Let’s face it – we all love stories.
From the fairy tales, we read growing up to action-packed comic books of a hero’s journey and even that touching ad on tv that made you tear a little – stories are everywhere we look.
But for me, there will always be one particular genre that I’ll hold close to heart above the rest, and it’s the quintessential whodunit.
Mystery storytelling is more common than you might realise.
As a child growing up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie, there were few things more relaxing than curling up with a good mystery novel. I’d follow the detective’s footsteps closely and pin my bets on one particular suspect, only for him to end up as the murderer’s second victim! Classic, edgy and suspenseful, it’s no wonder the mystery genre has made it on to everyone’s top 10 lists at some point or another.
And here’s the thing that good mysteries and good presentations have in common. Suspense! That’s what keeps the reader turning the page at 4 in the morning, and your audience glued to the edge of the seats instead of slipping out for an extended coffee break. It keeps your audience wanting more.
So how do you weave suspense masterfully into your presentation narrative like a mystery?
1. Kill Off Mr.Perfect
What’s better than a hero? A flawed hero. Your audience won’t care for a protagonist that seems to have everything under control. The lead detective always has something else on his mind – his crumbling marriage, a damning secret from his past, etc. They want to see him struggle and grow because people relate more to your failures than your successes. That’s a good tip to keep in mind no matter the subject or context of your presentation. If you’re telling a personal anecdote, stop trying to sound like Mr. Perfect, because Mr. Perfect isn’t likable.
2. Tell A Story, Not Your Entire Life’s Backstory
Mysteries exist very much in the present (what’s happening in the current progress of the case) and the future (the detective’s plans for weeding out the culprit). Flashbacks are used minimally and expertly to add flavor to the story. Too much of it becomes draggy, and your story goes nowhere. Similarly, it’s great to recount an experience that put you on the path to making this speech, but the main gist of your presentation lies in your current efforts and future plans.
3. Plan Way Ahead of Time
A mystery author is always 300 pages in front his reader. Before he typed the first word of the first chapter, he already knew how the story was going to end. Even before the murder event is introduced on paper, the author had already scourged for clues, laid out the usual suspects, and sorted out the killer’s motive, opportunity, and method. Any mystery that begins without these in place is bound to fall flat. And if you don’t have your beginning, middle and end planned out, your audience better be prepared for a confused, meandering narrative that says everything and yet nothing at all.
4. Raise the Stakes
The suspense is all about making the reader worry about the impending doom that will befall your protagonist.
It’s about making these 3 points clear to your reader:
1) What the character desires,
2) What’s preventing him from achieving it, and
3) What’s going to happen if he doesn’t get what he wants?
What if the murderer isn’t caught? Will more lives will be in danger? Or if the millionaire’s fortune falls into hands bent on world domination? And you build suspense by drawing the doom ever closer and framing the situation in time. By when must something be done to avert the disaster? When’s the final deadline? If you story is missing these, create one. You need to build urgency to make your audience sit up and listen.
5. Make Promises
For the suspense to work, your audience needs to know something about the future to engage them. Don’t just keep your audience in the dark! An audience being led around by the nose won’t be engaged – they’ll be confused and disinterested. You need to continuously drop clues about where the story is heading. One foolproof way of doing this is to outline the contents of your speech, in brief, so your audience has an idea of what’s to come. You can also make promises with lines like “By the end of this speech, all of you will be equipped with the knowledge on how to delay global warming by just 10 minutes each day”. This promise creates anticipation from the audience.
6. But don’t forget to keep them!
The only thing worse than failing to make any promise with your audience is to fail to deliver on them. No one likes being taken for a ride, and as a speaker, you should do more to respect your audience’s time. Remember that your presentation is an advocacy for yourself, and your next collaborator or funder could be in the audience! If you’ve promised an “extensive approach to unleashing your inner writer”, a one-liner isn’t going to cut it. Or don’t promise a “revolutionary approach to marketing” if all you have to offer are predictable, clichéd tips culled from the top 5 hits of a Google search.
Just don’t make promises that you can’t deliver.
To Wrap It All Up…
At the end of the day, it all boils down to suspense – which has everything to do with generating audience empathy. Introducing a likeable protagonist, and pitting him against seemingly impossible obstacles that will have the audience rooting for him, coupled with a continuous promise-and-deliver rapport between speaker and audience, are what will get your audience hooked on your presentation and message.