(By Geoffrey James)
Most presentations are boring, some are tolerable, a very few are memorable. The memorable ones all share a single essential characteristic—they tell a story. But what does that really mean?
A few days ago, I attended a webinar that consisted of two presentations about something that I’ll just call “lead nurturing.” (The specific subject matter isn’t important; I just include it here so that you’ll realize the vast potential for the webinar to be deadly dull.)
The first presentation consisted of a list of “important” concepts and concerns to “think about” before you get into lead nurturing. The presentation was chock full of data, all of which I immediately forgot.
The second presentation described how one company started with a very crude concept of lead nurturing and through a series of steps and tests made it work for them better and better. Days later, I can remember most of it, even without reviewing the slides.
The first presenter came off as earnest, but tedious. The second presenter came off as brilliant and focused. I know from their respective LinkedIn profiles that both presenters are top notch, well-qualified individuals. And yet…
Outline Presentations Make You Sound Dull
Boring presentations, like the first one in that webinar, almost always consist of bulleted slides in the form of an outline:
- Part A
- Component 1
- Component 2
- Element a
- Element b
- Part B
… and so forth.
During such presentations, the presenter verbally provides details of each bullet item, usually with a forced “this is important, so I’m going to talk very fast to get it all in” enthusiasm.
Such presentations are so unmemorable that presenters must resort to tricks in order to ensure that the audience retains anything at all.
Take, for example, the oft-repeated advice to “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.” Can you imagine how boring you’d consider somebody who did this outside of a meeting?
Or take the similar advice to use an acronym as a mnemonic, like SWOT. Yes, I can remember what the four letters stand for, but for the life of me I can’t remember the contents of any of the dozens of SWOT presentations I’ve attended.
More important, the people who give bullet-outline presentations always come off as dull, plodding, tedious, and someone whose future presentations are to be avoided whenever possible. You don’t want to be that person.
Story Presentations Make You Sound Brilliant
While most people can repeat a story that they’ve heard, if you ask them “what exactly makes that a story?” they come up blank. That’s why, when creating a presentation, they fall back on the bullet list.
So what exactly is a story? Here’s a definition that works for presentations: A story is a series of actions that overcome obstacles in order to achieve a goal.
That might seem obvious to some of you, but there’s more there than meets the eye at first glance. Here are the important points:
1. A Series of Actions
The actions must take place in a time sequence. This basic level is pretty easy to understand. Example: “I put my right foot in, I pulled my right foot out, I put my right foot in and I turned it all about…”
2. Overcome Obstacles
Actions start to look like a story when there’s a reason for each action. Example: “I put my right foot in, but the water was too cold, so I pulled my right foot out.”
3. To Achieve a Goal
Actions that overcome obstacles become a story when there’s an overarching goal that gives them meaning. “In order to win venture funding, I needed to get across the river. I put my right foot in, but the water was too cold, so…”
Story presentations are not only more memorable, they also make the presenter sound smart and together. There is some complicated neuroscience on why this is the case, but rather than get into that, let’s draw on your own personal experience.
Which presentations do YOU remember? Are they the TED talks or the bullet-rich outlines that get trotted out in your conference room?
This is not to say that EVERY story is worth telling. If the story you’re telling is irrelevant to the audience, you’ll still come off as dull. But if the story IS relevant, and it’s briskly told, you’ll come off as brilliant for telling it.