You're used to hearing how storytelling is such a compelling form of public speaking. After all, it's an ancient human habit, and our brains may even be hardwired for it. But there's one key element of any great narrative that's easy to overlook when you're preparing a presentation: dialogue.
Sure, you don't want to sound like you're talking to yourself—but you don't have to. To figure out how to do it well, look no further than some of the most powerful public speakers alive right now. Here's a look at three popular TED Talks that each highlight a different way to incorporate dialogue into your presentation.
One of the reasons dialogue is powerful is because it makes you sound more conversational. When you get into "speech mode," you tend to go on and on in long, complex sentences. That can happen even when you stop declaring things and start telling a story; your words may be different, but your sentences all sound the same. But when you tell stories with dialogue, you disrupt this pattern. Your sentences are ever-changing and unique, and your narrative becomes much more engaging.
Ken Robinson’s "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" is the the No. 1 most-viewed TED Talk of all time. One of the most powerful moments comes at 15:53, when Robinson recounts a story about the choreographer Gillian Lynne. Here's his narrative setup:
Anyway, she went to see this specialist, to this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about the problems Gillian was having at school.
Then, he uses dialogue to recreate the discussion between the doctor and Gillian. As he does, Robinson breaks in and out of this "speech mode," which not only makes the scene more vivid but the talk itself much more intimately conversational.
Dialogue can be powerful for another reason, too: when we're conveying what other people said, our own faces express their feelings in addition to their words. Having been a theater director for many years, I've seen the joy actors experience when they're playing a role—it's a feeling of liberation. Through performance, paradoxically enough, they feel freer to express themselves. By telling a story with compelling dialogue, you too can get into a role.
This is clear in another popular TED Talk: Simon Sinek’s "How Great Leaders Inspire Action." Sinek uses the example of TiVo to show that a great product and great market conditions don't always guarantee success. At the 14:23 mark, he uses dialogue and jumps into the dual roles of TiVo and the consumers who responded to it.
When he ventriloquizes their respective ideas—TiVo's sales pitch and consumers' skepticism—Sinek's facial expressions enhance his delivery: his eyes narrow, he tilts his head to one side, and ticks off the features TiVo was touting. Then he continues, "And the cynical majority said, 'We don't believe you, we don't need it, we don't like it—you're scaring us,'" raising his eyebrows and putting his chin back. It's lively, expressive, and fun to watch.
Finally, dialogue helps you show, not tell. When you describe an event, something that happened to you, you have to resist the tendency to give your audience the Reader’s Digest version of what happened. No dry summaries! Take your audience right back to that experience with you. That's the point of storytelling in the first place: You create an opportunity to share in the moment as though you were all there.
In her TED Talk, "Your Elusive Creative Genius," Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert uses dialogue while explaining her writing process. At 14:25, she recounts getting past writer's block:
I just lifted my face up from the manuscript, and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room, and I said aloud, "Uh, listen you thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? 'Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, you know, I don’t have any more than this."
By recreating this monologue, Gilbert draws you in and makes you feel like you were a fly on the wall, listening in during this moment in her process.
Becoming a dynamic speaker isn't about saying more, louder. It's about expanding the range of tools—and voices—you can draw on in order to get your message across. Adding dialogue to a story is like taking it from radio to TV—a lot lower tech, but no less compelling.