It’s probably impossible to hang out anywhere in the corporate world for long without being subjected to a snooze-inducing speech or two, but it’s a particular hazard in finance, where “sometimes people just read to you off an Excel spreadsheet,” says Diane DiResta, sounding mildly horrified. DiResta is a longtime communications and media coach who wrote a book called Knockout Presentations. Reciting a dry list of numbers is “such a waste,” she adds, “because numbers always tell a story—sometimes a truly fascinating one.” Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find the story and then, as we say in journalism, don’t bury the lead. Start with what’s most likely to grab your listeners’ attention.
Planning to speak to a group at work or a conference? Here are six of DiResta’s tips for hitting it out of the park:
1. Talk to your audience’s self-interest.
This means answering the question, “Why should they care?” Let’s say you’re giving a sales presentation. Instead of wading right into the weeds about the wonderfulness of your product or service, tell up front what it can do for the people listening. “Start with the biggest benefit to them, whether it’s boosting their profitability, dominating a market segment, or whatever concerns them most,” says DiResta. “Or vividly describe a problem you know they have, and then explain how you can help solve it.” You’ll know you’ve hit a bull’s-eye “when you see people nodding.”
2. Describe a conflict.
Humans are hardwired to respond to storytelling, an ancient and powerful art that goes all the way back to when we lived in caves and told tales around a fire, and certain formulas always seem to grab us. Most hit rom-com movies, for instance, are really just the same story retold for the thousandth (millionth?) time: Boy Gets Girl (or vice versa), Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back. “Without some kind of struggle or obstacle, your story falls flat,” says DiResta, who adds that other archetypes work, too. “Business is full of ‘hero’s journey’ and ‘David versus Goliath’ stories,” she says. “Take your listeners on a ride from high to low to high.”
3. Engage all the senses.
Because people process sensory data differently—some of us are more visual, for instance, while others rely more on hearing or touch—DiResta recommends appealing to as many senses as you can. “Give your audience an experience, rather than just facts. You want them to picture you in a scene, where they can hear what you heard and feel what you felt.” In one talk she gave, instead of saying, “Charlie had a weak handshake,” DiResta described the man’s “‘limp, jellyfish handshake. It was like shaking hands with a squid.’ I could see people in the audience grimace, and I heard a few groans. That was because they were experiencing that handshake viscerally with me.” Happily, poor “Charlie” is a pseudonym.
4. Use analogies and metaphors.
In the song “I’m On Fire,” on Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1985 album Born in the U.S.A., there’s a line that goes, “At night I wake up with the sheets soakin’ wet
and a freight train running through the middle of my head.” Sure, DiResta observes, he could have said, “I wake up at night all sweaty with a pounding headache” and made the same point. But which version kickstarts your imagination? He’s not called “The Boss” for nothing.
5. Break the pattern.
A time-tested way to make people start checking their phones is to drone on and on in the same rhythm and tone of voice. “The audience will tune you out, because the pattern is predictable: Fact A to Fact B and so on, in a logical, linear order,” says DiResta. Zzzz. Vary the volume, tone, and speed of your voice, and throw in a brief aside or two—maybe even a quick joke—so your audience stays alert to find out what surprises might be coming next. You can even use a technique that speech coaches call “salting,” where you raise a question you know your listeners care about, and promise to answer it at the end of your talk. Then, of course, don’t forget, because they won’t.
6. Get personal.
DiResta once coached a famous CEO whose many much-publicized triumphs made him intimidating to his audience of ordinary mortals. After an awe-inspiring introduction from the host of the event, “he put everyone at ease with a very funny story about his crushing defeat as a contestant on Jeopardy!” DiResta recalls. “If you’re willing to reveal something of yourself by sharing a foible or a misstep along the path to your success, you become much more relatable and authentic, and your listeners will be curious about what else you have to say.” Especially if you can also make them laugh.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com.