A Front Row Seat at the World’s Most Famous Multimedia Presentation

Written by Carl Duivenvoorden and published in Toastmasters Magazine, December 2007.

Just about everyone has seen or heard of former 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 the show, presented by Mr. Gore himself.

I was lucky enough to have had just that opportunity when I attended a training session in Nashville last April. It all started when I read “An Inconvenient Truth” not long after the book was published last year. 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, held in Nashville April 9-11. 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 there were 3 that stood out for me. The first was having Mr. Gore present “An Inconvenient Truth” in person at the opening session. (I made sure I got there early for a front-row seat!) The second was having him spend a full day with the group, explaining every slide meticulously: the science, the visual, the key message and even the transition. And the third 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 spoke of 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 the timing signals Toastmasters are accustomed to would be helpful!)
  • The complexity budget refers to presenting information in a way that the audience can grasp and retain. In presenting something 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.
    Powerful visuals: 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 even video clips. A single slide with animated global ocean currents provides a nice dramatization of a complicated system.

Schematic diagrams follow our 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.

Transitions: “An Inconvenient Truth” actually contains several ‘chapters’ – what is global warming, what are the signs, how will it affect us, and what can we do about it. But they flow together seamlessly, thanks to smooth transitions. Navigation from slide to slide is effortless as well, 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.

Speaking technique: 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 ‘tell them what you’re going to say – tell them – tell them what you said’ trio. This technique was applied to the overall presentation, but also to complicated individual concepts. For example, one of the more complex slides in the presentation was introduced and explained with the following sequence:
    • “On the next slide, you’re going to see three trends”, with a brief explanation;
    • As the slide appeared, “This graph demonstrates those three trends”, with a detailed explanation;
    • Finally, 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 in 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 over to me!