Presentation Series - Part 2 of 2: How to Prepare a Yawn-Free Presentation (And Get The Attention You Want)
Will is eating a bowl of pasta and meat sauce.
He and I are sitting in Coco Di Mama Italian cafe just north of Oxford Street, London. He’s refuelling after running from Blackheath. (That’s about 5 miles away.) We’re talking about presentation writing, and how best to do it.
Will is a longstanding friend of mine. He is also a Strategy Director and has written many presentations that have won much new business.
“You've got to set a course before you set out”, Will says. "You’ve got to know what the problem is, how you are going to solve it, and what success looks like."
Will likes to pause before talking. That’s what makes him bright. If you look closely, you can see his thoughts flickering rapidly like Christmas lights.
“You’ve got to get to the root cause of the problem. Find out the known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, and unknown-unknowns.”
He’s quoting Donald Rumsfeld's Quadrant. Rumsfeld used it during the 2nd American-Iraq invasion to justify U.S. military intervention.
“It’s the greatest bit of idiot rhetoric out there”, Will says, smiling.
Will is giving me a snapshot of how he plans his presentations. It’s a process that saves him time, frustration and bored faces.
From bored faces to interested faces
I want to talk about how to avoid getting bored faces from your audience and prepare a 'yawn-free' presentation.
Whether pitching a product or addressing the UN about your views on world peace, I want to give 3 ideas about how you can get the attention of your audience, and stop them from falling asleep:
The first idea is about the importance of writing out your presentation
The second idea is about the importance of structuring an argument
The third idea is about why writing a presentation cold leaves your audience feeling cold (and how you can to add some warmth to it)
Without further ado (drum roll please), let’s kick off with the first one:
1. Why writing a presentation by hand will increase your chances of success
Have you ever cooked a meal to get halfway through it and find that you are one ingredient short? I’ve done it many times - you’ve gone to the effort of cooking, but end up with a meal that has one key ingredient missing.
There are 3 words that chefs use to avoid this cuisine nightmare: Mise. En. Place.
Literally, mise-en-pace means ‘everything in place’. If you know even a smidgen about cooking, then you’ll know that it is good practice to have every ingredient washed, measured, chopped, and ready to cook before you turn on the hob. This will give you a scrummy dinner, not a dog's dinner.
And it’s the same when preparing to write a presentation.
You want everything in place before you start.
Back to Will
Will sees the world in words. He writes down his presentations on paper first. This helps him see whether it makes sense, where there are gaps in his story. He then types it up, and emails it to his colleagues. They give their comments. And he tweaks it, and cuts out all that is unnecessary. All before 1 slide is created.
One of my previous bosses, Niki, got me to write my presentation on one side of paper. Keeping it to 1 side shows that it’s a simple story. You can see the flow, and how you might need to cut it back. It’s invaluable.
Another previous boss, Niru and my mentor Sean D’Souza of Psychotactics both see the world in pictures and words. They storyboard their presentations on A3. This allows them to not only see the words, but the entire slides: the graphics, the structure, the whole meal.
Will, Niki, Niru and Sean understand ‘mise-en-place'
Whether you are Will, Niki or Sean, everything is in its place before 1 slide is designed.
They are true chefs.
No wasted time.
Everything is in order.
What if you don’t have time to prepare?
To be blunt: if you’re creating a presentation that’s worth its salt, you must carve out time. Without the thinking, and capturing it on paper, the final presentation is going to be confused. And it doesn’t need to take more than 30 minutes.
Which brings me to my 2nd point…
2. Why it is important to structure an argument
Structuring an argument well helps people follow your presentation, believe what you say and remember what you’ve said.
Yes, structuring an argument grabs attention. It structures your points with clarity. It creates brevity. It avoids waffle.
So, how do we structure the argument?
There are ‘text-book’ structures. They are simple and work perfectly well.
Advice goes something like this:
1. Write down the main goal
2. Know what success looks like in reaching that goal
3. Define what’s your problem in reaching that goal
4. Devise a strategy to overcome that problem
5. Outline a plan of action to make it happen
But there’s far more sophistication behind this
Back to Will:
“You need to find the symptom or the root cause of your problem. You’ll know what the problem is because it’s the one insight that colours everything else in your presentation and defines the change that you want to bring about."
Will tells me that M&C Saatchi calls this change 'The Eclipse slide'. It’s the one slide on which every strategy, idea and plan are directed. It’s like Archimedes lever.
Now for a real example
I always love the ‘eclipse’ insight from the Snickers ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry' ad campaign.
Their insight came from spending much effort getting to know their audience of young males. Their 'Eclipse moment' was realising that when you’re hungry, you’re not yourself. When you’re not yourself, you’re don’t fit in with the pack.
And this led to the line ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’.
(Here’s a press ad from that campaign.)
So, do we need to go to this level of preparation?
Can’t we can just launch into presentation writing headfirst?
This leads to the next point:
3. Why writing cold leaves your audience cold (and how you can warm them up)
If you were air-dropped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a wee boat without a map, you’d probably go around in circles before giving up, and surrendering yourself to the fishes.
It’s like that when writing cold. It’s dangerous. You can go around in circles too. Writing, re-writing sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit within a structure until you get dizzy. And if you are lost, your audience will certainly be lost. They won’t sense a flow from beginning to end. Or that a problem has been overcome with a great idea. They’ll eventually fall asleep.
One tell-tale sign of coldness is 'jargon-itis'
You know the words I mean. Big, Latinate words. With lots of syllables. That sound clever but don’t say anything. Like ‘engagement’, ‘innovation’, or ‘digitisation’. They're horrible words to read. They are poor masks to hide your own confusion. And if you use them, you’ve got a case of jargon-itis.
And what happens next? Yep, that’s right. Your audience will yawn.
That’s why you need a map.
A map that’s a side of paper.
A map that’s a storyboard drawn out.
A map that has an insight.
But how can you use your map and turn it into slides without hassle?
Introducing the 'Power Of Three'
I prefer to split my story into three sections. Only three. And these sections are how I divide my storyboard or one side of paper.
I like 3 because it gives focus to your presentation and limits excessive slides (or 'slide-flab’). It puts your presentation on the treadmill and gets it seriously toned.
I then like to split each section into a further three to five sub-points. And these points are likely to become headlines for my presentation.
Remember, a slide is fragile
One slide can only take one thought. A slide is like a small balloon: it can only hold so much (one point, one idea) before it pops. If you cram your slides full of ideas, words or charts, the slide pops and you lose your audience.
I’ve done this too often for my liking. It leaves your audience not just yawning, but confused too. And you don’t make many friends that way either.
And that brings us to the end
We’ve covered three ideas about how not to make your audience yawn
1. We talked about the importance of writing out your presentation by writing it out by hand or storyboarding it
2. Then we looked into the importance of structuring an argument by finding the one thing that eclipses and directs all the points you are trying to make
3. Finally, we saw why writing it cold will leave your audience feeling cold and lost at sea. We also covered how you can add warmth to your presentation by focusing on the 'Power of Three’ and keeping one point to each slide to avoid slides-popping.
What’s the one thing that we can do next time?
Mise-en-place'. Get that pencil out.
Yes, there’s a lot that’s not written here, but writing, drawing and sketching until you have a slim, toned and powerful argument, you’ll have your audience sitting up and paying attention.
And that’s my yawn-free guarantee.