“The Adversary”: A powerful presentation technique


In every classic story, the hero fights the villain

by Peter Watts

In a key section of his book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”, Carmine Gallo invokes the plot-line of every childhood story we grew up with, in order to reveal a powerful device for mobilizing an audience: the Adversary.

A clear presentation tells a story. It should be stirring, clear, and memorable. It should contain qualities that stand out in clear black and white rather than in obscuring shades of grey.

This binary arrangement requires two fundamental roles to be to the fore. There is firstly the Hero, who appeals to all the best qualities of the audience, and in order for that character to stand out clearly, there must also be the Adversary, representing the opposing force that the audience are being asked to stand against.

Gallo reminds us of how Jobs himself used this arrangement in the 1984 Super Bowl advert that launched the Apple Macintosh. Inspired by George Orwell’s fiction masterwork, this stunning advert portrays Apple as the brave and feisty insurgent rebelling against the tyranny of IBM, symbolized by the tyrannical “Big Brother”.

In almost every presentation, it is likewise possible to identify your binary opposite, and use that opposite to stir the emotions of an audience.

This approach has many times been used to sow division in the world. We have only to listen to talk-radio shock-jocks or watch partisan news networks in order to see the technique in action as one group, frequently a minority, is pilloried in order to boost ratings amongst the network’s core demographic. Such realities might make us justifiably queasy with so tabloid a technique. It’s important therefore to use the approach responsibly. The Adversary should be targeted against ideas, not individuals.

In the corporate world, there are countless examples of where this can be legitimately done. For example, we already have Steve Jobs’ approach, targeting an over-mighty competitor.

For myself, I can think of no stronger use than in the charity sector. Hunger becomes the adversary in famine fund-raising. Pollution becomes the adversary in environmental awareness. Ignorance becomes the adversary in Civil Rights.

A cook will tell you that when creating a sweet dish, the modest introduction of a bitter flavor can actually bring-forward and enhance the sweetness. Too much however, and the sweet quality is not enhanced, it is overwhelmed, and the sweet gives way completely to the bitter.

The same concept applies to the presentation usage of the Adversary. Without an adversary for juxtaposition, the heroic qualities you seek to bring forward in your audience will remain two-dimensional. Add in that little touch of the bitter, and the Hero stands out in clear relief. Add in too much however, and your presentation topples over into a shrill tabloid rant. As with so many techniques of public speaking, subtlety always trumps hyperbole.

This blog, looking at the role of the Adversary, completes my series reviewing Carmine Gallo’s “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”. By focussing on a modern master, the book brings forward powerful and rarely discussed techniques, such as this week’s concept of the Adversary.. I can happily recommend this book to all Steve Jobs fans, to all Apple fans, and of course, to all who want to develop skills in the world of public speaking!

Comments

  1. WWentzell says:

    Another great post…this is all very true. Memorable presentations and speeches that I’ve heard were those that were strong with hard facts and opinions and not wishy-washy details.

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