An Inconvenient Truth
A front row seat at the world’s most
famous multimedia presentation.
By Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM
Caption: The author with Nobel Peace Price winner Al Gore (left).
Just about everyone has seen or heard of former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore’s Oscar-winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth. But imagine having a front row seat at a live version of that presentation, presented by Mr. Gore himself.
I was lucky enough to have had just that opportunity when I attended a training session in Nashville, Tennessee, last April.
It all started when I read An Inconvenient Truth not long after the book was published. I was immediately captivated by how it presented an issue as complex as climate change in clear, easy-to-understand ways. It was like Global Warming 101 – and it incorporated a lot of the communication techniques we strive to learn through Toastmasters.
Soon after, I found out that Mr. Gore would be training 1000 people to be “climate change messengers,” giving live presentations of An Inconvenient Truth in their own communities. So I submitted an application – headlined, of course, by my Toastmasters experience! I was fortunate to have been selected for Class 6, the final group to be trained. I credit my “Toastmasters resume” for helping me stand out among the thousands of highly qualified people who applied.
The three-day program was led by Mr. Gore and a team of scientists and environmental educators. It was filled with highlights from start to finish, but three parts were especially noteworthy. The first involved seeing Mr. Gore present the Inconvenient Truth multimedia show in person at the opening session. (I made sure to arrive early for a front-row seat.) The second highlight was spending a full day with Mr. Gore as he trained our group and explained every slide meticulously: the science, the visual, the key message and even the transitions. The third part was a workshop presented by author Andy Goodman on techniques for effective speaking. The Toastmasters evaluator in me couldn’t help but make a few notes on what I saw and heard during those three days.
The Speaker’s Budgets
Mr. Gore described the three “budgets” presenters have when they speak: time, complexity and hope.
- The time budget refers to the importance of always respecting the audience and finishing at the appointed time. (I couldn’t help thinking that our Toastmasters timing signals would be helpful here.)
- The complexity budget refers to presenting information in a way that the audience can grasp and retain. In presenting a topic as complicated as our global climate, it’s easy to cause eyes to glaze over – but Mr. Gore pointed out how even the most complicated elements could be made understandable to most audiences if they were broken down to basic concepts, and then presented with the right words and visuals.
- The hope budget, more specific to this topic, refers to the need to ensure that the audience leaves not with a sense of despair, but with a feeling of hope and empowerment. I believe that the motivational speaking techniques I have learned through Toastmasters will help me respect this budget.
Perhaps the one element that has made An Inconvenient Truth stand out from other books or documentaries is its use of clear and dramatic visuals to engage and persuade the audience. From the awe-inspiring “Earth Rise” photograph to the jagged red line of data showing rising CO2 levels, the visuals speak to the point. Messages are presented with powerful tables and charts, and reinforced with vivid photographs or video clips. A single slide with animated global ocean currents provides a nice dramatization of a complicated system.
Schematic diagrams follow the viewer’s natural gaze across the screen: either flowing from top left to bottom right, or flowing horizontally from left to right. In some horizontally flowing slides, barriers are shown as obstacles to be vaulted over to rise to a higher level. In all visuals, text is used sparingly, allowing the audience’s focus to remain on the visual as it is explained verbally.
An Inconvenient Truth actually contains several “chapters” – What is global warming? What are the signs? How will it affect us? What can we do about it? But they flow together seamlessly, thanks to smooth transitions. Navigation from slide to slide is effortless, with special transitions strategically inserted to focus attention. As an example, Mr. Gore pointed to a slide where the map of Greenland dramatically drops in beside Antarctica, and another where a garden shovel is abruptly replaced by a massive excavator. There is even a transition where a vertical line of data swirls 90 degrees and becomes horizontal, to emphasize that it is the same data and prevent a ‘disconnect’ in the eye of the viewer.
Speaking to the Heart
Beyond facts and figures, a speaker must use conviction and passion to convince an audience. Mr. Gore used vocal variety masterfully, from softly spoken messages of hope to powerful calls for action. He referenced great American triumphs such as the Constitution, civil rights laws and the Apollo moon landings as proof of a society’s ability to meet a challenge as formidable as climate change. And he motivated his audience to action by linking the acceptance of a “truth” with a moral obligation to act upon it.
Both Al Gore and Andy Goodman touched upon many of the techniques emphasized within Toastmasters, such as:
- The use of pauses, to allow the audience to process complicated or high-impact visuals.
- The use of humor, including self-deprecating humor, to build rapport with the audience and get their permission to go where you are going to go.
- The use of the “Tell them what you’re going to say – tell them – tell them what you said” trio. This technique was applied to the entire presentation, and especially to complicated ideas. For example, one of the more complex slides in the presentation was introduced and explained with the following sequence:
1. Transitioning to the slide: He said, “On the next slide, you’re going to see three trends…”
with a brief explanation)
2. While viewing the slide: He said, “This graph demonstrates those three trends,”
(with a more detailed explanation)
3. Transitioning from the slide: He said, “Now that you’ve seen how these trends are clear...
(with a quick recap of the key message before moving on)
- The use of rhetorical questions to help bridge transitions and lead the audience from one point to the next. For example, “So why should the average citizen care about this trend? Well, for starters...”
- The use of examples, analogies and similes an audience could relate to, such as comparing the annual layers in a core of ancient ice to the growth rings of a tree.
For three days last April, I had the privilege of a front row seat at the world’s most famous multimedia show. It was a wonderful opportunity to watch a skilled presenter face-to-face, to absorb a mass of information and to study some of the techniques that helped make An Inconvenient Truth a worldwide hit. And it reaffirmed many of the skills and methods I’ve learned through Toastmasters.
Now it’s up to me to continue sharing this information with audiences all across North America!
Past District 45 Governor Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM, lives in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick, Canada. Since April, he has presented “An Inconvenient Truth” to more than 60 public and school audiences. To find out more, visit www.changeyourcorner.com.