He took a puff of his cigar, laughed to himself, and walked across the stage slowly. The audience leaned forward anxiously, barely moving lest they miss his next word. Several thousand people, in the age of beeps and buzzers and social media, sat in total, fixated silence. Who was this powerful man? Mark Twain. Or, rather, Hal Holbrook brilliantly portraying him in the Broadway Show “Mark Twain Tonight.”
I’ve always been a rabid fan of Twain’s, and I was amazed that his material still mesmerizes audiences today. He used techniques that allowed him to both entertain with a humorous story and influence the minds of the people listening to him. Annette Simmons, author of “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact” says the following:
When you stimulate human emotions with a story, you point those emotions in a certain direction. At a social level, stories replicate the neurological effect of attention in our individual brains.. . . Attention is a prerequisite to influence because attention frames interpretations. When a movie director makes a little box with his hands to emphasize what is seen in the frame, he also deletes most of the surrounding data. Similarly, when you frame an issue you predetermine the conclusions people draw from available data by focusing their attention on the data inside your frame.
Mark Twain used stories to make his point in a way that influenced by hitting on a certain truth to which we could all relate. For example, Hal Holbrook did a reading from Huckleberry Finn, where Jim, Huck’s friend who was an escaped slave, shared a story where his young daughter who had survived scarlet fever, refused to close the front door when he asked her to do so. He asked her twice to shut it, and when she refused he tells Huck that he proceeded to slap her upside her head (much more common in those days). Jim then went out the back door and came up behind her as she stood by the front door. He yelled in her ear, and she didn’t budge. Jim then realized that his daughter was deaf due to the scarlet fever. In the story, Jim’s shoulders shook as he sobbed his regret.
During the time of the Civil War and the battle over slavery, could Twain have made his point more effectively? He didn’t lecture, he didn’t even share his stand on slavery, he simply shared a story that showed a slave had the same commitment to and love for his family as anybody else.
Based on my experience with Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain, here are some things to consider in the future:
1. Use stories instead of rants. Decide what point you want to make, and then look back and determine from whence you perspective came. Write down that story and share it instead of the point.
2. Use humor. People open up their hearts and minds when they laugh. Plus, it keeps you from taking yourself and your point too seriously.
3. Pause. Mark Twain was the master of pulling you in with a story and then pausing, sometimes for ten seconds, before continuing. It pulls your audience in, as they hold their breath anticipating the next part of the story. I wouldn’t recommend this same strategy when presenting data on a PowerPoint deck. You pause then and everybody takes a break and checks their Blackberrys.
As Annette Simmons says, “Meaning is more powerful than facts. When you activate new stories you transport people to new points of view, change meaning, behaving, and in that way — you change the future.”[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOwZ_TsI28A[/youtube]