The contrast between ‘what is and what could be’ is a powerful means of persuasion. Steve Jobs used it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr.
The speech or presentation that you know could have been better. We’ve all been there. It could be that you relied too much on facts and figures and didn’t make an emotional connection. It could be that you made an emotional connection but then lost your audience. It could be that you lost your audience when you walked on stage.
It could be because you didn’t tell a compelling story.
Stories draws the reader (or the audience in). When we recognize a story we drop our guard. The presentations and speeches that tell stories are the ones that inspire us, empower us, and get us to act. They are the ones we remember.
What is and what could be
What did Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have in common? Nancy Duarte, a renowned public speaker, thinks she has uncovered a simple structure present in all great presentations: contrast between what is and what could be. Skeptical? I was, but there is something in it.
Nancy Duarte’s Ted Talk:
Lincoln split The Gettysburg Address roughly in two parts.
- What is: engaged in a civil war and honoring the dead;
- What could be: that the dead have not died in vain and the country will be reborn anew.
In the 2007 iPhone launch Steve Jobs switches between what is and what could be throughout.
- What is (or what was): how unsmart ‘smartphones’ are;
- What could be (or what is): the first multi-touch device with iPod, phone, and browser.
In his I Have a Dream speech King compares between the struggle and what they’re dreaming of
- What is: segregation, injustice, and discontent;
- What could be: freedom and justice.
You can see Duarte’s analysis of in I Have a Dream her sparkline.
The structure of these speeches switches between what is and what could be but they all begin with what is, and end with what could be. King dedicates the first three and a half minutes of I Have a Dream to what is, and the last three minutes to what could be.
Why does it work?
I think it works because it’s aspirational. It moves the audience from the place they are in, to a better place. It can give hope, make a promise, set a target. It has conflict, or an obstacle that all stories have — something that must be overcome. This is what I think draws the listener in. It helps the speaker make an emotional connection and build authority.
I can’t say for sure that every great speech uses this contrast. But when I think about my favorite speeches, the contrast is present.
The next time you are preparing to speak publicly, consider how using the contrast of what is and what could be might work for you. It might point you down the path of delivering something strong, memorable, and persuasive.