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A CIO’s Guide to Better Storytelling and Presentations

Published 17 February 2020 - ID G00375225 - 27 min read

By Analysts Ed Gabrys
Initiatives:CIO Leadership, Culture and People

To succeed, CIOs must persuasively describe confusing, complex and politically charged
concepts and approaches to audiences that are limited in attention and patience. This
research presents a practical approach to storytelling and presenting to help CIOs become
more persuasive communicators.

Key Challenges This research note is restricted to the personal use of jayesh.maganlal@maf.ae.

■ Opportunities to engage and influence are limited when monologues of “business-speak,” facts
and data points are favored over the art of persuasive communications.

■ In a world of TED Talks, social media influencers and user-friendly design and production tools,
expectations for presentation and speaker quality have risen.

■ Presentation content is neither relatable nor informational when bullet lists, data points, clip art
and stock images masquerade as insight.

■ Study alone is not sufficient to become a good speaker and to perform well during moments of
high stakes and high pressure.

CIOs who wish to influence senior leadership, culture and people to gain support for digital
business initiatives by becoming more persuasive communicators and better presenters should:

■ Prepare for interaction, rather than a lecture.

■ Improve presentation quality by speaking up and acting out.

■ Invest in understanding the audience, not in slides.

■ Practice with purpose to become a “natural.”

The key to be a great presenter is to be a good storyteller. It takes more than knowing how to hold
your body or how to project your voice. It requires authenticity in how you speak through words,

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voice and body. Great storytellers embody their stories. To present well, you must do more than
speak well. Great speakers engage and connect. Lessons in rhetoric and speechmaking guide their
words, and the performance arts lend them their presence. Their talks are inspiring, and their grace
and persuasive ability admirable. We recognize that superior communication skills are essential for
success, yet many people are willing to ad lib or get by with a “good enough” presentation.
However, audiences expect more, or they stop listening. In a recent survey, close to 95% of people
admit to multitasking during meetings.1

“Selling Digital Transformation: A CIO’s Guide to Crafting Better Stories” provides the first step in
helping you to understand the power of storytelling and how to craft a better story. This research
continues and offers actionable advice to tell and embody those stories. Storytelling and
persuasive speaking are not mystical talents reserved for a lucky few with natural ability. It just
takes planning and practice, and a guide like this (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Steps to Better Storytelling

This research and Presentations
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Prepare for Interaction, Rather Than a Lecture
If you approach a presentation as a list of facts, or if you are not prepared to encourage a dialogue,
your performance is sure to be dull. Consider a different mental model and imagine that you are
preparing for a soirée or a salon. Your intent is to curate a vigorous conversation among a diverse
gathering of artists and intellectuals.

You should be concerned about presentations that are a monologue, analogous to a university
lecture. Your audience wants to feel you are speaking directly with them and in dialogue. Whether
you are talking to a small group of peers around a conference room table or an assembly of
hundreds, you can create a conversation with a few simple strategies.

Don’t Waste Their Time

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An opportunity to speak to a group of people is a gift. They are giving you their time and attention.
Waste their time, and you will lose their focus. So make the most of it, and don’t feel like you need
to spend all of it.

First, learn to read your audience. Following the advice in “Selling Digital Transformation: A CIO’s
Guide to Crafting Better Stories,” you must know your audience. Now it is time to read your
audience. Watch for nonverbal cues. Are they keeping an appropriate level of eye contact? Are they
nodding and acknowledging your points? Keep in mind that different social and regional cultures
respond in unique ways. If you are speaking to an unfamiliar group, take time beforehand to
understand what to expect. If you are anticipating laughter and applause, you may be surprised
when speaking with a community that views such outbursts as disrespectful.

Second, be prepared to deliver your session as an elevator pitch. It is common for meeting times to
change. Be ready to consolidate your key points into a five-minute summary. If you don’t yet have
an elevator pitch format that you like, the This
storytelling three-act
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“Selling Digital Transformation: A CIO’s Guide to Crafting Better Stories,” Step No. 3: Use a
Storytelling Structure):

■ Describe who the story is about and their desires, goals or ambitions.

■ Clarify the obstacle(s) that stand in their way.

■ Illustrate how your tactics, solutions and approach will lead to their success.

Third, introduce a change every 10 minutes. Studies show that people tune out a presentation after
10 minutes.2 You can change up your session in a variety of ways. Try changing your vocal
dynamics, presentation format, media types, approach to interaction or even speakers.

Master the Pause

Your voice is an instrument, and how you use it has a strong influence on how persuasive your talk
is. You may not have perfect pitch or a poet’s verbal cadence, but you can master the humble
pause. A pause gives life to your words. It gives your audience a moment to reflect, recall and
engage. Give pause at the end of a sentence and the end of a big idea. Give variability to the length
and speed of your sentences. And then pause. Take it further, and pause long enough that it starts
to feel uncomfortable. Instead of rushing to fill the space, pause for a couple of breaths. Take a
drink of water. Look out at your audience and acknowledge them. You have discovered the “power
pause.” A long pause is one of the loudest sounds you can make during a presentation. They will
lean forward. They will smile. They may even look up from their mobile phone.

Create a Conversation With Questions

Use questions to go from lecturing to creating conversations. A common type of question is the
rhetorical question, such as “Isn’t it frustrating when … ?” They are questions meant for emphasis
and not a genuine answer. They are something you should avoid or expect your audience to ignore.

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For higher engagement, make your questions real and open-ended. Try something like, “Take a
moment and come up with one thing that digital giants are doing to attract talent, that you are not.”
Then take one of those power pauses, and send them a clear signal that the question is intended to
be reflected on and answered.

Give Them Things to Do

Avoid audience distraction by engaging them in physical activity. Here are just a few ways you can
get your audience active:

■ Use a “show of hands.” It is a novice approach to audience interaction, but if done well, it is a
dependable option. Aim for questions that resonate. You can expect a significant number of
hands to raise if you ask a question like, “How many of you have had at least one cup of coffee
this morning?” Follow up and describe how coffee is the second-largest traded commodity in the
world, and its discovery is thanks to an observant and curious Ethiopian shepherd named
Kaldi.3 You will have created engagement and told
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can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.

■ Ask them to use their hands. Have them pull out a handout to highlight a section. Ask them to
pull out their phones and take a photo, visit a specific website, reach under their chair, or look in
their wallet. The options are endless.

■ Encourage them to interact with their neighbors. Give them a question or a puzzle to discuss
and consider jointly, or to share a story.

Close Strong
When your presentation ends, end strong. If you haven’t given careful attention to how you will
close your talk, you risk rushing or running long. Your logic and flow may feel disjointed and your
authority uncertain. You will certainly leave people feeling unsatisfied. When people think back on
your presentation, it will not be its length or completeness4 that they remember, but the way they
felt at its peak and its end.5 Your ending is your last and one of your best opportunities to make a
great impression.

Here are a few tips for landing a strong close:

■ Provide a callback to the start. During the opening, you may have set up a question that had not
been answered or started a story you have not yet finished. You can use your end to answer the
question, finish the story or reframe your initial premise in a new light.

■ End with a summary of key take-aways and a call to action. Tell them what to do next so that
they can realize the opportunities you have presented. Have them send an email before they
leave the room, do an exercise when they get home or try a new practice at work on Monday

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■ Finally, do not ask any new questions or introduce any new ideas. Make your close clear and
definite. Thank them, pause for the applause, then exit the space.

Improve Presentation Quality by Speaking Up and Acting Out

People are easily distracted. On average, people pick up their phones up to 80 times a day6 and
spend up to five hours a day on email.7 The constant barrage of information and input is
exhausting our limited ability to pay attention.8 Fortunately, you can turn distraction from an
enemy into an ally by “acting out” more often. The following shows you how.

Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open

Removing distractions begins with good eye contact. It makes your audience feel seen, and it helps
them to stay engaged and willing to participate.9 A natural meeting of the eyes makes your
presentation more engaging10 and memorable.11 Eye contact can also help you to appear and
feel confident, it helps you to concentrate,This
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If eye contact is so good, why don’t more presenters use it? Because maintaining eye contact while
speaking is harder than while listening. But with practice, you can become more organic and
authentic. Here’s how:

■ Focus your attention on one person or one section of the audience at a time. Hold for two to
five seconds, release and move on.

■ Find familiar or friendly faces. Spend a bit more time with those faces, and build your

■ Remove obstacles. Step out from behind the podium. Put down that stack of papers or index
cards. Unclasp your arms and your hands. See and be seen.

Harmonize Your Story and Your Physical Actions

Your story (that is, your verbal communications) and your actions (that is, nonverbal
communications) will inform your audience how to feel. Want them to feel happy and excited? Or
would you like them to feel anxious and uncertain? However you want them to feel, you must make
those feelings intentional and not accidental.

Your feelings and mood should match that which you want your audience to feel. For example, if
you are excited and enthusiastic about a new digital transformation program, focus your attention
on that feeling. Your facial expressions, hand gestures and body movement will follow. People can
quickly interpret nonverbal communications. When they are not in harmony with your verbal
communications, it creates a significant mental distraction. A roll of the eyes, a distracted glance
at your watch or a stern expression while expressing positive news all send powerful and
contradictory messages.

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To be sure you are sending the right signals, label the feelings you want your audience to
experience. Whether it be excitement, urgency, concern or pride, you can inspire those feelings by
first feeling them yourself. Whichever behaviors or attitudes you exhibit, your audience is likely to
mimic.12 In other words, they will feel what you feel.

Ensure That What You Say Is What They Hear

Humanity’s most celebrated stories, whether modern works or the earliest classics, were intended
to be heard. Whether told in a theater, around a campfire or read in the quiet of the night, good
stories invoke sights and sounds, and capture the imagination. Yet, when it’s time to prepare a
presentation, we resort to a list of bullets, business-speak and technical jargon. It’s as if we are
trying to get our audience to ignore our messages — or worse, sleep.

As the cliché goes, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” According to a UCLA study commonly
referred to as the “7-38-55 rule,” verbal communications account for a mere 7% of the overall liking
of a presentation. Over 90% is a result of how you speak
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embody it (55% for body language). Although there is some dispute among researchers over
proportions, further studies reinforce the idea that nonverbal communications and verbal
communications must work in harmony. Ignore either, and your message and presentation are
likely to fall flat.

What can you do to improve your vocal abilities?

■ Get the tempo right. If you speak too fast, you run the risk of sounding too scripted or of being
misunderstood. If you talk too slow, you risk losing your audience’s attention.

■ Research proposes that speaking moderately quickly (approximately 3.5 words per second),
and frequently pausing (four to five times a minute) is more persuasive.13

■ Start by practicing with a timer and with a friend who can interrupt and help you to adjust
your speed.

■ Enunciate every word.

■ Practice eye contact and pauses.

■ Pay attention to the pacing, stress, volume and intonation of speech. There are certain patterns
associated with specific feelings. Let your vocalizations match the emotions you want to
project. If you find your audience waning, change your vocalizations.

■ Amplify your voice and your personality for the size of the room and the size of the audience.
For smaller rooms and smaller audiences, talk conversationally. For larger rooms and audiences,
amplify your voice (electronically and physically) and your gestures. You want to be sure that
the people in the back of the room hear you, see you and feel you.

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■ Don’t distract your audience with verbal tics and filler words like “um” and “ah.” Record
yourself, and make a note of any verbal tics or filler words that add no meaning or value to your
talk and can distract your audience.

■ Find and rehearse transcripts of online recordings of persuasive speeches. Reflect on their
speed, volume and pitch. Take their speech for a “test drive” and see what works for you.

■ Don’t be alarmed by your musicality; treasure it. As you practice and gain comfort with your
material and your vocal phrasing, you will hear unique inflections, phrasing and pace that works
for you and are pleasing to your audience. Like a musician, practice, and play with your vocals.
Grab attention by raising your voice in a triumphant crescendo or relax into a whisper. Shake out
a list in staccato or slow the tempo down for suspense.

Increase Influence by Improving Body Language

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How people feel about a speaker and their messages is based on more than words and how they
sound. Studies have shown that, when watching TED Talks, with and without volume, people rate
speakers consistently.14 As we saw earlier, 55% of your message and influence comes from body

Our eyes and minds like movement, and if you don’t move, people will get bored and twitchy. If you
move too much, they’ll get distracted and confused. Many resources are available to help you
develop more presence through body language, including many great TED Talks, and the books
“Presence” (A. Cuddy) and “What Every Body Is Saying” (J. Navarro).

Many methods encourage an outside-in approach, suggesting specific postures, hand gestures and
facial expressions. For some people, this can feel insincere or awkward. An inside-out approach
encourages authenticity and one’s natural movements. Here’s how to start:

■ Demonstrate your confident pose. Imagine a recent moment when you were feeling calm and
confident. Maybe you were addressing your team, coaching your child’s sports team or regaling
a colleague with your latest accomplishment. How were you holding yourself at that moment?
There’s a good chance that your posture is upright, but relaxed. Your hands and gestures are
open and expressive. Identify those comfortable and confident nonverbals that work for you,
practice them and script them into your presentation the way you would your words.

■ Show off your warmth. Regardless of the setting, people expect to like the speaker. Smiling
signals warmth and makes you more likable. Of course, not all situations call for a smile.
Delivering bad news and smiling can trigger confusion and cognitive conflict. Warmth comes in
different forms. If warmth doesn’t come naturally, start by practicing these techniques in low-risk
situations. Your audience will appreciate it.

■ Embrace your complementary nonverbals. Ensure that your movements are purposeful and
aligned with the emotions of your talk. Your body and tone of words must align. Raising your

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hands in the air when expressing success can be a winning combination. The same gesture
when announcing cutbacks is not.

■ Avoid negative or distracting nonverbals that may suggest a lack of confidence, indifference or

■ Self-touch gestures can suggest anxiety or a lack of control.

■ When speaking to an audience from a different culture, review your talk and the full set of
postures and gestures with someone who genuinely understands that culture. For Americans,
a thumbs-up or an okay sign is an acceptable expression; in some cultures, they are obscene.

Invest in Understanding Your Audience, Not in Slides

Aim for Insights, Not Facts
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How persuasive are data and facts? The answer ranges from “it depends” to “not very.” In the
words of marketing guru Seth Godin, “Correct is fine. But it is better to be interesting.” So, what can
be more interesting than data and facts? The insights they can generate. Facts require
interpretation, knowledge and experience. That puts a lot of pressure and expectation on your
audience when you can do the hard work and analysis for them.

Here is a fact: Holding your hands on your hips is associated with feeling confident.15

Here is an insight: When lacking confidence, adopt an expansive posture, and you will feel
powerful. Holding your hands on your hips even when you don’t feel confident, has been shown to
create a change in mental state and cause you to feel more powerful and therefore more

To turn your facts and data into insights, focus on answering the questions, “Why is this
important?” and “What will we do about it?” In other words, your facts will explain “what.” Now
focus on the “So what?” and “What’s next?”

Rethink Your Use of Slides

There is a growing trend among companies banning the use of presentation programs like
Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote during meetings. You don’t need to rid yourself of
presentation software, but rethink how you use it.

Start Without Slides to Identify Visual Aids

Practice your talk without slides in front of a willing and sympathetic colleague, friend or family
member. A mirror is okay if you have no volunteers. Your goal is to hear yourself speak the words,
feel the flow and transitions, and to determine what visual aids you may need. Identify the points
during your talk when you find yourself reaching or wishing for a visual aid. If you find that you
want to draw something, graph something or locate an example image, those are things that may
indeed be helpful visuals.
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Think beyond the obvious charts, graphs, images and text, and consider prototypes or other
physical items that you can hold, pass around or put on display. Your goal is to enhance
understanding, not create distractions.

Try Presentation Software to Storyboard, but Never as a Teleprompter

Your audience can listen to you, or they can read your slides. Don’t ever make them decide. Try
developing your slideshow as a storyboard first. You can use Microsoft PowerPoint in Slide Sorter
view, or you can go the analog path and use index cards, or “sticky” notes. Think of this step as an
outline of your key insights. Use one idea or one concept per slide or note. The constrained space
will help you to limit the visuals. Don’t try to perfect the look of your presentation; just organize
your ideas and the flow.

Looking at your storyboard, ask yourself whether you have a strong opening and close. As you
progress from one slide to the next, is the story arc logical and does it flow? Does each slide
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encompass only one idea? Do you know what you will say to bridge and transition from one slide
to the next? Start moving slides around as necessary to surface your story and to craft a
persuasive presentation.

Use Slides to Complement, Not Compete

When you use presentation software, your slides should serve as a companion and complement,
not competition. Good design is neither decoration nor embellishment. Avoid anything that doesn’t
enhance understanding. Imagine your slide space as expensive real estate, and use it judiciously.
Here are a few simple rules to follow:

■ If it doesn’t help to create insight, you probably don’t need it.

■ Text makes for good reading, but not a good presentation. If you are going to say the words,
don’t put them on a slide. If you use text, know that you are asking your audience to read it and
make time in your presentation to pause and let them do that.

■ If you use text, make it big. Never use a font size less than 18. Challenge yourself by using a
font size that of your audience’s average age. If your audience is 30 to 50 years of age, the font
size should be 40. If you want to go with far less text, use a font size double the age of your
audience. If your text no longer fits, go back and edit.

■ Be sure your slides pass the three-second test. Author and presentation expert Nancy Duarte
says that your audience should comprehend a slide at a glance or in three seconds. This is
analogous to the way one glances at and understands a passing billboard.

Well-developed visuals are an essential part of any presentation, as up to half of the brain is
devoted directly or indirectly to vision.17 Studies have shown that combining text and illustrations
is 323% better for helping people follow instructions than text alone.18 Here are a few tips on how
to use visuals:

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■ Get the underlying research and data correct. Regardless of how clever, colorful or beautiful
your visuals are, they are only as good as the information they illuminate.

■ Use visuals to enlighten, not entertain. Always emphasize story and insight over data, and
depth of understanding over decoration.

■ Use visuals to make sense of scale and complexity. “The amount of data was huge,” or “We
analyzed three petabytes of data” is meaningless to all but a small technical crowd. However, a
visual comparison to a page of plain text or DVD can be extraordinary when you imagine that a
petabyte of data is the equivalent of 900 billion pages of plain text or 223,000 DVDs.

Props, Video and Audio Are Visuals Too

Your presentation visuals need not be limited to what can fit on a slide. Props (aka “theatrical
property”) and other physical objects also work. You can use a 3D printed model, a prototype or
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even a staged reenactment to bring your ideas to life. In the words of Glen Shires of Google, “If a
picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 10,000 slides.” In their book “Switch: How to
Change Things When Change Is Hard,”19 Chip and Dan Heath tell of a concerned employee from a
large manufacturing company who identified quality control issues in the procurement process.
His team gathered 424 different types of gloves that were being purchased under the current
process and piled them on top of a table. When the executives saw the size of the pile and the price
variation between similar gloves, they were convinced to change their approach. As the saying
goes, seeing is believing.

It may seem obvious that video is a visual, but it is rarely used in presentations. Video is a powerful
means to bring an audience to a place or time not practical otherwise. It can be used for an
interview, a physical walk-through of an environment or to visualize a motion graphic. Do not use
video unnecessarily, and be certain it brings value and is specific to your story.

Counterintuitively, audio can also be a powerful visual tool. When audio is used alone, our brains
interpret what the ears hear as visual images. Sound invites the mind to fill in unseen information
with familiar and empathetic images and feelings. Instead of telling people what a frontline
employee, a customer or a citizen may have said, a recording of those same individuals speaking
for themselves makes it real.

Practice With Purpose to Become a “Natural”

It is common for people to admire the natural talent of an outstanding speaker. However, that
talent is likely less natural and more practiced. Busy businesspeople are less likely to practice and
more likely to rely on speaking skills acquired from school and work-related activities. They lean on
a “common sense” approach accumulated from casual observations, some light reading and
possibly a coaching session from a few years’ past. But public speaking is more performance art
and — yes — storytelling, than a simple act of speaking while standing. Study alone doesn’t work.

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To become a better speaker, you do not need 10,000 hours of practice, but practice and rehearse
you must. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

■ Practice more than you think you should. Get comfortable with your content, and practice the
techniques in this research, such as tempo, intonation and authenticity. Twenty rehearsals
should be your minimum. Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor rehearsed her TED Talk over 200 times,20 and she
attributes its success to practice. Her talk has over 25 million views.

■ Rehearse your presentation by “chunking” it into smaller parts. Chunking is a technique that
aids in committing information to memory. To chunk your work, group similar ideas into a theme
or concept. If your presentation has defined sections, those can serve as natural chunks.

■ Practice at play, then practice under stress. Begin rehearsing under comfortable, low pressure,
and even fun situations. Experiment and try new forms of visual media, and practice body
language, vocalizations and eye contact. Try imitating someone whose presentation skills you
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admire. Practice in front of a mirror, then in front of those empathetic friends and family. As you
get comfortable with your content and delivery, start increasing the level of stress. Move from
friends and family to mentors, experts and colleagues willing to give you an honest critique. By
delivering your presentation under mild stress, you can limit the chance that you will falter when
in a high-pressure situation.

Manage Your Fear and Prepare for Failure

According to a 2018 Chapman University Survey,21 public speaking is less of a concern than
cyberterrorism, identity theft, losing your phone, computers replacing people in the workforce,
snowstorms and 54 other fears. Nonetheless, if you find that you can still use a little help in getting
over your presentation jitters, here’s some advice:

■ Remember that you are already an accomplished “performer.” Whether at work, helping a child
with homework or entertaining people in your home, you are already playing a part. As a leader,
parent or friend, you alter your behavior to suit the circumstance, becoming more professional,
supportive or entertaining. When you are doing a presentation, you are taking many of the same
well-practiced behaviors into your session.

■ Develop personal preparation moments to focus your efforts, get you in the mood and calm
your nerves. Start practicing them in low-pressure situations so that they are working when you
need them most.

■ Empathy rituals help you to get in tune with your audience. Meet and talk with your audience
before your presentation. Walk around the room or facility to get a sense of what your
audience will see and experience.

■ Warmup rituals should be part of your speaking regiment to get your body prepared. You can
find many warmup exercises online, but these will get you started:

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■ Prepare your voice by drinking room temperature water. Take a few deep breaths. Then
practice a few lines from your talk by articulating each sound deliberately.

■ Get your body warm and limber. Do some light stretching of your neck. Shrug your
shoulders up to your ears, hold and release a few times. Shake out your arms and hands.

■ Turn your nervous energy into excitement with a relaxation ritual:

■ Before you begin your talk, take a few more slow, deep, relaxing breaths. Breathe in from your
nose and out through your mouth.

■ Practice smiling. You may be the only person in the room, but start smiling before you begin
your talk so that the warmth you feel follows you into your presentation.

Under normal circumstances, an abrasiveThis

interruption, a slideshow malfunction or an adjustment
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in timing could be a major failure. However, since you will have prepared, you are ready to meet any
challenge. Don’t forget: A bad day makes for a great story. But this will be a story of triumph. Now
go practice.

Acronym Key and Glossary Terms

Term Definition

clickbait Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a

hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or

 “[INFOGRAPHIC] The 2018 State of Attention,” Prezi.

 “Delivering a PowerPoint? Your Audience Will Tune Out After 10 Minutes,” Forbes.

 “How Islamic Inventors Changed the World,” Independent.

This is due to a phenomenon called “duration neglect.”

This is based on the phenomenon called the “peak-end rule.”

 “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?” Asurion.

 “If You Think Email Is Dead, Think Again,” CMO by Adobe.

 “Abundance of Information Narrows Our Collective Attention Span,” EurekAlert!

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 “‘Here’s Looking at You’ Has New Meaning: Eye Contact Shown to Affect Conversation Patterns,
Group Problem-Solving Ability,” ScienceDaily.

 “Watching Eyes Effects: When Others Meet the Self,” ScienceDirect.

 “Effect of Teacher’s Gaze on Children’s Story Recall,” ERIC.

 “The Chameleon Effect: The Perception-Behavior Link and Social Interaction,” American
Psychological Association PsycNET.

 “Persuasive Speech: The Way We, Um, Talk Sways Our Listeners,” Michigan News.

 “5 Secrets of a Successful TED Talk,” Science of People.

 “P-Curving a More Comprehensive Body of Research on Postural Feedback Reveals Clear
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