I received a phone call last week at the office.
“I’m having trouble with my presentations. I’m spending hours on them and nobody seems to be taking much interest”.
After five minutes, we’d arrived at the problem.
The content was far too complicated in his presentation and alienated the audience immediately.
When my client came in for presentation skills training the next week, the question was a simple one:
“How do I make a complex subject matter simple?”
The answer, of course, is more complicated.
Here’s our five-step strategy for helping you achieve your goals through making complicated topics simple.
It’s a 4o-second Radio 4 interview with Sir Anish Kapoor, a well-decorated sculptor, as he attempts to explain a material he’s just bought.
He wants to explain what the product is, to build up excitement about his future displays.
See if you can work out what he’s talking about:
“It’s described as vertically aligned nanotube arrays”
“Now what that means literally is, if you can imagine a hair, then a thousandth of the width of a hair, and one might imagine that these are trees planted in a vertical direction”.
“Now as light enters this forest, it finds no way out, in fact 99.6% of light is absorbed”.
(An unmemorable statistic).
Confused, and feeling a little stupid, the audience switches off for good.
What Sir Anish failed to do was to take his audience into account during his presentation.
He needed to start with the headline in mind, before telling the audience what was in it for them.
“Vantablack is the darkest material ever discovered”.
“If you wanted your house to be more energy-efficient, you’d coat its sides with Vantablack, so it absorbs the heat”.
“If you wanted to buy a watch, for example, on which the hands appeared to be dangling over an infinite black hole, you’d paint it with a thin layer of Vantablack”.
Dr Kapoor thought too much about the process.
How do I describe what this physically is?
Think about it.
When you’re buying a car, do you pop the bonnet open and ask to see the crankpins inside the crankshaft?
No – you ask about the engine size, as you want to know how powerful it is.
When you buy a coffee from Costa Coffee, do you ask about the company’s projected annual earnings, or do you just want to know how much your Latte will cost?
Consider the audience.
Forget the process – and give them the result.
Now you’ve considered your audience’s interests, think about their comprehension level.
The Sun newspaper is written for a comprehension age of 7 years old.
That’s why the newspaper used to paint the number 7 on its internal stairwells.
It’s written without subordinate clauses, generally using one-syllable words.
The Herald newspaper is written for a comprehension age of 11 years old.
Interestingly, it’s the tabloid journalists at The Sun that will make more money.
Why? Because they have to explain the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle to a seven-year-old with only 1000 words at their disposal.
While your audience will most likely be far more sophisticated than this, it’s a principle that’s worth remembering.
Most often, we see presentations fail because the speaker assumes a level of knowledge that’s far greater than the audience possesses.
Strip it back.
Explain your job to your children in words they understand:
“If I was to hold a piece of Vantablack up in front of you, you’d be unable to see it. It would simply look like I’ve cut a piece of space out of thin air”.
If they get it, everyone will.
In 1920s America, scores of young couples in love would head to the cinema houses to watch silent films.
Most silent films would contain romantic preambles, and end in the flurry of a “chase scene”.
In shortened films, the expression “cut to the chase” literally meant “ditch the preamble”.
Many presentations I’ve witnessed leave the audience with a similar feeling.
“Get to the point”.
If you’ve properly ordered your information, you’ll start with the result and finish with the process.
If you’ve conducted research, give people the results straight away when you begin your presentation.
If you’re making people redundant, break that news first.
The audience will now relax and listen to the rest of what you have to say.
People often ask about the best presentation we’ve ever heard.
My personal favourite in the seven years in the industry lasted just 39 seconds.
It was a thing of beauty. He cut to the chase.
My former colleague Alan Douglas often told a story of a charity fundraiser he’d attended in Edinburgh in aid of a campaign for safer driving.
It was organised by a woman who’d lost her son in a crash caused by a driver using his mobile phone.
As she stood up to begin her presentation, her own phone rang.
And she answered it.
For 30 seconds she spoke to her friend, out loud, as the audience stared at her in disbelief.
The audience, sensing the extreme awkwardness, began to chat quietly amongst themselves.
Another 30 seconds went by, before she called out:
“But just imagine I’d been driving whilst taking that call”.
Immediately, her point became clear.
Holding a conversation requires your full attention.
If you’re driving a car at the same time, you could kill someone.
If your message is to gain traction outside the room, it needs to be more than just easy to understand.
It needs to be portable.
Those who will carry the argument need to be armed with the facts, stories, analogies and illustrations to help them do so.
Alan’s telling of the story was a testament to the message.
It was so clear, so shocking, that everybody remembered it.
Imagine you and I were standing a few yards away from each other, and I was armed with three tennis balls.
If I threw all three to you at the same time, it’s unlikely you’d catch any of them.
Yet that’s the equivalent of what we often ask people to do at the end of our presentations.
“So that’s an overview of that project. If you’d like to get involved, please visit our website, give us a call or just come and see me at the end”.
Uh-oh. I’ve dropped all three.
Make your Call to Action (what you want the audience to do next) so compelling that everyone is crystal-clear on what they need to do.
You’re telling the audience:
“I’m going to throw this ball to you, and I’d like you to catch it”.
“There’s a petition for safer driving by the door. I’d like you to sign it”.
“When you need us, call us on 0800-Save-a-Life. That’s 0800-Save-a-Life.”
“I urge you – choose us as your preferred provider for the work”.
The simpler the better.
If you’d done all of the above, trust me on this: your audience will love you for it.
And when your audience loves your message, they’re far more likely to spread it.
Andrew McFarlan is Managing Director of Glasgow-based media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications.
You can view his profile here.
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