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Setting the scene

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One of the best uses of a powerful story is to 'set the scene' at the beginning of a presentation when you suspect you'll encounter some resistance to what you're about to say. You do this by following 3 simple steps:

  1. Tell the story (see 8 tips for adding 'oomph!' to your stories)
  2. Explain the point it's meant to make
  3. Link it to the presentation topic

1. For when you want to discourage timidity and caution: Cesare Borgia's 'Great Deception'

Let's say you're outlining a problem and presenting a solution for it and you know some of the audience will advise a cautious, wait-and-see, halfway-house approach. You could open with this:

It's the beginning of the 16th century, and the ruthless Cesare Borgia, Duke Valentino, has had a falling out with two of his mercenary captains. Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo fear that Borgia is growing too powerful, that he's about to destroy them and make himself the most powerful man in Italy.


bbbbbCesare Borgia Cesare Borgia

So they plot with his enemies and encourage insurrection throughout the duke's territories, Many towns switch allegiance and many of the duke's soldiers desert him, until he's forced to the negotiating table with his tail between his legs. Dealing from a position of weakness, he's forced to agree that the insurgents can keep whatever loot they've gained, to pay them the princely sum of 4,000 ducats and to agree that he would never force them to 'come into his presence unwillingly'.

Not long afterwards, Vitelli and da Fermo are besieging the city of Sinigaglia, and the captain of the fort there agrees to surrender but will only do so to the duke in person. Borgia immediately sees the chance for revenge, for he can now approach them without arising suspicion. By now he's raised a new mercenary army, and he despatches it in several columns by various routes so as not to arouse suspicion, with orders to converge secretly just outside the city.

Vitelli and da Fermo expect him to arrive with a small escort and are waiting for him with only 1,000 men. When he turns up with 13,000 mercenaries at his heels, there's nothing they can do. The duke greets them warmly and invites them into the Palazzo Bernadino for a banquet, and as soon as they're inside, has them arrested. Their men are immediately attacked and as they're being disarmed, Borgia has the two mercenary captains strangled to death.

Now Borgia could have simply imprisoned his enemies, demanded financial reparations from them or stripped them of their lands and titles and banished them somewhere. But he knew that once he'd committed himself to action, he had to go the whole hog. Once he'd committed himself to a course of revenge, the only practical end-point was the death of his enemies. Anything short of that would have been counter-productive. Hesitation can be dangerous, and if you pursue a course of action half-heartedly, you erect obstacles in your own path.

And I'd like you to think about that during my presentation today. I'm going to outline a serious problem and propose a solution to it. But that solution will only work if we apply it with total commitment. There may be a temptation to attempt to go half-way, to be cautious in our response. But if we do that, I believe we'll be creating even more pain and expense in the long run, because half-measures can create more problems than they solve. To mix metaphors, we have to grasp the nettle, jump in head first and go the whole nine yards . . .

2. For explaining about the need to stick to one thing and not attempt to be 'all things to all men': The goose and the horse

Let's say you're VP for Marketing and there's been pressure to change your strategy and introduce a cheaper range of products because of competitive pricing activity. You could say:

A goose was once plucking grass when a horse began to graze alongside him. Annoyed by his presence, the goose turned to him and said,,

"How dare you intrude upon my meal. I am by far a more noble and perfect specimen than you, because as a horse you can only do one thing. I have wings with which I can raise myself in the air; when I want I can sport on ponds and lakes; and I can walk on the ground as well as you. I have the different powers of a bird, a fish and a quadruped."

The horse snorted disdainfully and said,

"It's true that you can do all three of those, but you can't do any of them very well. You can fly; but your flight is so ungainly that you can't possibly compare yourself with a lark or a swallow. You can swim, but you can't glide effortlessly beneath the water as fishes do. And when you waddle on the ground, with your long neck and your broad feet, you're a subject of ridicule and amusement to any who observe you.

It's true that I am only made to do one thing, but see how gracefully I run. How well-turned are my limbs. How great is my strength and how astonishing my speed! I'd much rather be great at one thing and admired for that than be a goose at everything!"

The morale of this story is that it's better to be great at one thing than mediocre at several. We've come under a lot of pressure recently to introduce a new range of cheaper products because of price pressure. But that's not what we do. Our reputation, our competitive advantage, our whole raison d'etre is one thing - quality. And our response is going to be to raise that and widen the gap with the competition even more. We're going to stick at being a horse rather than have a go at being a goose . . .

3. For when you're presenting to the purchasing department (1): Otto von Bismarck's 'Blood and Iron' Speech

Let's say you're the VP for Purchasing, you've been tasked by the CEO with getting increased discounts from your major vendors and you're presenting to your purchasing managers about what's going to happen. You could start off with this:

It's 1862 and King William of Prussia appoints Otto von Bismarck as his Chancellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs. Bismarck is well known as a reactionary conservative, and the appointment is extremely unpopular with the liberals in the king's cabinet and government, who howl in outrage.


BismarckOtto von Bismarck, the 'Iron Chancellor'

Only one week later he makes an inflammatory speech to a few dozen ministers about the need to enlarge the army and settle the great questions of the time with 'blood and iron.' Liberals across

Germany scream in indignation, declaring him a militarist who wants to turn Prussia into a military state. Even Queen Augusta demands that the king fire him. Opposition is so strong that the king begins to fear he'll end up on a guillotine like Louis XIV of France. He agrees to sack Bismarck.

Now Bismarck realizes he's blundered and that his days as Chancellor are numbered. His dismissal is now a matter of 'when' not 'if,' But when the king summons him to the palace, he completely turns the situation around by knowing better than anyone else what motivates him.

King William is an ex-military man with a strong sense of honor and Bismarck knows he hates being bullied by his wife and advisors. He secretly wants to be a great and powerful king but is afraid of acting like one because of his fear of revolution.

He raises his fear of the guillotine and Bismarck says "We must die sooner or later, and could there be a more honorable way of dying? I should die fighting for my king and master. Your majesty would die sealing with your blood your royal rights." He appeals to William's honor and asks how he can allow people to push him around. Not only does the king stand up to parliament and the queen and keep Bismarck on as Chancellor, he also agrees to enlarge the army (which is Bismarck's objective all along) and over the next decade Bismarck will push him into three wars and the creation of a German empire.

Because Bismarck was a master at knowing what made people tick. He knew that each man - or woman - has something that motivates them more than anything else and this need is like a groove on their head or over their heart. Once you've identified it, you can insert you thumb into it and turn them at will.

Each of the vendors you'll sit down with over the next month has one of these. For some, it will the need for an immediate big order, because it's nearing their financial year end and they're behind budget. For some it will be a volume commitment spread out over the coming year. For some it will be better payment terms. But they will all have something which drives them more than anything else.

Your job is to find out what that is, and use it to get our prices down . . .

4. For when you're presenting to the purchasing department (2): Corcyra and Corinth

Another way of approaching the same situation would be to say:

It's 433 BC, and the island of Corcyra (present day Corfu) is on the brink of war with the city of Corinth. Both sides send embassies to try to win the Athenians to their cause. The stakes are high, because whoever has Athens on their side is pretty much guaranteed to win.

The Corcyran ambassador speaks first. He admits they have no great shared history with Athens and have even been allied to the city's enemies more than once. There are no ties of kinship or friendship that bind them. All he can offer is an alliance of mutual benefit. Corcyra has the second largest navy in Greece, and an alliance between the two states will create an unbeatable naval force which can be used to intimidate Athens' sworn enemy, Sparta.

The Corinthians then give an impassioned speech about their shared history with Athens and everything Corinth's done for them in the past. They refer to the moral obligation Athens has to repay them for their past loyalty and good deeds, and the importance of showing loyalty to one's friends.

The Athenians debate the matter in assembly, and vote overwhelmingly to ditch their long-standing friend and ally themselves with Corcyra. What the Corcyrans didn't realize was their references to all the things they had done for Athens in the past and the city's subsequent obligations just irritated the Athenians. They weren't interested in what had happened in the past, they were interested in the coming war with Sparta.

Because when people choose to talk about the past and talk about the future, a pragmatic person will always opt for the future and forget the past. And most people - and companies - are pragmatic, and will rarely act against their own self-interest.

Each of the vendors you'll sit down with over the next month will view your request through the prism of their own self-interest. Asking for improved terms by appealing to their better nature won't work. Asking for a bigger discount by reminding them of how much business we've given them in the past will fail. Asking them to lower their prices because of the good relationship we've always had will be futile.

You need to appeal to their self-interest. You need to give them something in return. You need to offer them something. What you offer will differ from vendor to vendor. For some, it will the an immediate big order, because it's nearing their financial year end and they're behind budget. For some it will be a volume commitment spread out over the coming year. For some it will be exclusivity. Self-interest and self-interest alone is what will move them, not a desire to help us reduce our cost base . . .

5. For when you want people to take the blinkers off and think about something from a fresh perspective: Ignaz Semmelweis

Let's say you're presenting on the need for change and you know some of your audience are going to be critical of your ideas and will oppose them without really listening to what you have to say. You could say:

Ignaz Semmelweis was a physician who worked in the maternity dept of the hospital in Vienna in the 1840s. At the time, death rates for women giving birth due to what was called 'childbed fever' varied enormously. In some wards they could be 5%, in others as high as 30%. That up to 1 woman in 3 would die in childbirth was accepted with a shrug and the words, 'that's life!'

But Semmelweis wanted to know why the rates varied so much from ward to ward, and why women who gave birth prematurely and never made it hospital very rarely got childbed fever. He had no preconceptions about this, just an open mind. And he examined every possible thing it could be - was it mothers' milk? Diet? Bad ventilation? Constipation? Even the color of the paint on the ward walls?

Finally he narrowed it down to who was assisting in the childbirth. You see ... in one ward, where doctors or medical students assisted, the death rates were much higher than when in the second ward, where midwives did. Women would actually get on their knees and beg to be admitted to the second ward. Because unbelievable as it now seems, the doctors and students often came straight from the dissecting rom, where they demonstrated and practiced delivering babies from corpses, to the maternity ward where they did it for real, and the concept of washing your hands for hygienic reasons was completely unknown at the time. A simple wiping of the hands on the coat was deemed sufficient, and having bits of blood and body matter all over your front was almost a badge of honor. It meant you were a 'real' doctor.

In a decision that would save the lives of millions of new mothers around the world, Semmelweis determined that the deaths could be reduced simply by doctors disinfecting their hands before assisting in childbirth. His work introduced a revolution in hygiene.

But was he hailed as hero? Given promotion? Awarded riches and fame? Quite the opposite. His colleagues refused to believe that they could possibly be to blame. They were gentlemen, and the idea that their hands might need washing offended them.

His ideas were ridiculed, rejected and ignored, and he was driven from Vienna in disgrace, back to his native Hungary where he died in a lunatic asylum. His theories were only accepted years later when Louis Pasteur developed germ theory as a cause of disease, which gave a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis's findings.

The narrow-mindedness of Semmelweis's contemporaries in rejecting a discovery that would save millions of lives just because it conflicted with their ideas of the way the world worked is appalling to us nowadays. In fact the knee-jerk, reflexive rejection of new knowledge because it conflicts with accepted beliefs is now known as a 'Semmelweis reflex'.

During my presentation today I'm going to talk about the need for change. I'm going to say some things that many of you will find controversial. I'm going to say some things that most of you will find surprising. I'm even going to say some things that a few of you will find offensive.

But if you disagree with what I'm saying, I want you to ask yourself a question: Am I disagreeing because I think his logic is wrong, or is it just because what he's saying makes me uncomfortable? In other words, is it just a 'Semmelweis reflex'?



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