If you know me, you know I like to talk. I chat, I converse, I narrate, I think out loud, I process the world with words. It’s part of who I am. It makes me different – and it’s my strength. And you could say I’m a professional “talk-er,” as a significant part of my professional life as a Solution Designer at Collective Next involves helping leaders understand and develop stories, and deliver those stories on stage as Talks.

Did you read Sherry Turkle’s essay in the New York Times last month? Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. It’s about the value of face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people would rather text than talk. It’s profound. As I read it, I considered the parallels between texting and presenting, and talking and well… Talking.

Presentations, Talks: What’s the difference?
Where the objective of a presentation is to publish and inform, the objectives of a Talk are to inform, engage, and inspire action. While presentations focus on data and information, Talks focus on a rich narrative, which may or may not involve data. Talks require vulnerability and the added dimension of personality. Talks create an experience between the presenter and the audience.

Turkle writes: “It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention. Conversation is there for us to reclaim.”

Similarly, it’s not about giving up on presentations altogether but about using them with greater thoughtfulness. There is a time and a place for displaying and discussing information via presentation. But stories help us learn and allow us to talk about our humanity in one of the most important domains of life: our work.

The difference between presentations and talks
As individuals and organizations have begun to understand the power of storytelling as a strategic business tool, we have seen a shift to Talks as a way to surface compelling stories and create deeper engagement in content. The dynamic nature of a good talk lends itself to video capture and video capture lends itself to sharing. Internal communication pieces often arise from what could otherwise have been “just another presentation.”

A tale of ten Talks
A few weeks ago, I worked with a client to develop the program for a one-day regional learning session for hundreds of their firm’s young Associates. The goal was for the Associates to understand each business unit operating in their region, to understand the work of the firm outside their own roles, and to see potential opportunities for growth and advancement.

Ten leaders from different business units were invited to describe the work of their business unit and its role in the organization. Each leader was allotted five minutes for his or her presentation.

This sounds pretty straightforward, right? Leaders come in, present their favorite PowerPoint slides, and call it a day. Except– as we all know from years of seeing it done this way– if the goal is deeper understanding and true engagement, that won’t work. First, most of the business units are really diverse in their activities. How do you accurately represent the work of thousands of people in 5 minutes? Second, ten consecutive presentations of organization structures, projects, and roles just isn’t interesting for an audience. So instead of presentations, we opted for Talks.

Finding their story
I worked with each of the ten business unit leaders to uncover the core of their story, find a way to bring their personality to the stage, and do it in a way that still fulfilled the purpose for the session. We identified the meaningful story of the business. What matters most about what they do? What is a project they are particularly proud of? What are misconceptions we can address through their Talks? I gently guided them away from their comfort zone of facts and functions, and toward a narrative that would invite the audience to join them.

It was a highly collaborative process. Once we understood the story, our creative team joined the process: our Art Director and our graphic designers, who developed the visuals. Their input to the experience and the clever ways they subtly visualize the narrative – you’ve never seen PowerPoint like this – truly brings the stories to life.

Taking it to the stage
With Talks, delivery and stage presence are essential, and coaching individual speakers in this area is of my favorite parts of the process.

For the ten business unit Talks, we ran rehearsals to help them think about how to use the stage, their voices, and their bodies to tell their story. Speakers approached the stage with varying degrees of excitement and… fright. I worked closely a few of the speakers to overcome nervousness and fear. I reminded them that their audience would be on their side. Their audience would be leaning in and wanting them to succeed. And among other techniques, I encouraged them to rehearse in the car and the shower, where they wouldn’t have the benefit of a script.

It was tremendously gratifying to see each speaker begin to see the possibilities of their Talk – to not only publicize their good work and stories, but to engage and inspire Associates, as well.

In the end, each speaker delivered a thoughtful, succinct, compelling Talk that was truly their own. By all accounts, the session was wildly successful. The speakers delivered their stories with aplomb. The session had record attendance. Business leaders reported that in conversations at the reception following the Talks, Associates genuinely understood nuances of each business unit, and could see where they might grow in the organization. I’m so delighted, I literally cannot stop talking about it.


Solution Designer Kathy Clemons is a proud Grinnellian and earned her MBA from Mills College prior to joining Collective Next. Kathy works primarily with executives and talent managers to create leadership development programs. She is based in our New York City office. For more about Kathy, including her favorite TED Talk, visit our Team page.