Verbal Seasoning — How to remove the ‘boring’ from your presentation.

November 1, 2021
4 min read
Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash
"He who controls the spice controls the universe."
— Baron Harkonnen¹

"Umm, ahh, so here are the figures for last quarter..."

We’ve all sat through presentations that are, shall we say, less than. A little boring. Chock-full of information perhaps, and full of nutritional fiber, but grinding to get through, and difficult to digest.

In some cases, that may be the content. Let’s face it; financials are not everyone’s cup of tea. A group of salespeople may not have the patience — or interest — to sit through a highly technical presentation. But, a good presenter can bring the most boring content to life.

It’s a matter of exploiting a loop in interest, attention, and learning.

The interest loop is a self-evident equation; if I am interested in something, I pay attention. If I pay attention to something, it increases my ability to learn.

The classic example is your ten-year-old (or your ten-year-old nephew) and video games. To you, learning to play Fortnite or Minecraft may seem difficult — with a game that is confusing and complex. But little Billy takes to it like a duck to water.²

It all starts with interest.

Interest, psychologically speaking, comes in two forms: Personal interest and situational interest.

Personal interest is, well — personal

Personal interest has little to do with the presentation of the topic. It’s the relationship you have with the topic, and the interest derives from you, not the presentation of the topic. The subject piques your interest —  a sport or an art form — golf, football, Formula 1 racing, or ballet and opera. It may be more topical, like house renovation or military history. If it’s in front of you, you’ll watch, listen and pay attention to it.

Next up is situational interest.

Situational interest derives from packaging and production value, not the subject. You may not be personally interested in the movie, but you go anyway because your friends are going. Now you’re there — it’s pretty good; great story and characters, plot twists and dialogue.

Interest is a problem for you.

In your work, it’s not as if you get to choose the subject. Have to present last quarter's results or your business strategy? Let’s hope everyone in your audience is personally interested.

Which is unlikely.

If it’s your work, you are (hopefully) personally interested. I know people that are fascinated by pumps, steel grades, and industrial flow units. I know some who take a keen interest in backup as a service and some steeped in two-sided financial markets.

I am not personally interested in any of those things, and I’ve never met anyone interested in all of the above.

The problem: you know too much, and you’re too passionate about it.

So ask yourself, the next time you’re up to present, how personally interested is your audience?  The answer is likely, "not much."

Your job then, is to amp up situational interest, to grab their attention.

This is where verbal seasoning can help.

Think of it as the spice that you sprinkle through your presentation, to add zest and life to your content. Adding  situational interest, humanizes you, and helps you connect with your audience.

Verbal seasoning is calorie free.³ There is no useful information that comes with it. The goal of verbal seasoning is chemistry — to put the human element back into presenting. It’s an aside, a personal story, a pun, an attempt at humor, it’s showing your self, not your content.

Like an ornament on a Christmas tree, or the salt that brings out flavor in food, verbal seasoning makes your argument appealing, and wins attention.

Sprinkle seasoning here.

Here’s an example of verbal seasoning: You’re running through a series of bullet points, covering off major features in a new product you’re launching:⁴

  • The new A8 architecture, which is twice as fast as the A7 architecture.
  • Touch ID, a fingerprint scanner used to unlock access.
  • A new, longer-lasting battery, featuring 25 more hours of standby time, and 2 more hours of talk time.
  • A new camera with new lens and F2.2 aperture, new sensor and bigger pixels.
  • New range of colors, including gold.

The list is dry and boring without verbal seasoning.

Bring some flavor. Before bullet number three, add, "This is my favorite point." The fact that the new battery is your favorite is essentially meaningless.

It adds no content and no real value, except for one.

Your audience now knows we’re not listening to a soulless machine here. You are human. You have favorites. You have likes and dislikes.

For presenters that tend to love their content more than connection with their audience (counselors and teachers), verbal seasoning is a valuable tool that tops up the “human” in the presentation.

Add verbal seasoning to complex dishes.

Verbal seasoning is excellent when added to complex subjects.

If you’re struggling to make your content accessible, verbal seasoning can help. One CEO I know heads a leading cybersecurity and storage company.

He uses the complex language of his world — SAAS, Containerization, Virtual Machines, and so on, but carefully adds verbal seasoning. When presenting a list of customers, he might say, “I call this our family portrait.” Verbal seasoning.

Or in talking about the increasing amount of ransomware attacks, might mention, a “new vector for the bad guys.” Verbal seasoning.

Avoid verbal grit.

If seasoning makes your presentations more palatable,  then watch out for grit. This is the same unpleasant sensation you have when chomping through a salad and finding a piece of unwashed grit in your lettuce.

When you hear frequent umm’s and ahh’s and kind-of, likes, that’s grit.

Verbal seasoning is overwhelming if you over-do it. Season to taste, not too much, not too little and it will be just right.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Baron Harkonnen is the big bad in Frank Herbert’s Dune. He’s talking about Melange, not verbal seasoning. Nevertheless, it’s a zesty quote.
² Eyal, Nir. "Kids’ Gaming Obsession Isn’t Really About the Games." Psychology Today, 19 Aug. 2018.
³ A hat tip here to Chris Vander Putten. Now a Creative Director and copywriter, Chris was, at one time, an intern in our office, and argued vehemently to coin the phrase, “Verbal Seasoning” not it’s original working name, “Verbal Ornament.”
⁴ I am not a big fan of bullet points, but let’s be real here, we all do it.

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