From accumulation to understatement

Figures of speech can help listeners and readers understand what we say and write. But they also help make our language more colorful and make our stories more engaging (hey, wasn’t that an anaphora?) As I use them frequently in my presentations and my blog posts, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list with 10 of my favorite rhetorical figures…

Accumulation = gathering, repeating, and recapitulating previously stated arguments. It may be used to simply summarize your key points (as I’m often doing at the end of a presentation), but also to re-emphasize your message in a forceful way. Here’s an example of how I used accumulation to conclude my old-but-gold “Don’t feed the chameleons” article: “So next time you need to build a business presentation, start well in advance and take your time to tune each slide. Don’t take existing material for granted. Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.”

Alliteration = the repetition of an initial consonant sound. This works extremely well to make your blog/presentation/slide headlines stand out. Just think of the post on this site that I titled: “Proudly promoting my president’s presentation pizzazz.”

Anaphora = a technique where several phrases begin with the same word or words. I often use it in combination with a rule of three, like the “Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.” in the accumulation example above.

Antithesis = the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases. Take, for example, “women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth” in Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globes speech or “for those who still can’t comprehend, because they refuse to” in Emma González’ March For Our Lives address.

Chiasmus = a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression or a sentence is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. John F. Kennedy’s “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” is a famous example of a chiasmus.

Hyperbole = using an extravagant statement or exaggeration to emphasize a point or to evoke strong feelings. When I wrote that Fidel Castro’s listenership may have called itself lucky after a 7 hours and 10 minutes speech, and that it may have taken the late Cuban leader almost 54 working days to prepare his address, I might have used a couple of hyperboles.

Metaphor = an implied comparison between seemingly unrelated objects and/or concepts offers a creative means to convey much more content compared to only talking about the naked topic of your presentation. Over the past years I have written several blog posts about the metaphors that I have used in my presentations. Do you remember what a highway junction, a cherry pie, or a volcano stand for? If not, you may revisit these respective posts: “Highway 61 revisited”, “Easy as cherry pie”, and “Making the volcano”.

Paradox = a statement that sounds like it contradicts itself, but which often contains some kernel of truth or reason. A few years ago, I closed my presentation at an Internet of Things conference with a “the best things in life aren’t things” slide. Although I presented a clear contradiction in terms, no single person in the audience questioned the truth of my statement.

Personification = giving human qualities to non-living things or ideas. When, in one of my articles about the Internet of Things, I suggested that enterprises should step through the mirror – like Alice [in Wonderland] stepped through the looking glass – I was perfectly aware that a company is not a human being.

Understatement = when a writer or speaker deliberately uses words that lessen or minimize the importance of an issue or a situation. The presentation that I mentioned above in my paradox bullet, was titled “The unbearable lightness or IoT forecasting”. I chose this title to make a polite statement about the fact that industry analysts often cite widely diverging figures about the same topic.

Making the volcano

I once started a presentation workshop with this exercise: “Describe how you would use a volcano as a metaphor for presenting your business plan to investors?”

As I wrote in my “begin the beginning” post, a query or a poll may be a good means for grabbing your audience’s attention. So the question resulted in an active brainstorming session, and the answers from the group included statements such as “it’s about fire and passion”, “an eruption of words”, “a mountain to climb”, “need to assess the risks”, …

Then I came up with my “volcano making kit”, a construction toy with fast drying plaster and paint that I found on the internet. I actually used it as a metaphor myself for introducing a series of tips, tools and best practices for preparing and delivering a business presentation – the kind of topics I frequently write about on this blog.

volcano_making_kit

And also my call for action at the end of the training stayed within the perimeter of the volcano, since I finished with one of my favorite Tom Peters quotes:

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The big bang metaphor

This past Tuesday was a glorious day for astrophysicists. Observations by a telescope on the South Pole revealed the Big Bang’s smoking gun, providing mankind with a better understanding of the cosmos’ very earliest history and opening the door for more theories about the past and the future of our universe.

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But the Big Bang phenomenon is also a great metaphor to be used by presenters, as it stands for disruptive innovation, expansive growth and speed of execution.

In my blog posts “Highway 61 revisited” and “Easy as cherry pie” I have already given samples of how I use metaphors in my presentations. Here’s another one: “10 (Light) Years after the Big Bang” was the title of a talk I delivered at the 2005 Voice on the Net Conference, in which I elaborated on some radical changes that were rolling out in telecom networks.

I chose the Big Bang metaphor to illustrate how the legacy voice infrastructure was (literally) blown to pieces, with space related images explaining how technology and market disruptions had given birth to a new communications universe, ruled by a new architecture, with new applications and new business opportunities.

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You may view the full presentation on SlideShare. Please note that the deck is almost 9 years old, and that the market, my company, and the technology and product related content have obviously evolved since then.

Easy as cherry pie

A few blog posts ago, I talked about using metaphors as a means to talk about complex technical topics to non-technical audiences. Throughout my career as a presenter, I have used figure of speech at many occasions. Here’s another example of a public talk I gave a few years ago (together with a colleague from a partner company) at an industry conference.

Throughout my career as a presenter, I have used figure of speech at many occasions. Here’s an example of a public talk I did a few years ago (together with a colleague from a partner company) at an industry conference.

As the subject of the presentation –a  configuration management and audit tool for IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) networks– was rather technical (and probably rather boring for some part of the audience too), I decided to surprise and entertain the crowd with a story about the challenges of baking a cherry pie…

handpicked cherriesCherrypicking” is a term that is often used in the ICT industry to describe the practice of buying and integrating a number of best-in-class or best-in-price components that are often supplied by different manufacturers. So, the implicit message behind the presentation’s title is that you cannot simply drop multi-vendor equipment into a network and expect everything to work fine… And as such you need to adopt a lifecycle management approach supported by proper configuration management and audit tools.

As the cherry theme provided me with good visual material, that could support different facets of the key message, I used it as a fil rouge throughout the whole slideshow.

cherry theme

You may view the original presentation on SlideShare.

Guidelines for finding the right metaphors to spark your presentations and using them effectively can be found in these Way Beyond Ordinary and SOAP Presentations blog posts.

Highway 61 revisited

Last week, I had to prepare and deliver an Alcatel-Lucent company presentation to a broad, local, and non-technical public of all ages. That’s quite a challenge indeed. How do you explain high-tech concepts, products and solutions such as optical transmission, IP routers, ADSL, 3G and 4G mobile networks, customer experience management, etc. to the mother of your colleague or to a 10-year-old child? After some reflection, I decided to use the metaphor of a highway as the lead theme of my story.

Metaphors are great tools for storytellers. As they create an implied comparison between seemingly unrelated objects and/or concepts, they offer us a creative means to convey much more content compared to only talking about the naked topic of your presentation. Furthermore, well-chosen analogies are understood cross-culturally and cross-functionally and so they appeal to all audiences.

So, here’s how I educated, entertained and engaged the crowd on how Alcatel-Lucent ensures that there are no traffic jams on the digital highway… (view the full presentation on SlideShare)

I started with an introduction, unwinding the fact that the global population will create, consume and communicate about 2 zettabytes of digital information in 2012. A quick poll among the people in the room (“Who of you owns a smartphone? A tablet? Has an internet connection? Watches digital TV? …) identified each single one of them as an active contributor to the imminent data storm.

Two zettabytes – two sextillion bytes, or a 2 followed by 21 zeroes–  is the amount of binary data that can be stored on 137.5 billion iPads. If you stack all these devices into containers and transport them by road, you’ll get a 9000 kilometers long colonne of trucks. Reaching from Antwerp to Shanghai. And still there are no traffic jams on the digital highway!

As such, I had laid the foundation for the rest of my talk. Building upon the figure of speech of a jamless highway, I could comprehensively introduce my company’s communication technologies, product portfolio and R&D activities in a way (that turned out to be) well understood by most.

  • Assuming a digital highway section is about 10 Gigabits per second wide, an optical fiber –which is thinner than a human hair– can contain almost 900 of these high-speed tracks;
  • IP routers are like super cloverleaf junctions, interconnecting up to 1600 incoming and outgoing freeways. All (data) traffic can merge onto intersecting roads without having to slow down or stop;
  • Wireline and wireless broadband access technologies, such as xDSL and 4G LTE mobile networks, provide the entrance and exit ramps. Over the past decades, access speed has increased by a factor of 2000;
  • Driving a vehicle is about the comfort, safety and convenience of drivers and passengers. Customer experience solutions help service providers closing the gap between customers’ expectations and experience;
  • Highway infrastructure needs to be planned, constructed, maintained and serviced. This is why professional services are needed to make the (road) network work;
  • Research on new technologies and applications is necessary to anticipate with a changing market demand for eco-sustainable and connected cars. In the near future, drivers and passengers will no longer have to carry any content but get it streamed to their vehicle while driving.

People liked the story and grasped the message. I got lots of positive feedback: “my parents understood your presentation” and “my kids thought you told a cool story.”  Are there any greater compliments a technology speaker can get?

Some guidelines for finding the right metaphors to spark your presentations and using them effectively can be found in these Way Beyond Ordinary and SOAP Presentations blog posts.

The Bocuse touch

A good story is like a well-plated dish. It follows a recipe with a few ingredients that all blend together. The result is a delight for the eyes, the ears and the brain. A creation that keeps the audience asking for more.

Nouvelle cuisine is a style of cooking that became popular in the 1970s as a reaction to the heavy and calorie-rich French kitchen of that era. Main characteristics of this eclectic way of preparing and presenting food are:

  • Rejection of excessive complication
  • Use of fresh ingredients and natural flavors
  • Smaller portions served
  • No more heavy sauces
  • Strong focus on composition and presentation
  • Experimenting with new combinations and pairings
  • Attention to the dietary needs of guests
  • Interest in new techniques and equipment

nouvelle cuisine

Acknowledging the innovation, elegance and originality of this new kitchen, I can easily draw a parallel with today’s best practices in B2B storytelling:

  • Emphasis on focus and simplicity
  • Dynamic and personalized presentation style
  • Less slides, more story, more interaction
  • No more heavy tables and bullet lists
  • Less time for monologue, more time for dialogue
  • Presentations enriched with images and multimedia.
  • Emphasis on value instead of products
  • Use of new presentation techniques

So, if you want to become the Paul Bocuse of the “nouvelle cuisine of business presentations” then make sure you tell a tasty story, keep your presentations minimalistic, decorate your slides with fresh images and videos, season them with metaphors, examples and anecdotes, and serve them warm to a hungry audience (and keep on reading my blog…)