Sometime ago I was walking down the street after a nice evening out. It was late. The neighbourhood was a bit doggy. When I was passing by a group of guys I heard a question that came out of nowhere: you, d’you have a cigarette, fag. I was about to appreciate the paradox use of those two words – cigarrette and a fag in one sentence, when something else came out of nowhere. A blow. A punch. Totally unexpected. Totally something to remember.
An emotionally charged, unexpected and strong. That was the unpleasant punch that came out of nowhere. That should also be a different kind of blow you can use in your pitch or presentation. A punchline. Do not get me wrong. I do not suggest you hit your audience literally. Rather than that I urge you to present the most important piece of information in a process that can be perfectly illustrated by Tim Urban’s TED talk intro. It goes like this:
So in college, I was a government major, which means I had to write a lot of papers. Now, when a normal student writes a paper, they might spread the work out a little like this. So, you know — you get started maybe a little slowly, but you get enough done in the first week that, with some heavier days later on, everything gets done, things stay civil.
And I would want to do that like that. That would be the plan. I would have it all ready to go, but then, actually, the paper would come along, and then I would kind of do this [visual punchline]. And that would happen every single paper.
But then came my 90-page senior thesis, a paper you’re supposed to spend a year on. And I knew for a paper like that, my normal work flow was not an option. It was way too big a project. So I planned things out, and I decided I kind of had to go something like this. This is how the year would go. So I’d start off light, and I’d bump it up in the middle months, and then at the end, I would kick it up into high gear just like a little staircase. How hard could it be to walk up the stairs? No big deal, right?
But then, the funniest thing happened. Those first few months? They came and went, and I couldn’t quite do stuff. So we had an awesome new revised plan. [visual punchline]
But then those middle months actually went by, and I didn’t really write words, and so we were here. And then two months turned into one month, which turned into two weeks. And one day I woke up with three days until the deadline, still not having written a word, and so I did the only thing I could: I wrote 90 pages over 72 hours, pulling not one but two all-nighters — humans are not supposed to pull two all-nighters — sprinted across campus, dove in slow motion, and got it in just at the deadline.
I thought that was the end of everything. But a week later I get a call, and it’s the school. And they say, „Is this Tim Urban?” And I say, „Yeah.” And they say, „We need to talk about your thesis.” And I say, „OK.” And they say, „It’s the best one we’ve ever seen.”
That did not happen. [actual punchline]
To fully appreciate both the story and the punchline I strongly recommend watching the talk itself. But in the process pay full attention to small punchlines that come in the form of slides (visual punchlines) and to the final loooong pause before the last and stronger punchline that concludes the story. The very last phrase THAT DID NOT HAPPEN is the strongest message. Don’t believe in miracles. The whole story that proceeds this strong point build the suspense and drives you in the direction – a certain direction that with this one punchline proves to be wrong. It’s as if you were take on a journey and someone said – you thought you knew where this was going but it’s wrong. And that is the beauty of a beautiful and strong punchline.
But punchline would be nothing without it’s silent companion. The hero that is the omega to the alpha in here – the pause. The long moment of silence that totally captures the attention. Remember: build a good story to introduce the punchline and make sure to introduce it with an intended pause. The one that will play like the most amazing instrument. Give it a try.