The Secret to a Standing Ovation

June 22, 2015

In early June I had the honor of working with Open Society Foundation’s Mental Health Initiative grantees, helping to lead a visual communications workshop in Barcelona with professional photographer Ami Vitale. I was there to share best practices and research from Resource Media’s Visual Story Lab, but I was thrilled to also have the opportunity to listen and learn from this remarkable group.

One stand out for me from the workshop’s peer learning sessions was a talk by Maia Shishniashvili, the brilliant founder and head of Hand in Hand from the Republic of Georgia. She related to us her experience giving a talk at a major UNICEF conference last summer on the program she is running, supporting people with intellectual disabilities in community housing as part of the de-institutionalization effort in Georgia. She gave a stellar presentation on what goes into good public speaking. While relating her experiences preparing for this big speech which was live-streamed to the UN, it ended up being a play within a play.

Maia began by telling us how much she dreaded public speaking. Needless to say, she connected with us right from the get-go by establishing common ground and using self-effacing humor with her audience; who doesn’t get nervous before a major speaking engagement? But, more than that, she had us engaged and waiting at the edge of our seats as each slide revealed a new “confession.” It began with “I hate public speech;” it was funny, it was irreverent and she had her whole audience waiting on the edge of their seat for the next punch line. All of us in the audience were laughing hard through every one of her five honest, humorous confessions that we could relate to.

She nailed the opening and had us hungry to hear more. The opening was the perfect ramp into the body of her presentation where she was to make her main points. Content preparation – what kind of a narrative would best convey to the audience that community-based housing was the ideal solution, allowing people with physical or intellectual disabilities to lead healthy, dignified lives. She added some tension to keep our attention, admitting to the challenge this UNICEF speech created for her – that the talk required a personal story, and how she doesn’t like speaking about herself, or sharing her emotions with others. But, she described how powerful her personal story ended up being as it helped the audience understand where she was coming from and why she was fighting so hard for the rights for people with disabilities, for their dignity, for their right to live in a safe, family and community environment.

She gave us four other good reminders as we prepare our own presentations:

  • Be clear on your goal
  • Define your message, including what you want your audience to do, think or believe afterwards
  • Tell a (hopefully, your) story, being authentic and honest
  • Use supportive materials, such as visuals or props

That single 10 minutes that Maia spoke hit every point of a great presentation: an opening that developed an immediate connection to the audience; the “main meal” – touching on no more than three important points and very specific examples of what you need to cover for a compelling, memorable presentation; and ending on a high note. In this case, she told a funny closing story that went full-circle back to the beginning.

Like any good speaker, she had us still talking about her speech for the rest of the day and the rest of the week.

You can hear her original Activate talk at the UNICEF conference here.

Liz Banse