Archive for the ‘Presentation Skills’ Category

“Why is everything so expensive?” Marge asks a store manager in an episode of The Simpsons. The manager replies, “Our product’s philosophy is that–” Marge cuts him off with, “Oh, we’re not rich enough to afford any product with its own philosophy.”

That’s brand storytelling done poorly, with the tangy aroma of pretentiousness.

When it’s done well, brand storytelling evokes customer emotions that enhance their perception of your worth. Duke Greenhill explains this in his Fast Company article, “The Real ROI of Brand Storytelling.” He cites an example of a snow globe that was bought for one US dollar. Writer Blake Butler then wrote a story about it, and the snow globe sold on eBay for fifty-nine dollars.

brand storytelling, perception, perceived value

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tell the beholder a beautiful story.

That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me

Brand storytelling should not be read as an invitation to lie about your product. Don’t call the vinyl seating “rich Corinthian leather.” The goal is to tell the truth — while highlighting the human, emotional sides of your company or product. Okay, yeah, you might sell more cookies by saying elves baked them in a hollow tree. But most audiences want a more realistic tale.

Storytelling 101: We won’t remember “leather.” We’ll remember “rich Corinthian leather.” But don’t call it either one, if it’s really vinyl.

Chip and Dan Heath explain business uses of storytelling superbly in their popular book, Made to Stick. In 2007, excited by the Heath brothers’ tips, I brought the book to my superior in the marketing department. She read it and said, “Nice idea, but you can’t use storytelling in real life. There’s nothing applicable in here.” She pictured marketing as an endless series of spec sheets and competitive matrix check boxes and pricing decisions. Granted, storytelling requires effort and imagination. You have to proactively look for ways to apply it, and reject stories that don’t interest your audience.

Is the effort of finding and telling brand stories worth it? Of course. Unlike other innovations that spruce up your brand, telling your brand story doesn’t require redesigning the logo, changing the product, buying another business, or invading a new distribution channel. Like any great fable, storytelling is conceptual — it only needs to exist as ideas in the customer’s mind. But a good idea can seal the deal:

  • What is extraordinary about Toms Shoes? In my candid personal opinion, nothing. But Toms gives a pair of shoes to an underprivileged person when it sells a pair of shoes to you. Toms has built its entire brand around this powerful story, and reaped success and enviable awareness for it.
  • Have you ever bought an organic or natural personal care product that didn’t really work very well, yet you bought it again? Why did you? Because you want to participate in the story of good people saving the earth.
  • Haven’t you ever looked at products that seemed roughly equal, and selected one because it was made in your country? That sale was a tie, until story provided the tiebreaker.

Think You’re Boring? Think Harder

You might think that your product has no human story worth telling. But I promise you, you do have a unique, interesting story to tell. No company spontaneously generated itself, which means humans made it. Humans are story factories. Whenever we act together, we generate stories of commitment and sacrifice and conflict and failure and little deaths and resurrections. Besides, your company is still in business, right? Every purchase represents someone finding compelling value in your product.


if an organization has humans, it has stories.

Did your founders start the company on a dare? Did R&D fail numerous times before discovering the breakthrough that powers your product? Does your company have a statistically anomalous number of long-term employees? Is your organization the “only” or the “first” or the “longest-running” or “the underdog”? These examples may not apply, but the stories in your organization are there somewhere. You just have to look for them. Then you figure out how to tell them.

Depending upon your corporate culture, trying to get senior management to buy into brand storytelling can feel risky. Some bottom line-driven executives get squeamish as soon as you go beyond numbers, to the soft squishy humanities. But in times of limited resources for companies, storytelling costs you nothing. And customers aren’t buying your spreadsheet. They’re buying your unique value proposition, a very fancy term for “your story.” If you’re skillful, brand storytelling can turn a dollar into fifty-nine dollars.

Can it do the same for you? You’ll never know, until you try. End of story.

How do you close the chasm between you and your audience? That’s your first priority. (Photo by Engin Erdogan, Flickr Creative Commons)

How do you capture attention when presenting to a crowd that doesn’t know or respect you? It’s challenging. But here are a couple of tricks that have worked for me. (These pertain to live presentations, not webinars.)

Choose Your First Impression Deliberately

When you present, you want to establish a connection with the audience instantly. If you come off as robotic, boring, irrelevant, or insincere in the first few minutes of your presentation, even the World’s Most Interesting Man couldn’t regain audience interest. They’re long gone, busily tweeting, emailing, or snoozing. Starting strong is key.

Hooking a big crowd differs from hooking a small group. In both cases, though, playing against type can help.

Hooking a Big Crowd

Let’s define a “big crowd” by the venue. Imagine that you stand on a stage separated from the audience; possibly higher than the audience; possibly lit; certainly using a microphone and perhaps a podium. This is a typical “big conference breakout session” setting.

Seriously? You’re going to make them all sit there while you thank your hosts, the conference, your boss, your company…? What do these people get out of listening, then? (Photo: Patries71, Flickr Creative Commons)

This formal staging invites skepticism. The stage trappings lend an air of authority that can be read as pomposity. People tend to sit in the back with arms folded. They may have already endured lackluster speakers before your session. Your top goal, then, is to break that vibe of “I’m the performing Muppet, and you are Statler and Waldorf wisecracking from the balcony.” You want to establish a feeling of “us learning together.” If you can also tip them off that you’re not a bloviating self-important gas bag — bonus!

The simple solution: break the formality by getting communication flowing in both directions. Begin with informal interaction with the audience. Any ice-breaker might do, as long as you listen to attendees and respond.

Usually I ask the audience questions about themselves. What did you think of the morning’s keynote presentation? What’s your favorite food near this event? I’m new in your town and the traffic is great/awful; why? Use whatever works for you, suiting yours and the audience’s shared interests.

A trusty go-to: ask, Who traveled the farthest distance to attend this session? Let the audience help determine which attendee came farthest. Once we determine the winner, I dedicate the presentation to that person and treat him or her as a VIP. Sometimes I’ve offered a minor prize, and in one venue I was able to send the winner a beer (to the audience’s massive delight and envy).

Is this tricky? Sure; you can hardly hear one another. (Make sure you repeat salient audience answers into the microphone, so everyone can play along.) Is it worth it? You bet. In three minutes, you’ve turned the skeptics into a community of travelers. And – twofer! — you can revive energy and interest mid-way through your preso, by asking the VIP (from the stage) how you’re doing so far. Have fun with it.

Hooking a Small Group

The rules change when presenting to a small audience. (Photo: glennsden28, Flickr Creative Commons)

Let’s define “small group” as: fewer than 50 attendees; all in one room; no one physically higher than anyone else; no microphone. It may be a typical classroom setting, or you might be seated in a circle.

The small group challenge for the presenter is the opposite of the big group challenge. Rather than the stage lending you authority, the closeness lends everyone equal presence. Perhaps everyone’s chatting and no one’s listening. A gregarious attendee might chime in frequently, “co-presenting” with you from his seat. In this setting, you must establish temporary authority, or the group’s social agenda may take over and disregard you.

Once again, the solution is to play against type. In an informal setting, you need some formal presenter pizzazz.

First: stand. If you are the shy retiring type, standing is even more essential. When you’re the only one on your feet, nearly two decades of formative-years classroom experience tells those seated to shut up and show respect.

Second: try a “cold start.” At awesome rock concerts, do bands open with long minutes of thanking the promoter and introducing the members? Hell no! They take the stage and immediately kick ass. Tap into your inner rock star and do the same.

When it’s time to start, do not thank the audience for the opportunity to speak. Do not explain who you are or what you represent. Sans intro, plunge in starkly with a provocative question, startling visual, or arresting statistic.

Corporate audiences fully expect lots of falderol at the start of a presentation. A meaty cold open kicks off your session with a lively pace, and signals that your style is all killer/ no filler. You ambush the yawning audience that thought they were way ahead of you, and mentally they scramble to catch up. (And, much as a TV drama opens with a dramatic chase, then segues to the opening titles, you can add the polite intro five minutes in – after you’ve made your killer impression.)

You Only Get One Chance to Slake a First Depression

Obviously, a strong beginning doesn’t guarantee that your whole presentation rocks. But well begun is half done. And audiences thank you when you do not bore them into depression.

So, choose your first impression with thoughtful intent. In a big venue, try crossing the speaker/listener chasm with small-talk interaction or contests. In a small venue, try mustering authority by standing tall and hitting ‘em with unexpected depth. I wish you every success!

What are your favorite presentation tactics? Please share in the comments!

This is the crowd at your next presentation. That’s you they’re cheering for! … Aw c’mon, it’s totally possible! (Photo courtesy of gareth1953, Flickr Creative Commons.)

You can use these tactics right now, today, to punch up your next presentation. I’ve field-tested each of these on my drive to get audience evaluation forms containing more fives than fours. You’ll be glad you tried these keepers.

1. Put only one idea on each slide. PowerPoint slides sag under the burden of too many words. When 20 minutes have expired and the speaker has reached bullet four out of six on one slide, you want to scream a la Daffy Duck, “Shoot me now!”

But reconfiguring your stump speech for succinctness and better visuals takes a ton of time. The quick-n-dirty solution: divide that slide bloated with six bullet points into six slides of one bullet each. Interest renews every time you flash a new slide. Now you are changing slides every minute or so, which gives the listeners a sense of a livelier pace.

To see the “one idea per slide” approach in its ultimate refinement, view these exemplary talks by Lawrence Lessig and Michael Pollan.

2. Rehearse aloud. The night before an important presentation, I would go over my slides repeatedly, making sure I knew what I planned to say about each slide. But I used to review it all mentally.

The next day, when speaking the presentation, I’d watch like a surprised passenger in my own body as my mouth launched down crazy rabbit trails that ate up time or repeated points already made.

A voiceover artist tipped me off that you have to rehearse actually getting the words out of your mouth. This can sound embarrassing if you have to practice in a cubicle area or a shared room. Do it anyway. Flashing the slide, then attempting to speak to it without consulting notes, dramatically improved my presentations – especially the transitions between slides. And it also gave me a realistic view of how much time the presentation actually took.

Sounds simple, but it is pure gold. Don’t just practice mentally – practice verbally.

For both your slides and your time slot, the fact that you can cram in more doesn’t mean you should.

3. Make your presentation 20% shorter than its time slot. Sometimes you have a lot you want to convey to your audience. Resist the temptation to cram it all into your presentation. The point is not for you to transmit. The point is for the audience to receive. To a real communicator, “three points that people retain” beats “six fast points people heard but barely understood” every time. Listeners cannot absorb your message when you gallop through your preso, and you lack the time budget to interact with them.

In the days when I wrote 58-minute presentations for 60-minute slots, I learned the hard way that no meeting starts promptly. I’d stew or adrenalize as laggards, opening ceremonies, introductions, and technical problems ate up 10 precious minutes of the time slot. Worse, I’d have to awkwardly edit my preso on the fly. The solution was simple: I disciplined myself to plan 40 – 45 minutes of content for a 60 minute slot; 20 minutes for a 30 minute slot.

This might require you to “kill your darlings” — discarding points you wanted to make. The sacrifice is worth it for you and the audience when you present feeling relaxed, with your pace unhurried, and with time to handle questions.

4. Dump the “Thank You” slide. Almost every presentation I’ve seen ends with a slide that says either “Thank you” or “Questions?” This single slide often gets the most time in front of audience eyeballs, because it displays throughout the entire ending Q&A. What a missed opportunity! What use is a slide that says “Questions?” when you can easily say, “Now I’ll take your questions”?

Better: for your final slide, display your single most important point – the one you really want them to walk away with. Let them view your important point for ten minutes during questions, and you greatly increase the odds that they’ll remember it.

That’s it. These four random tactics work even better if you’ve absorbed the visual presentation strategies recommended in outstanding books such as slide:ology and Presentation Zen. But if you don’t have time to dwell at book length on your presentation skills, try any of these for an instant pop of improvement.