The Story of a Presentation

The science and art of sharing your story

As the Chief Storyteller for IBM Watson Work and IBM Watson Talent, I’m often asked about how I create my presentations. I’d like to offer a quick story of a presentation from concept to delivery.

THE NEED

At some point, either through some insight, a challenge or an invitation to share, I am faced with the need for a new presentation. For this story, I was asked to speak for 20 minutes as the keynote for the IBM New Way To Work Tour. My instructions were as follows:

  • We don’t want a product presentation. We want something insightful to kick off the event.
  • The technologies we want to introduce are Cloud, Social and Analytics
  • The audience will be people from Finance and Marketing as well as Business Analysts
  • We want them engaged and challenged so they will get the most from the breakout sessions

THE HOOK

Those familiar with music recognize most song lyrics have a hook. It’s a turn on a phrase, a surprise twist or something catchy you’ll remember. To make something about products, NOT appear to be about products, you have to offer a different perspective. So we chose “The Perfect Storm”.

A storm is the coming together of two forces. The two used here was Culture and Technology.

THE 3 POINTS

Most audiences are capable of remembering 2-3 points. Any more and they’ll begin forgetting some or most of them. So I look for 3. Since culture was my point of entry and technology my exit, I needed to find a thread to follow. Here’s what I decided on:

CULTURAL ISSUE

WHAT IS NEEDED

TECH THAT MEETS THE NEED

Chaos

Clarity

Analytics

Complexity

Convenience

Cloud

Confusion

Connection

Social

You may note the cultural issues and what is needed all begin with the letter “c”. When I’m able to do so, I try to select key points that relate to one another. Beginning character or rhyme or parts of an object being used as an analogy (tires, engine, seat) help it stick with the audience.

Don’t announce “I have three issues and needs and they all begin with the letter ‘C’”. Let them figure it out. We enjoy connecting things and as you uncover the points, they will begin to connect them and get a bit of a “I solved that” rush that serves to further implant your points in their memory.

THE STORYBOARD

I’m a big fan of Garr Reynolds and his book Presentation Zen. A major lesson I learned that totally reformed the way I create presentations was this:

Don’t start your presentations by opening PowerPoint.
Start with Post-It Notes. Start analog then go digital

I began my work on this presentation in my home office. So I got a pad of 3×3 Post-It Notes and used my white board as my working surface. An office wall, a large table, even a window will work. I can’t tell you how many hotel windows I’ve used as surfaces for my storyboards. The challenge with windows is the view can sometimes be distracting. But at night, it works well. Note, if you are on the first floor near a sidewalk, this will cause people to stare.

I put my title ideas on one note. Then I put my main points, each on a separate note and attach them under the title note.

Now I begin writing notes that serve to illustrate each of the points and put them in the appropriate column.

If you have too much information to fit on a Post-It Note, it’s probably too much for a single slide

If you have a number of related things to say, instead of using a bulleted list, consider separate notes (and slides).

Here is a picture I took of my initial notes.

Like many of you, I travel a lot and you can imagine this creative process of designing and building a presentation usually isn’t a one session thing. In fact, I’ve found that breaks in the process can help me see things in fresh ways. I’ll come back to a work in progress and think, “Where was I going with this? This doesn’t make sense.” Which is likely what my audience was going to think. So use breaks as needed.

For a mobile person, I strongly suggest an iPad app “Post-it Plus”. It’s also available on the iPhone, but I found it hard to use on the smaller form factor.

This app takes the picture I shared above and captures the individual notes as editable and moveable objects. It doesn’t do character recognition, but it will find each note and save the image as the content. So from a mobility perspective, this is quite liberating. For this presentation, I took the photo in the app and was able to work on my presentation while on a plane. (Last August I wrote a posting about this process Slices of Genius)

The app also allows you to replace the photo captured with text. Which I often do as I alter the words as the idea refines. There is a free version which does most of what I need, but for a small upgrade fee I was able to use features like color coding the notes. For this story I used colors to designate slide types. Here is a pic of the nearly completed storyboard:

The image here is just to illustrate the flow.

  • The light blue slides are title and set up thoughts.
  • The green slides are audience questions.
  • The red slides are the ones I want the audience to feel or question something. Hopefully this leads them to want an answer.
  • The orange slides are the three cultural forces
  • The blue slides are stories or examples that help them understand the need (the previous red slide).
  • The dark pink slides are stories or examples that illustrate the solution (the previous red slide)
  • The closing pink slides are specific instructions and challenges for the three audience groups (Finance, Analysts, Marketing) to prepare them for the breakouts to come.
  • The tan slides in this example are transitional. They might be a story or something light. It helps to let their minds relax for just a bit. If you constantly try to keep them excited, they attention wears out quickly.

THE FLOW

From the picture you should notice the presentation has rhythm and cadence. And most importantly a purposeful design.

When you are introduced to present, most audiences go into “educate me” mode. They shift their brains into a mode of listening with the possibility of learning. Most people who are well rested and laser focused can take in information in “educate me” mode for maybe 10-15 minutes. And remember, most of your audiences aren’t usually well rested and laser focused, so the time is much shorter.

Keeping your listener’s minds engaged with a purposeful variety of left and right brain activity will result in them investing their attention for your entire message.

So after the intro (blue slides) I ask a series of questions (green slides). Even in large audiences, I seek answers from the crowd. Many speakers pose a question and then continue with stating the possible answers. If you get the crowd involved their brains shift out of “educate me” mode into either “I have a response to that” or “what if he calls on me” mode. Either way, they are engaged.

While their minds are engaged (and open), I introduce the main point (first red slide) “We’re at a point where the forces are requiring us to find a new way to work.” Now downshift a bit and let that sit. “Let’s look at the cultural forces” Their minds are shifting back to “educate”.

For each of the cultural forces I do an introduction (orange slide) followed by transition and then back to a question to snap them back out of “educate me”. I try to keep the questions light and conversational. This isn’t about solving a puzzle (that’s a different part of the brain that if used too much can also wear out an audience). What I’m looking for is for them to personalize the question and imagine their particular answer. This makes it emotive and real for them. Now that I have them feeling something, the brain is open again. Time to introduce the solution.

By itself, the solution statement is often informative and maybe a bit provocative, but often it’s just a statement. To solidify it in their minds, I use a story or an illustration that gets them to picture something. Most statements are not tangible. You can visualize the words, but they are like all other words. The related story implants a picture of something tangible on which they can attach your statement. The more relative the story can be to the audience the better. That’s one reason I love to use stories involving children as they are easy to relate to. Popular movies, common work experiences, stories from books and even current events can be used. But consider your audience and don’t risk alienating them by using an illustration that is irrelevant or worse yet, insulting to their culture or world view.

I then close each topic with an example and story of the solution in practice. For those of you who are in sales, I like using customer stories. Please note, I didn’t say customer references. Don’t just insert a customer reference slide here. If you have a customer example and fact filled slide, take it and find the one thing most impressive about the story. Find the one thing that made it stick for you. Then put that on a slide with a big picture that is relevant to the topic.

MY CHALLENGE TO YOU

I am privileged to do a lot of presentations. Some might say I have a lot of time I can dedicate to doing what I’ve described above. While I may have a little more than some of you, I can tell you that I spend a lot of time (if you want to call it outside of work) pondering, practicing, and refining presentations. It is worth the investment. I believe the way in which we communicate our message is key to our success. And if you do that poorly, it will be the main reason for your failure. So take the time to question and improve your presentations and messages.

It’s not what you say that matters. It’s what your listener understands.

You have an outstanding story that deserve your best efforts in presentation.

RELATED MATERIALS

Below is a video of me presenting this material at the Social Business Forum in Milan. This was an event separate from the New Way To Work tour, but their theme was “Digital Disruption” so a version of the “Perfect Storm” fit perfectly for their keynote.

I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know your thoughts and let me know if I can ever be of service to assist you in your efforts.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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