Following up from the last post, today we’ll be breaking down Jon Hamm’s “Carousel” pitch from Season 1, Episode 13 of Mad Men–hoping discovering some valuable public speaking skills in the process.
As a lead up to the pitch, the business representatives who have approached an advertising firm to market their new product, dubbed “The Wheel.” The representatives focus on its futuristic technology–while Jon Hamm has other ideas on how best to frame the new product.
The Pitch, and the Public Speaking Skills You Can Learn From It:
“Technology is a glittering lure, but…”
Jon begins by explicitly acknowledging the expectations and focus of his primary audience, the business executives. This is very important, and not done nearly as much as it should be in corporate presentations. Even (in fact, especially!) when you have a contrarian perspective, if you leap into it immediately, without first addressing the content or solution that your audience is expecting to hear, you’ll risk confusing and alienating them. Skipping past this can make you come across as dismissive, uninformed or ignorant of their ideas and expectations.
“There is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash…”
The wording here is very clever. Hamm’s character is presenting to an audience that is expecting a focus on the innovation and modernism of their product. As someone preparing to give the audience the opposite of what they’ve asked for, one has to tread very carefully. He softens the blow by suggesting that what he is about to describe is a “rare occasion.” This has the effect of implicitly suggesting that, on most other occasions, his audiences beliefs and preferences are correct–that this is perhaps the only rare occasion where they may have overlooked another possibility.
“.. if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”
Here, I want you to start to notice the rhythm of the presentation–particularly, the methodical pacing and long pauses Hamm is applying. They’re very explicitly being used to build up tension and curiosity, as if each line was a kind of cliffhanger ending. This plays double duty, since his presentation will ultimately have Anxiety and Uncertainty as one of its key themes. Being able to put his listeners into a state of anxiety is a great way to prime them for his message.
Collectively, this opening has an accomplishes something else extremely important. The opening prepares us for what we can expect to hear–that Hamm has a plan for engaging the public on a sentimental level. Following what we discussed in the last post, this is crucial. Imagining once again that our listeners are selfish in their focus and engagement, it’s critical that a speaker give them a vested interest to pay attention to what we have to say. By piquing his listeners curiosity over his unique approach to their problem, he buys himself the luxury of being able to follow up his opening with the personal story to follow. His opening tells the listeners that whatever story he is going to follow with is likely to somehow lead towards something they have a personal stake in.
In contrast, if the pitch would have opened with his following lines,
“My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy”
They would have been far less engaged or attentive. They don’t know who Teddy was, they can’t imagine why the story is relevant, they have no context or framework to temper their expectations…for all they know, the Teddy story could be the start of a listless rambling.
But by having an opening that tackles the audience expectations head on, Hamm’s Teddy story instead just builds more curiosity and interest in his audience…”How will this story lead to an insight on our sales strategy?” Like a rhetorical Kuleshov effect, the opening frames the story that follows in a completely different context–from rambling oversharing to crucial prologue.
In short, if you prepare your audience for where you’re going, they’ll be far patient with you while you get them there.
“My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.”
This section is an absolute goldmine for the attentive learner.
1)notice that–despite being a section of a presentation where Hamm’s reciting a personal story–he only uses 3 personal pronouns. One my, one I, one me. That’s it. Very often, you’ll see less experienced speakers stuffing their presentation with personal stories that are buried under dozens of personal pronouns, with the net effect of making the audience assume that the speaker is more interested in talking about themselves than on focusing on their needs and interests.
2) Hamm once again strokes the ego of his audience. Teddy’s first piece of advice is a focus on innovation and novelty–exactly the kind of presentation the executives have came in expecting. Their expectations have been vindicated–the marketing hotshot himself has just told them that their opinions were shared by his own mentor. Clearly, here is someone who knows where we (as the audience) are coming from, and makes us feel intelligent and informed in the process. This is very important, since when Hamm gives the focus a swerve momentarily, it never feels like he’s talking down to us or dismissing our expectations out hand.
3)SO MANY PAUSES. Hamm keeps the audience in rapt attention with pause after pause, specifically timed to keep us in suspense to hear what kernel of insight will follow.
4)Never disagree with your audience when you can have an expert do it for you. By positioning the ideas to follow as coming from his mentor, Hamm creates a sense of distance between himself and the dissenting opinion he will soon offer up. Instead of feeling like Hamm is confronting us, we can instead imagine ourselves in his position. In the story, he first believes, as we do, in the value of novelty, before being educated and challenged to think differently. We are learning from his experience, rather than having our own egos and opinions challenged or disputed directly.
5)Callbacks: Ever watch a well written movie, that will toss in a line you barely notice in the beginning of the film, that ends up being repeated or brought back by the end in an emotionally impactful way? It’s a very effective technique in making a story feel like its “coming together full circle” and giving a story a sense of cohesion and completeness. This is extremely powerful to include in speeches as well.
In this case, we’ll see the reference of Teddy being Greek come back in a crucial way momentarily.
“But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.”
And here, we’ve arrived at the thesis of the presentation, a clarification of the “sentimental bond” more powerful than any marketing concept we’ve discussed so far.
Once again, also take note of the skillfull pausing. He gives us the time to follow him. He gives the thesis the time to sit and germinate in our minds, while building up curiosity and making us anxious to hear more.
Here, Hamm also consciously animating his delivery of key words; he literally says the word “delicate” delicately, in contrast to how he says the word “potent,” giving it a firm bluntness that embodies the word itself.
Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”.
1)Anaphora: It’s no accident that we see the second use of “Teddy told me” to start a sentence in less than 30 seconds. That use of anaphora, of repeating the first word or words of a sentence multiple times in a speech, works like a drum beat, giving the speech a steady rhythm and a forward momentum. Each of the sentences begins in the same place, but ends having moves us further and further along towards in our examination of the thesis.
2)Callbacks: The two obvious callbacks here are “Greek” and “nostalgia.”
Hypothetically, Hamm could have introduced the idea by saying “Webster’s dictionary defines nostalgia as being the pain from an old wound.” Many speakers do exactly this. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a sentence that started with “Webster’s dictionary defines,” that ended with me sitting on the edge of my seat. It sounds *sounds* boring.
Instead, we’re learning something interesting–a unique insight from a foreign tongue–that ties directly and effortlessly into the context of the story already being told. We get a payoff to Teddy being introduced as Greek, as this cultural aspect pays off in giving us a unique insight that will educate our marketing understanding. In contrast, imagine if Hamm hadn’t introduced Teddy as Greek, and just gave a dictionary definition–the definition would feel far more jarring, as if it were pulling us out of the story and the flow that had been so carefully built up.
As for “nostalgia,” Hamm does a great job of giving us just enough information to prepare us for where he’s going next, while keeping us anxiety for further clarification. The previous pause after the first use of “Nostalgia” leaves us to imagine our own explanation for how it will factor into the presentation–the second may have surprised us, contrasted to expectations we may have just worked up, and leaves us intrigued to see where Hamm is going next.
3)Priming: Lastly, we’re given another example of the “rhetorical Kuleshov effect.” By inserting the idea of a “pain from an old wound,” into our minds, when Hamm begins to flip through the slides of photos with happy family images, we’re primed to view them from a perspective of sadness or longing, even if the “why” hasn’t been given to us yet.
” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”
If I were to tell you, “whatever you do right now, DON’T THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT,” you’re going to be overwhelmingly inclined to do just that–and picture a pink elephant. It wasn’t on your radar before; but somehow, the mere act of me introducing the image is enough for you to experience it.
Likewise, the description of “a twinge in your heart,” is an intensely powerful and emotional sensation that most or all of his audience could be expected to have had an experience with. It amplifies the priming Hamm’s already applied–now giving us a physical reaction to connect to an emotional sensation.
Now, as we travel, frame by frame, through these happy family images, we’re viewing them through a lens of longing and anxiety.
“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.”
And there we have it–the clearest statement of the thesis so far.
But it’s been done in such a way that speaks to our imaginations. It uses imagery we can vividly picture–spaceships and time machines. Both of the images also have a childish sense of imagination to them, the kinds of devices and adventures we might imagine as children.
Imagine if the idea would have been expressed with Hamm saying something like, “This device isn’t about looking forward. It’s about looking back,” or any number of similar variants. Without giving us concrete, physical images to picture in our minds, the statement becomes much less vivid or interesting.
By contrast, as soon as you have put the idea of a time machine in my mind, after already priming me to feel a sense of longing and nostalgia for my youth, or a happy time that’s since passed, my imagination is likely to take on a life of it’s own. Now, as the presentation is going, I’m whistfully thinking back to the moments I’d love to be able to take the time machine back to; filtering through my own emotions and my own experiences to the ones that I feel the deepest sense of nostalgia for.
At this point, there’s no question of whether or not the audience is engaged, or whether or not your content is connecting with the audience. By leading the audience to re-experience their own emotions, especially when those emotions are powerful and even painful, you have given them a profoundly personal reason to continue to be engaged in your presentation. It might be the first time they’ve felt those experiences, and those emotions, in a very long time, and *you* are the reason they’re feeling them.
“It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Again, Hamm eggs us on, making the feelings he wants us to experience even more explicit–without ever actually dictating his goal to us.
This is so effective…and unfortunately so rare in most speeches.
When most new speakers try to guide an audience into an emotional state, they typically apply brute force over subtly. Instead of generating a series of images and scenarios that less us internalize the emotions and arrive to them organically on our own, most speakers will simply command us like a dictator. “Close your eyes. Imagine a time when you felt…”
It might get a few people to feel what you want them to feel, but it’s clumsy, pushy, and will be guaranteed to be resented by at least some portion of the audience. The better you structure your speech such that your audience feels like your ideas are their ideas, and feel like they “just happened” to arrive at the emotional states that you crafted your speech to direct them towards, the more universal your appeal will be and the more deeply your audience will be impacted. We’re always the most charmed by our own ideas, after all.
At this point, Hamm has proven his point–as an audience, we are literally experiencing the sense of longing, joy, and sadness that comes with remembering our own nostalgic memories, gently guided along with the key words of the pitch. We’re going forwards and backwards in our own mind, reliving those memories that have the most emotional attachment to us.
The word choice here is also very conscious.
Notice how there’s no “and” in between, even though, grammatically, there should be. Now, why is that?
By removing the and, and replacing it with a pause, Hamm lets us feel the words as a sensation; there’s a childlike quality to the motion, that might make us think of being young and innocent and full of joy; of riding a swing, back and forth. He’s speaking to an audience of an age that guaranteed that all of them would associate that backwards…forwards…range of motion with a childhood experience, whether a swingset, or an amusement park ride–like a carousel. Putting us in that frame, encouraging our bodies and our muscle memories to go back to those moments, only furthers to strengthen his power over us and our emotional state as listeners. Now, we’re even *feeling* like we’re back in those moments of youth, and longing, and innocence.
“It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel.”
Here, Hamm has completely discarded the original name of the product. Under normal circumstances, having someone else so casually dismiss our ideas and our efforts–we have to assume that there were a lot of people and discussions involved before we’ve gotten to this point that culminating in giving the product it’s name–would feel disrespectful, or cause us to pull back and tense up.
Instead, the genius here is that by the time Hamm arrives at his rebranding, he’s already succeeding in making his idea our idea. We have already felt the power of nostalgia, and from the “backwards, forwards” imagery, many members of the audience may already be explicitly picturing themselves riding a carousel. Instead of a kneejerk resistance, there’s a sense of “of course!”
Through the gentle, almost imperceptible guiding of the presentation, our emotions have already brought us to a point where our rational brains can’t help but agree with Hamm’s conclusion. It’s true–we just *feel* it.
” It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around”
He stretches the imagery out just a little longer, and just a little more explicitly. Now, even if we haven’t had this particular experience, we can *feel.* it. We can imagine it so vividly that we can almost taste it. We can feel that sense of joy, of fulfillment, of time standing still.
” and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
There’s an old saying, “You can’t go home again.” No matter how dear they may be, or how much we might wish to the contrary, we can never regain a moment once it’s passed. That is the real gut punch of the presentation.
We’ve been primed throughout the presentation to feel a sense of longing for something lost. Something who’s absence now causes us pain. And as it concludes, the presentation makes good on its promise. All of those warm feelings, all of the safety, and joy, and love we just finished imagining, is something that has come and gone.
That makes the very end even more painful. “To a place where we know we are loved.” It’s in the present tense. It’s encouraging us to live in that moment, to remember it vividly as if it were experiencing it again for the first time. And yet, the message is clear–“the place where we know we are loved,” is gone. Our parents are dead. Our lover has left us. The child we held in our arms is all grown up, and has long since moved away.
There’s no need for any followup. We have already replaced the images shown on the slides with our own memories, our own longings. We’ve already come to the obvious conclusion–that, as painful as it may be, using this device, this “carousel” is the closest we can come to bringing back the moments that meant so much to us. We don’t need to have it explained–we’ve already felt it. We don’t need to be convinced–we already experienced it.