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Moving up the value chain of public speaking: The catalyst

8 min read


This week we continue our series “Moving Up the Value Chain of Speaking Approaches” with a look at the Catalyst presentation approach.

If you missed the previous articles in the series, see:

The catalyst: Mover and shaker of tomorrow

Are you a business leader who believes passionately that changing the status quo is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, to contribute to the growth of your company? Do you have a vision of “what can be”? Are you compelled to make a difference, spark innovation or generate fresh new ideas? When your presentation needs to go beyond a tactical call to action, the catalyst speaking approach will help you inspire change and motivate others to pursue difficult goals.

When the catalyst approach is called for

When we think of catalysts, well-known people like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, leadership expert Simon Sinek, Harvard professor Amy Cuddy or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind.

However, fame is not an accurate measure of a catalyst. A catalyst is any leader who inspires an audience to loftier goals. Consider the characteristics of the catalyst approach and see how they fit your presentation opportunity:

Presentation goal: As a catalyst, you are driven by a sense of purpose. Unlike the interpreter, who’s advocating a specific action, you want to create an “aha” moment to help listeners see the possibilities and feel capable of making changes. For more information on delivering authenticity and passion, read “5 Keys to Move Your Audience.”

Point of view: As a catalyst, you believe in your vision and are willing to take a risk. Although what you are advocating may be disruptive and take listeners out of their comfort zone, you desire to connect and engage listeners in order to ignite action.

As you begin sharing your vision, you may be standing alone, but as you move forward, your message and passion move the audience to consider the possibilities and join in. For example, Derek Sivers in his TED Talk “How to Start a Movement” shows us the guts it takes to be a catalyst as well as the first steps for bringing people together to make things happen.

Audience and environment: You may share your vision with a wide array of audiences, from board members to employee populations to icons at an all-important industry event. The catalyst delivers an unwavering message encouraging listeners to believe in a different future and in their ability to contribute to change. In a business environment, a catalyst inspires people to pursue success just as President John F. Kennedy roused the nation during his January 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” More everyday examples of typical catalyst presentations include:

  • Political speeches
  • Keynote presentations
  • Product launches
  • TED Talks

Content and message: Like the interpreter, the catalyst’s message includes logic, credibility and an emotional connection. However, the catalyst is driven by a deeper passion and vision. If you want to achieve the trust you need from people who might follow your vision, you need the courage to be vulnerable and authentic, sharing how you feel and speaking with energy and conviction that paints a picture of what is possible.

Build these skills to be an effective catalyst:

Clarify your content. Because you may find yourself speaking to a group of people with varying levels of knowledge, different perspectives or mixed expectations, the catalyst needs to rely on plain language to ensure the message is clear and the content is credible. In addition to crafting a core message and a solid organizational structure, you’ll want to consider using:

  • Stories that help your audience connect to your cause. Frame your content with appropriate metaphors and analogies that help paint your vision and convey your passion.
  • Imagery that everyone can relate to. Leading inspirational speakers traditionally compare a body of workers with a sports team or an orchestra to illustrate human cooperation.
  • Language to make the message powerful and memorable, incorporating alliteration, creative repetition, catch phrases, and sound bites.

Organize your information. As a catalyst, structure your content to build emotion, helping listeners easily understand your vision and guide listeners to consider:

  • What’s wrong with the status quo?
  • What’s in it for me to do something differently?
  • What impact will this change have?
  • What part can I play in making it happen?

Develop visuals as needed. To be an effective catalyst, consider any and all types of visual aids to capture and convey your passion — whatever enables you to connect and inspire success. Plan to harness your personal power, language and delivery to create an emotional response. You might even forgo media in conveying your message. Can you picture “I Have a Dream” with a slide deck?

Express yourself. When you want to touch people’s hearts as well as their minds, your message, your language and your delivery should be passionate in order to engage listeners, open attitudes and overcome barriers to change. In addition to the skills that experts and interpreters use, the catalyst owns the room and reaches others by:

  • Speaking without physical barriers
  • Telling moving stories
  • Painting a picture of the vision with language that resonates
  • Showing passion and conviction through gestures, facial expression, and vocal inflections

For example, here’s how Susan B. Anthony used language to promote women’s suffrage:

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”

For tips on projecting a powerful presence, read “Speaker Stance, Texas Style: Projecting a Larger-Than-Life Image On Stage

Cautions for the catalyst

  1. The most important changes often happen gradually. You may need to move people in small steps toward your vision of the future.
  2. People might disagree with you if your message is particularly disruptive. Develop a thick skin and be ready for backlash.
  3. You’re speaking from a place of personal power as the catalyst, but you don’t want to be on a pedestal. Think FDR and his fireside chats; think Bill Clinton and his connection with audiences during presidential debates.
  4. While your vision may not need to include specific steps to reach the desired outcome, as a catalyst, you do need to speak in concrete language and with specific examples that help your audience relate to your big idea.

For more information about weakness that destroys our confidence or credibility, read “DOUBT: The Kryptonite of Public Speaking.”

Are you an effective catalyst?

Before you present, ask yourself the following questions to ensure you achieve your goal:

  • Does this message reflect my passion and conviction?
  • What can I do to help the audience “get it” and see things as I see them?
  • Is my message clear and relatable to everyone who might be listening?
  • How will I break through emotional barriers with disruptive content?
  • Does my delivery come across as transparent and authentic?
  • Do I offer an optimistic perspective that encourages others to join in?

As a catalyst, you believe in your transformative ideas. Your end game is important because you know your ideas have the potential to make a significant difference. Does your presentation have what it takes to spark innovation and inspire change?

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at and

Sharon McMillen Cannon serves as clinical associate professor of management and corporate communication at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. She has a passion for teaching public speaking, business writing, intercultural communication, and the effective use of social media. Find her on Twitter.

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