time. He also sets a light tone at the outset which is sure to relieve many in the audience who anticipate a 90 minute ride through potentially depressing territory, and who recall him with apprehension as stiff and wooden on the campaign trail.

Note: Mr. Gore opens with humor. Be very careful of using humor.  If you’re going to use comedy, be certain that the audience isn’t, even obliquely, the butt of the joke. That will put you behind in a way that’s very hard to come back from.

Earthrise from Nasa.v

 Step two: Lay the hook – that was then, this is now. Even if you’re a big name in your own right, the first thing you want to do is give your audience a hook–a reason to listen, to pay attention, and to be on your side. 

Mr. Gore starts by giving us a series of pictures of the Earth. Yes, they’re compelling. Primarily though, they set up a classic “compare and contrast”, a hook that engages the audience by asking them to consider two versions of one thing–good and bad, old and new, or a contrast along some other axis. Mr. Gore uses images that set the audience up for a specific comparison–healthy and unhealthy.

Big Blue Marble from WikipediaThe first image is Earthrise, the photograph of earth taken from the window of the Apollo 8 spacecraft. “This is the first picture of Earth from space that any of us ever saw.” The second is the Big Blue Marble, the photo taken on December 11, 1972 from the Apollo 17 spacecraft. It’s the most reproduced photo in history.

 

Tom Vansant Picture of the World. Next he offers an image of the Earth stitched together from 3,000 satellite images by Tom Van Sant. This image continues the initial hook, bringing us closer to the contrast (with the sick Earth) we know is coming, while giving him a segue to the body of his presentation. The segue comes in the form of a brief story about two people he knew in school – a friend who was bold enough to suggest that the east coast of South America might fit into the West coast of Africa, and a teacher who vehemently told him how ridiculous the idea was.

Step three: Segue with another hook – the anecdote

The anecdote has three features that make it work so hard as a second hook: 1. it’s very brief, not much longer than the summary I gave you above. That is crucial and it highlights a reason that most anecdotes fail. They’re just too long. They rob energy from the presentation instead of injecting it. 2. A joke he tells (the friend becomes a ne’er-do-well, while the teacher becomes science advisor to the Bush administration) increases the audience’s identification with him. And 3. It creates a bridge between his opening hook and his rebuttal of the big objection to the theory of global warming, namely, the Earth is too big for puny humans to affect.

The anecdote works because it portrays a tenet of the scientific establishment of a few decades ago that the features of the Earth were too big change. Now that plate techtonics is a firmly established hypothesis in science, we can see how radically our view of the Earth can change.

Step four: Introduce thesis – global warming.  Only after he’s made all these rhetorical moves and has his audience firmly in tow does he introduce his major thesis – the Earth is warming as a result of infrared rays that are trapped in the atmosphere by pollution. He’s anticipated the major objection — can’t be happening, the Earth is too big for us to change–and has a metaphor ready.

Step five: Use an apt metaphor to launch into the argument about your topic.  The metaphor in this case was supplied years earlier by his friend Carl Sagon. Yes, the Earth is big but the atmosphere is what supports the lives of all living things, and it’s as thin as a sheet of varnish painted around a library globe.

Tim’s Takeaways:

It’s no coincidence that an Inconvenient Truth is so powerful for people who are inclined to listen. Al Gore has emerged as a charismatic spokesperson. It’s not just the relaxed delivery though, or the fact that he shows the audience his back so much less frequently than he did when he launched the presentation. Over the course of several years, Mr. Gore has shaped a pile of statistics into a compelling story that is dense with rhetorical tactics strung together in a taught argument. He accomplished all five steps above, for example, in about as many minutes. That’s good planning, good writing, and good design. And it’s something you can do now to make your next presentation more persuasive.

 

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