Duoblog: What is the secret of a great presentation?

A few days ago, Chris Hedgate asked me to join him in a little experiment that he called duoblog.
A duoblog is about writing on a shared subject in “parallel” with another blogger.
Since the agreed subject is broad and we don’t see each other’s work until we both publish it (@16:00 UTC), we should expect quite different results. These are pure parallel monologues, effectively. In my opinion, this is no different from what happens in a typical conversation: we listen to others so rarely that I suspect that we are all separated by an invisible soundproof glass!

I met Chris at a software architecture workshop in South Africa early last year, and we kept in touch ever since. Every time I visit Sweden he always surprises me with something different. His fearless approach to creativity and love for experimentation is truly inspiring and reminds me that, although we may fail, we ought to really try nonetheless.

claudio-at-oredevI really couldn’t refuse to write a duoblog post with him this week, especially since the question he proposed to develop is so close to my heart:  “What is the secret of a great presentation?”

I have a definite opinion on the matter but, for fun, I did a quick research to see what others say. Among the top Google results, I found gems such as “sustained eye contact” and “be charming and knowledgeable”. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yep, rubbish.

If you’ve ever attended one of my presentations in the recent past, you may expect me to take this chance to talk about the importance of Zen design, the need for relevant images and my dislike for bullet points. You would be wrong. As in many things in life, the most visible aspects are not necessarily the most important.

Arguably, many presentations fail simply because have absolutely nothing to say. Like special effects can’t save a movie if the script is poor, pretty pictures won’t save a shallow presentation either.
Presentations that dump mountains of data equally show lack of respect for their audience. People crave meaning. At least I do.

For some time, I thought I could do better. I would research my topic deeply and, assuming that I had something worth saying, I would structure my presentation around a logical outline.  In a typical presentation, I would quickly make my main point (the “lead”) and I would generally follow it by 3 key sections to elaborate on the subject (“supporting details”). Finally, I would conclude my talk by restating my main point (“summary”).

Assuming the subject addressed my audience needs, this structure had a fairly predictable outcome: clarity.

One day, however, I realized that, irrespective of the technology/process/idea I present, my key role is to inspire change.

To succeed, I had to go well beyond clarity. I had to emotionally engage. Why? Because it turns out that people make choices based on emotions (and use data to justify them). If you were really rational and objective, wouldn’t you eat better and exercise regularly, for example?

Some people say that passion is all you need. Passion, however, is like a raw diamond: even if you have it, you need to learn how to make the most out of it. I know I can be really passionate. But how can I focus that passion to truly inspire change?

I found the missing piece while shedding tears watching a movie. Since then, I observed and studied many works able to inspire, influence and persuade; all of them tap into the art of storytelling.

I lost count on the number of books I read on screenwriting and creative non-fiction. I’ve been obsessed by it in the last couple of years. I learned and even developed my own tools to help me leverage the power of Story. I’d have so much to share: structure, dramatic outline, moral premise, character transformation, worse case scenarios, etc.

I now structure my presentations around a dramatic compelling story (not just anecdotes) in which the technology/process/idea plays a key role. The story is a device that I use to engage the audience and introduce the concepts I really care about.

That’s it. Simple but not easy.

Last year I asked a colleague to give me feedback on a script (based on factual events) for a 1-minute presentation teaser I was about to develop over the weekend. Since I communicated with him through instant messaging, I had no special effects to support it. I wasn’t even physically there. He read the text, line by line, as I was typing it. After a short pause he replied: “Wow Claudio, I’m hooked. I want to know more about it.”

This is what I wrote:

you are a talented software developer
your technical skills make you feel invincible
until one day...
everyone turns against you.
your career and self esteem are put in great danger
by the single IT project
you can't run away from.

For your convenience, I put a link to the teaser as well (http://vimeo.com/1825440 ), but I would like you to think hard on the power of text alone.

My dear Chris and readers, were you “hooked” like my colleague was? I’m curious to read your reactions and opinions.

Next time I will introduce the key elements of a dramatic story and show you a simple but effective device I created to design captivating scenarios.

By the way, this is a duoblog post, remember? I’m looking forward to read Chris’ view on the same subject here.

Claudio Perrone

My passion is to develop the critical thinking skills of people and help them bring the best of their work to the world. Lean & Agile management consultant, startup strategist, award-winning speaker and entrepreneur. Creative force behind A3 Thinker and PopcornFlow.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Chris Hedgate

    Claudio, thanks for writing this post. I absolutely agree that the key role of a presentation is to inspire change, and I like how you use a dramatic story to engage people. I try to use stories in my presentations, but I have not really built a presentation on one great story the way I know you do. I am really looking forward to reading your next post on this subject. As you mention I like to experiment and I would really like to try storytelling more.

  2. Claudio Perrone

    Thanks to you Chris!
    I haven’t blogged in a while and you really helped me starting again. For once, I already know what to write next 😀

  3. Aslam Khan

    All (?) presentations aim to bring on change, but I think your operative word is “inspire”. But let’s go beyond inspiration. Imagine if you created a common belief. Some dramatic change on a mass scale comes from a collective believing in one tiny ideal. And that collective ideal will make a dramatic change to the individual, uniquely. Maybe it comes down to a simple personal question “Why do *I* need to give this presentation?”

    And I agree with Chris above. Story telling is very, very hard.

    This is great experiment. Now, I’m scared to give the plot away on Chris’ blog post 😉

  4. Claudio Perrone

    Aslam, it is interesting to observe how you felt compelled to comment on both posts. Good, it shows that a duoblog might be a really good experiment. I hope others will soon follow your example and voice their opinions as well!

    Inspire change vs. just Inspire: People don’t do anything unless they want to. So you can only really suggest and “inspire” change, but you can’t persuade anyone with 100% accuracy (thank god..otherwise we would all be so screwed!).
    Arguably, I like to be “inspiring”. In fact, audience’s feedback often says that I’m “inspiring”. I’m actually not sure when/if I actually inspire change.
    But I find this goal (of simply being inspiring) a bit static and too self-centered. Is is what you mean when you say “Why do I need to give this presentation”?

    Storytelling is hard: yes it is. Is it a reason to give up? Are we talking about good or great presentations here? There are different styles and ways to achieve greatness I’m sure. I doubt any of those is easy, I’m afraid. Software development is hard too. That simple reason does not stop us from trying hard though.

    Can you learn good storytelling? Absolutely. With the right tools, commitment, and knowledge it may not be as hard as you may think…watch this space 😉

  5. Steven Kelly

    Great topic, Claudio and Chris! I look forward to reading the rest. A book I’ve found to be a good read on this is Moving Mountains by Henry Boettinger:

    I agree with what you and Boettinger say, and often for a presentation to clients it’s quiet easy to incorporate the advise. Making a presentation at a conference is harder: there often isn’t a clear call to action that could be made to such a diverse group. You’re not really allowed to sell yourself or your company as consultants, let alone push your products, so there’s no real expectation that an audience member will have any contact with you after the presentation.

    A lot of conference presenters end up basically selling themselves as presenters for the next conference, by doing an informative and interesting presentation. The other possibility is more like a tutorial: simply teaching the audience what you know. Whilst the two are by no means incompatible, the different aims generally show through in the glitter/substance ratio.

    Interestingly, I don’t think anyone goes to a conference to be influenced to make changes. To be entertained or educated, yes, maybe even to be (re-)inspired. And the speakers, even more than the audience, generally aim to make rational decisions based on overall knowledge rather than emotional responses to a speech. Attempts to invoke emotions or change behaviour are often recognised and turn us off from the message. I suppose that’s always been true: this media-savvy generation just [thinks it] is better at spotting such manipulation.

    Still, unless our presentations influence future behaviour in some way, why are we wasting our time on them – whether we’re presenting or in the audience.

  6. Claudio Perrone

    Steven, thanks so much for your feedback!
    Some important events happened last week (surprisingly, I quit IW !!!!) and some more are happening (I’ll have a baby in the next few days), so apologies for the delay on both my response (and next post).
    It is indeed hard to influence future behavior since people almost necessarily respond to information overload with indifference.

    Take a point of view, any point of view and try to convince people that “you are right”. No matter how “right” you are, it almost never works. People don’t change easily, not even if you can factually and objectively prove your point.

    Yes we are constantly manipulated. Do you see a car as a vehicle of transportation or something that strikes an emotional response? Status, performance, reliability? How much rational is really in our choice?

    Someone I know in a marketing department of a large organization told me once that if you hear from 13 different people that a given product is good, you’ll start believing it. I was shocked to learn that (at least according to the same marketing guy) you will have the same perception EVEN if you hear it 13 times FROM THE SAME SOURCE!!!
    I so hope this is not true 🙂
    Anyway, I will further elaborate on story asap!

  7. Gar

    I slipped up in my reading and missed your DuoBlog (even though I new it was coming). Great post and same for Chris it’s interesting to see the different use of language between the both of you Stories V Messages. What springs to mind is faerie tales V sermons (I’m talking style not content so no offense meant).

    I’ve listened to Claudio’s views on presentation style over lunches and pints and I’ve experimented for a recent presentation I made…. so here’s some thoughts.

    Adopting a visual story telling presentation style is time consuming and fraught with the risks that any new technique brings. Claudio that looking back his earlier efforts felt a little like a special effects show without a script. I think that it’s easy to find images that grab the imagination (if you are prepared to pay :). You need to make sure that it’s not -just- your imagination that they grab. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on image consistency through a story. If I dramatically switch from slide to slide do I risk losing the thread of the story. Imagine The Godfather a film shot through darkened doorways then suddenly flipping into an amusement park with bright vivid colours and then onto great open plains, constant transitions could confuse and annoy. I saw a themed presentation delivered by Don Smith on P&P Architecture Guidance (http://blogs.msdn.com/donsmith/). All the images were of asian children. It worked well but I imagine it took a lot of discipline to create. As Steven pointed out alot of stock slide decks suffer from the creator trying to pass the message to the presenter through the slides and not the notes. Microsoft standard presentations have always suffered from this; have you guys any thoughts on how to create multi-presenter slide decks.

    Last couple of points; learning to craft a presentation is very like learning to write, when you look back at earlier creations you always get the feeling that they are like stories you wrote in school ‘…last summer I went to the beach……’. You are mentally aiming higher but are probably doing well if you end with a children’s pop-up book ‘Cá bhfuil mamaí?’ (every country must have the book ‘Where is mummy?’ with popup pics and little animals).

    Finally you can put a great presentation together -but- it ends up being about more than the slides on the day. Preparation, timing and delivery.

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