Give killer presentations: Think like a writer

Most presentations are boring and forgettable. But why?

Business presenters have every advantage: A captive audience, big graphics and the benefit of being there in person. Yet most presenters fail to break free from the soul-killing dreck that makes PowerPoint presentations so dull.

Have you ever wondered how good novelists can hold a reader's attention for hours at a time with nothing but words on a page? Have you wondered how good Web writers can keep people glued to the screen when the whole Internet beckons?

I'm going to tell you how to apply skills from the craft of writing to make your presentations enjoyable and unforgettable.

But first, let's understand why most presentations are so bad.

What's wrong with presentations

PowerPoint presentations usually involve a lot of pretending. The speaker pretends to be excited. The audience pretends to be interested. Everybody is faking it.

Most collections of slides are packed with fake images -- stock photography, clip art and other inherently false imagery.

The human mind is very good at detecting insincerity and fakeness and is repelled by it.

Most business presentations fail because they're based on bad assumptions. Here are some examples of those assumptions:

The audience cares about you and what you have to say. (They don't.)

The audience is thinking about what you're saying. (They're not.)

The audience can grasp the details of your complex slides on first exposure. (They can't, and they won't.)

Most presenters act like their audience is made up of information-harvesting robots, not human beings.

If your presentation contains 10, 15, 20 or more slides, and each slide offers several points, you're assuming that people are somehow going to grasp, memorize or learn dozens or hundreds of facts. This isn't going to happen. You'll be lucky if they remember three.

Business speakers approach presentations like it's a transfer of information: "I have all this information I want you to know, and when I'm done presenting you will now have the information."

This is the worst kind of delusion, because everyone knows it isn't true. People usually retain little more than a general impression.

So if you want to make your presentations entertaining and unforgettable, you should learn from people who are good at enjoyable and memorable communication: Writers.

How to present like a writer

A typical business presentation breaks down communication into subjects like these:

Our company.

Our product.

Our product's architecture.

Our value proposition.

These might be the right categories to discuss if the people in the audience were passionately curious about you and your company. But they're not.

In fact, the reason you're presenting is not to satisfy curiosity, but to inspire curiosity. A forced march through your company's details will inspire nothing but despair.

A good writer is more likely to break down the parts of communication into the categories that reflect how the human brain works, like these:

Mental images.

Stories.

Emotions.

Information.

Let's look at each of these categories and how you can organize your presentation around them.

Mental images

Professional communicators, and especially writers, pay close attention to mental images. When nonfiction writers want readers to imagine something memorable, they use a good visual metaphor.

When politicians want voters to forget something horrible, they avoid mental images and instead use euphemism and jargon -- which is language that has been stripped of visual imagery.

That's how any skillful communicator manipulates an audience: Use visual imagery to create memories; use euphemism and jargon to erase them.

(One of the reasons most presentations are so bad is that speakers use euphemism and jargon because they think it sounds "professional." It doesn't. It's amateur-hour communication.)

A good metaphor is effective because it imparts a strong mental image that faithfully communicates an idea and makes it memorable.

You can tell people that a particular cow is yours, but nobody will forget the fact that you own the cow if you sink a smoking, orange-hot branding iron into the animal's flesh.

It would be easy to forget the abstract idea of metaphors being memorable. But you won't forget the mental picture you now have of that cow being branded.

Writers use metaphors. But as a presenter, you never have to use them. When you want to create a mental picture in the minds of your audience, show them the picture!

The best business presentation I ever saw used slides that didn't have a single word on them. Every slide was a photograph. When the speaker talked about the growth of his company in the '90s, he showed a striking picture of a race car as he talked. When he moved to the post-recession decline, he showed a picture of a car on fire.

Ten years later, I still remember his presentation.

Pictures are memorable. Walls of data are forgettable. So if you want to be unforgettable, use more pictures in your slides and far fewer words and numbers.

Deliberately show the people in the audience the mental images you want them to remember and associate with your talk.

Very important: Use real pictures, not fake ones.

Never use stock photography, which stinks of artificiality. If you want to represent happy customers, for example, show a picture of actual customers. Show real products, real employees, real users.

Or if you're illustrating a concept, make sure you show scenes of real life, rather than staged or faked scenes.

It's more important for your pictures to be real than to be professional looking.

One of the most striking scenes from the AMC TV series Mad Men was about a memorable presentation. In the show, advertising creative director Don Draper convinces Kodak to call its slide projector the "Carousel." It's a powerful presentation because the whole time Don is talking, he's showing amateurish snapshots of his family. The presentation is so powerful and evocative that one of his colleagues runs out in tears.

The scene was conjured up by writers who understand the overwhelming power of pictures.

Stories

The human mind is hard-wired for stories. We crave them. We need them. We can't resist their appeal. So tell stories in your presentation.

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end and involves at least one protagonist -- a person that other people can relate to who experiences the events in the story.

In the beginning, there's a balance. In the middle, that balance is disrupted in some way. And at the end, a new balance is established. That's what a story is.

The key to bringing stories into your presentations is to personalize the information you're already giving. Instead of talking about some big change your company went through, tell a story about the person or people who made that decision that led to the change, and explain what they went through to reach that decision.

Emotions

People remember and crave images and stories. The other thing people remember is emotions. In fact, when your audience leaves the meeting room, your entire presentation will be judged on only one thing: How you made them feel.

I've seen presentations where the presenter gave almost no information, or said nothing useful. But he was funny, and people walked out saying, "That was great!"

Good emotions for presentations to instill in audiences include shock, fear, nostalgia, joy and excitement. But most of all, people remember humor.

Don't do "schtick" or prepared material. Don't tell jokes. Instead, expose the humor in the material you're presenting. Instead of trying to go for the big laughs, convey the mildly amusing shared reality you have with your audience. Keep it real.

Information

Most presentations are nothing but information. The presenter puts all the information on a series of slides, then drags his victims through those slides, point by point.

Here's a much better idea: Put all the information on paper or into an electronic document and distribute it to the audience after the presentation. (Don't do it before -- you want everyone looking at your vivid pictures, not shuffling through your boring information.)

Never distribute your slides or notes. The handout should be its own document of supporting material.

You'll want to add a bit of information to your slides, but only to make an impression, not to convey specific facts and figures.

To understand how this works, deconstruct Apple announcements, for example. They show numbers not so you'll learn the information, but to leave you with impressions. (Fast growth! Big sales! More apps than other phones!)

Your "presentation" -- the slides you show and the words you say -- should be focused 100% on making people interested in you and your message and on creating a positive impression. Communicate the nitty-gritty details in the handout.

So put each of these parts of your presentation in its place. Add pictures to your slides. Tell stories with your voice. Print information on paper for later. And sprinkle emotion throughout.

And finally: Any writer will tell you that words matter. Follow these basic tips on language to make your talk powerful:

Use short, basic words. (Isn't that sentence more powerful and memorable than "Utilize diminutive elemental units of language"?)

Use the active voice when you can. (Passive is the worst. Imperative is the best.)

Be specific and avoid vagueness. (It's impossible to be too clear.)

Avoid cliches and jargon. (If you've heard or read a phrase several times before, don't use it. Just talk plainly in your own words.)

Cut everything you can. (If any picture, point, story or other element of your presentation isn't absolutely necessary for what you're trying to communicate, get rid of it.)

Presentations are boring. But yours don't have to be. You can grab an audience's attention and build lasting memories by thinking like a writer.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.

This story, "Give killer presentations: Think like a writer" was originally published by Computerworld.

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