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When speaking, paint the picture, not just the frame
When it comes to how you as leaders and change-makers speak in front of your audiences in these turbulent times, the call is to do it differently
1 Nov 2022

We are living through a period of unprecedented transformation and change at the moment, the likes of which humanity has never seen before. From the health of the planet, to social disruption, to geo-political unrest, we are at a tipping point.

When it comes to how we communicate with each other in these tempestuous times, specifically how you, as leaders and change-makers speak in front of your audiences, the call is to do it differently.

It’s no longer enough to deliver your presentations reciting monotone facts and figures which suck the life out of the room. Today, to help ease the woes of the messy and tumultuous times that we are living in, your audiences want to feel something and experience a shared sense of humanity. The ask is for messages that matter and for deep-rooted and authentic connection.

To realize this high goal and to more meaningfully connect with your audiences, you must learn how to paint the picture, not just the frame. To give you an understanding of what this means and how to achieve it, let’s explore the wisdom of esteemed poet and intellectual, Maya Angelou, who said:

“People don’t remember what you said,

they don’t remember what you did,

they remember how you made them feel.”

Inside of this simple, yet profound quote, lies the essence of what effective leadership speaking entails, that a powerful talk should reveal your emotional connection to your topic and should make your audience “feel” what you feel. When you achieve this, your talk touches your listeners on a visceral level and they share the emotional experience with you. We all know what this is like…it’s the sensation that we have in our whole body when we listen to someone recount an emotional experience. Through what they say and how they say it, we feel the pleasure or the pain too.

Is speaking in public an art or a science?

The problem with standard talks and presentations these days is that many stay in the superficial comfort zone of focusing on facts, figures and data transmission. Knowledge sharing becomes the main focus as speakers wax poetic about details in charts, graphs and other information prompts. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is called “painting the frame”. It’s that layer of hard material (i.e. facts, figures and data) that supports and gives shape to the picture in the middle, but where is the picture?

Let me remind you that it’s the picture that we go to see in the art museum, it’s the picture that tells the story, it’s the picture that makes us feel something…not the frame.

To “paint the picture” in our presentations, we must describe with depth and delicious detail those things in our talks which evoke our senses. The things that we can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. This works because we humans are sensual creatures and are designed to use our five senses to survive and thrive in the world. We use them to explore, to communicate and to stay safe in our surroundings. It’s how we live. Thus, when speaking in front of your audiences, in addition to painting your frame, paint the picture of what you are talking about and imbue as many of the five senses as you can. Where possible, let us “see” the sights, “hear” the sounds, “smell” the smells, “feel” the touches and “taste” the flavors.

Here’s an example of painting the picture by amplifying the sense of sight:

The frame

“Mangroves, trees and shrubs that live in the coastal intertidal zone are under threat. Up to 35% of their coverage has been lost between 1980-2000*.”

The frame and the picture

“Mangroves, an extraordinary ecosystem made up of a variety of short and tall trees and shrubs that live in mostly tropical coastal swamps, are under threat. They grow in salt water with their tangled roots sticking up out of the mud and schools of many different species of colorful fish swim between their tree trunks. Up to 35% of their coverage has been lost between 1980-2000.”

For those of you reading this and thinking: “Yes but, I only have 10 minutes to deliver my presentation and I have to get the knowledge out there,” remember Maya Angelou’s quote! And remember that you can paint the frame and, also paint the picture. This way your audiences are more likely to remember those vivid details along with the facts you share. And more importantly, they are likely to begin to feel something as a result.

It’s a tickling sensation in our bodies when we as listeners understand what a speaker is saying on a visceral level. When we can imagine the things that they are describing by experiencing them vicariously through our senses. Something deep within us stirs, connects the dots and comes alive. As communicators, painting the picture by imbuing your content with vivid sensory descriptions is a superpower which helps to transcend the superficial, humdrum content of standard presentations. Like a laser beam, this technique goes deep and allows for more profound meaning, understanding and connection.

In our turbulent times so full of disruption and disarray, where both humanity and the planet that we are living on are at a tipping point, why not use this powerful technique as a force for good to help make the world a better place, one talk at a time.

*Source for the statistics: IUCN (2020) Global Coasts. Marine News. June Issue. pp.6-7

* Dr. Laura Penn is the Founder of The Leadership Speaking School. She trains leaders, teams and change-makers how to speak in public.
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