The Pathos Principle
Persuasion cannot occur in the absence of Pathos, an appeal to the audience’s emotion.
Stories are the best linguistic tool we have to build Pathos because humans are wired for it. There are three types of stories you can use in your next pitch or presentation: (1) stories about personal experiences, (2) stories about customers, clients, or other people, and (3) signature stories about your brand or company.
The Three-Act Storytelling Structure
Act I: The set-up
Two friends share an apartment in San Francisco and struggle to pay rent. Brian and Joe put three air mattresses on the floor and rent them out for $80 each. The two entrepreneurs decide to make a business of it. They hire a former roommate (Nathan) to design a simple website called airbedandbreakfast.com. The three friends launch their startup at the popular South by Southwest conference. Far from being a huge success out of the gate, they only get two bookings.
Catalyst: The Democratic National Convention comes to town and it sparks an idea. The co-founders repackage cereal and design novelty boxes: Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains. They charge $40 a box and raise $30,000. It’s enough money to keep the adventure going.
Act II: The conflict
The co-founders are running short on cash. All seems lost. When Chesky reaches this scene in his public presentations, he builds up the tension. “I would wake up in a panic. Everyone thought it was crazy. No one supported us. We had no money. It was the best weight-loss program ever. I lost 20 pounds. I didn’t have any money for food. I would wake up in the morning with my heart pounding. During the course of the day I would convince myself that everything would work out. I went to bed at night really confident. Like a reset button, I would be jolted out of bed with my heart pounding.”
Chesky reminds audiences that many people were skeptical of the service in its early years. And they regret it. According to Chesky, “Twenty investors had been introduced to Airbnb. Any one of them could have owned 20 percent of the company for $100,000. Fifteen of them didn’t even reply to my e-mail. I met with one investor at a cafe. In the middle of drinking his smoothie, he got up, left, and I’ve never seen him again.”
Act III: The resolution
Just when all hope seems lost, Airbnb seeks admission to Y Combinator, the highly selective Silicon Valley accelerator that provides seed funding and coaching for startups. It is Chesky’s last-ditch effort, but in another all-is-lost moment, Chesky misses the deadline to apply. The tension rises. “If we didn’t get in, we would not exist,” Chesky’s co-founder Joe Gebbia says in his presentations. But at the last minute they manage to apply late and are invited to interview. The tension rises again. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham is initially skeptical. “People actually do this?” he asks the founders. “I wouldn’t want to stay on anyone else’s sofa.” The tension breaks when Graham decides to jump on board. He figures that anyone who could convince people to pay $40 for a $2 box of cereal is worth taking a chance on.
Thanks to Y Combinator’s $20,000 investment and its coaching, Airbnb bookings begin growing steadily, soaring 40 to 50 percent a month. Investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, and celebrity Ashton Kutcher come knocking. By 2014, Airbnb reaches a value of $10 billion. Within six years of renting air mattresses on the floor, Brian, Joe, and Nathan are each worth $1.5 billion. Today Airbnb is valued at $30 billion and worth more than any hotel chain in the world.
Set-up, conflict, resolution, and 30 billion reasons to live happily ever after.
Three-Act Storytelling: The Bottom Line
- Follow the classic three-act storytelling formula in your next pitch or presentation: set-up, conflict, and resolution. It’s a formula as old as storytelling itself, and it works.
- Keep your audience in suspense (and alert) by including some hurdles the hero must overcome before they successfully accomplish the mission.
- Trigger a release of oxytocin in the brains of your listeners by telling stories with a dramatic arc that includes tension, struggle, and a happy ending.
Deliver the Big Picture
The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.—The Godfather
A male nurse meets his girlfriend’s parents before proposing, but her suspicious father is every date’s worst nightmare.—Meet the Parents
An undercover police officer has to track down and arrest the fugitives responsible for stealing electronics from a semi-truck, but has a hard time turning them in because he falls in love with one of them.—The Fast and the Furious
Whether you’re selling an idea to Hollywood producers, delivering an argument to a judge, or making a pitch to investors, the logline rules. If a story is too complicated, it doesn’t stick. The simpler a story is, the easier it is for us to join that narrative.
Great presentations have one theme. Everything else supports that key message.
Think of your next pitch or presentation as the logline to a Hollywood movie. If you had one sentence and one sentence only to pitch your idea, what would you say?
Less Is More
Download text readability software like the Hemingway app. These are mobile or desktop tools that use reliable algorithms that judge the grade level of your text. They’ll show you the lowest education level required to read and understand whatever piece of writing you tell the software to analyze.
Edit your work, edit again, and edit some more. JFK had one of the world’s great speechwriters by his side and yet still improved his work by editing and then reediting. Great communicators make their work look effortless because they put a lot of effort into making it work.
Keep in mind that your audience will tune out after approximately 10 minutes. Some neuroscientific studies have found that attention spans last a bit longer, but not much … up to 15 minutes. There seems to be a built-in evolutionary reason for people to check out after a particular period of time. Put simply, the brain gets bored. Get to the point and get there quickly.
How to Give Your Ideas “Verbal Beauty”
Analogy Is the “Fabric of Our Mental Life”
When Doug Hofstadter’s daughter was about two years old she said she wanted to “undress” a banana. She didn’t know the verb—peel—so her brain connected the experience to something she did know—undressing a doll. Hofstadter paid attention to the girl’s comment because nobody has studied analogy more than he has. “Analogy is the key mechanism for all our thinking,” he said.
In his surprise appearance at TED, Pope Francis made an analogy that generated more than 6,000 shares on Twitter and appeared in more than 1,000 headlines: “Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach,” Pope Francis said. “You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness.”
Analogies and metaphors give your language its “verbal beauty.”
Start keeping an eye out for analogies and metaphors. If you pay attention, you’ll find them everywhere.
Conquer the Fear That Holds You Back
Great communicators are made, not born. Many of the world’s most inspiring speakers—from historical figures to today’s business leaders—have overcome anxiety, nerves, and stage fright. You can, too. Neuroscientists have identified two techniques that will help you shine when the pressure is on: reappraisal and repetition.
Two Keys to Thrive Under Pressure: Reappraisal and Repetition
Part of the reason why many people choke when the stakes are high is because we put added stress on ourselves, stress we can remove if we choose. For example, people are more likely to bomb a presentation when worries and self-doubt flood the brain. Anticipation of an event, and specifically anticipation of others judging you, is enough to put pressure on before you have even arrived at the performance stage. Reappraisal and repetition stops the cycle cold.
Reappraisal simply means reframing the way you think about yourself and the events in your life. Turning thoughts from negative to positive is the key to winning. In addition to reappraisal, you can use repetition and training to overcome nerves and stress. This works for athletes as well as business professionals preparing for a public-speaking opportunity. Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around.