Captain Kirk’s guide to boldly use words

A generation of English teachers shuddered when William Shatner uttered the immortal words, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Legend has it that Star Trek not only brought us Warp Drive and pointy eared aliens, it also split the infinitive. This was decades after Rutherford split the atom. I confess I have a better understanding of what it means to split the atom than to split the infinitive, but I do know this: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before. — It just sounds good.

If you’re presenting or speaking, the words you use matter. They break through the attention deficit and make what you’re saying sticky. In the Make a Powerful Point system, we focus on STRUCTURE, PICTURES and WORDS. All are equally important, and all play a role in building a powerful message, constructing a deck, unlocking your best self as a presenter and engaging with the audience. James T. Kirk had a way with words. We can learn some lessons from him.

1. Whatever it takes to sound better.

Kirk was a great flouter of convention. Whether it was the Kobayashi Maru or splitting the infinitive, Kirk was not one to slavishly follow the rules. He focused on the outcome. The same applies for your presentation. The outcome, for you is getting the point across. You have to frame the way people see the world and move them to action. Rules and conventions help because they are a common ground for understanding. But it doesn’t hurt to wander over the lines occasionally. George W.’s Bushism’s did this. Phrases like, “I’m the decider, and I decide what is best…” are not paragons of English grammar, but they clearly got his point across. Love them or hate them, they became memorable sound-bytes that stood out.

2. Made up words are OK. In fact they’re great.

Phaser. Tricorder. Photon Torpedoes. The Star Trek universe is full of made up words. They stand out and make the stories richer. This isn’t new to Star Trek. Nerds (A word made up by Dr. Suess) have been making up words for years. Tweeting, blogging and email are only adding to the evolution of the language. If you’re making a presentation and you need to make something stand out, consider making up a word or two. Want to talk about the rash of low-quality information out there and the increasing inability to sort and make sense of it all? Call it Infobesity. Working as a product manager or learning designer and trying to figure out how to make what you create more engaging? Try Gamification. Make chocolate bars snickerlicious. You don’t need to know the definition of the best made up words — they clue you in through their parts. But they do the job – they stand out, they’re catchadoramemorable. (OK that’s a bad one, but this whole paragraph is filled with truthiness.)

3. Speak simply and clearly. Especially to aliens and lower life-forms

The typical Star Fleet Captain speaks simply and clearly. I am not sure if there’s a special Shakespeare class at the academy, or it’s a coincidence that James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard sound like classically trained actors. They brokered peace treaties, negotiated on behalf of the federation and made first contact with alien beings. The people you couldn’t understand never made it out of the engine room, were always muttering about Dilithium crystals or they never spoke anyway. In the Star Trek universe, those people all wore red shirts. The lesson here is simple. Never utilize gargantuan words when you can use short ones. This is a lesson that has clearly been taken to heart in Congress. People are upset that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade. Personally, I don’t think it’s because they are getting dumber on either side of the aisle. I think they are doing this to make sure that they are heard by their audience.

4. You’re Human Dammit. Speak like one.

As far as I can tell, McCoy never actually said this to Spock. But he might as well have. Kirk was an emotional man who clearly and eloquently showed his passion. While he appreciated Spock’s logic and his brain he constantly tried to bring out his human side. The Spock-Kirk balance is equally essential when you’re presenting. Yes you must have a Return on Investment. Yes you have to show the data behind your argument. But you’re speaking to humans. They only play corporate drones. At home they are real people. If you have a target, call it a target, not a budget. If you have a problem, call it a problem, not an issue (or for all the Pollyanna’s an opportunity).  If you want to win over the hearts and minds of your customers do that, don’t acquire them. What’s next – will you be assimilating them? Resistance might be futile, but the humans in the room will resist.

5. No one ever explored a strange new civilization without a little work.

This treasure trove of Trekkie memorabilia served up the original memo’s behind the opening narration in Star Trek:

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The good thing about words (especially on a presentation) is that they are the easiest thing to change. Look how much different — and better, the opening narration is from the 1st draft to the last. When you’re working on your pitch, or your deck, do the same thing. Get the draft down, and then work on it, make it better. Boldly go…

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Peter | June 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    You’ve now got me wondering if on stage I’m a Kirk, a McCoy, or a Spock. All I can say is:

    “Superbly logical Captain”

  2. Pingback: Boldly Go | make a powerful point

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