When I was a news reporter, we called it “burying the lead.” A producer (like my business partner and friend, Barb Haig!) would accuse me of doing this if I put the most important or most interesting part of my story anywhere other than at the top.
I hadn’t thought about “burying the lead” for a long time, until recently as I watched a presenter do it in such spectacular fashion.
I was at an awards luncheon and he was the keynote speaker. Following a brief introduction, he started with, “It’s always good to be here,” but then had to add, “although I’ve never actually been to Milwaukee before.” Awkward groans from the audience.
He prattled on about whether it was better to speak before or after lunch, apologized for having the room darkened so people could see his “lousy PowerPoint,” asked a couple times, “Can everyone hear me in the back?” and promised he’d try not to speak too fast – something he said he does a lot.
Just as I was silently wishing he’d speak at the speed of light, and people all around me were pulling out their smart phones, he totally blew me and everyone else in the room away.
He popped up his first slide: a gorgeous photo taken in the mountains of Alaska. Snow-covered peaks towered in the background. In the foreground, a level patch of snow led over the edge of a cliff into a deep and rocky valley below.
Then he said, “This is where I just about killed myself.” No awkward groans; just stunned silence, all eyes on him.
He went on to describe how alcohol addiction and the resulting loss of his family and business had left him deeply depressed, living in a travel trailer pulled behind a car the bank had repossessed (but hadn’t yet found to seize) with a total net worth of about $300 in his pocket.
“It’s dangerous when a severely depressed person has a plan,” he said. And his plan was to drive off this short runway into oblivion. Obviously, something intervened. With one foot on the gas and one on the brake, he said he was overwhelmed by the scenic beauty around him, had a religious experience, and changed his mind.
He drove down the mountain, went into treatment, bought a hammer and began looking for carpentry jobs. Now, having retired from the successful construction business he’d started, he was speaking about his flourishing initiative to help non-profits collaborate to assist people in distress -- people like he had once been, sitting in a car, looking down into the abyss. It’s an initiative that has won him numerous national awards, lots of notoriety, and a $100,000 grant.
The point of the story is this: here’s a guy who has an utterly amazing story, and yet he’s starting off his presentations with the same hemming and hawing that has become, sadly, the norm for too many speakers: “It’s really nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me. Have you heard the one about the penguin that walks into a bar and says…”
Don’t be that presenter. Whatever it is you have to say, I guarantee you there’s something about it that is interesting, unusual, attention-grabbing, emotion-generating, and maybe even astonishing. Find it, unbury it, and lead with it.