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Rules for Sharp Presentations #1: They Don’t Remember Anything You Say

December 2, 2010

I was in Hong Kong last week to give the keynote speech for the Web 3.0 conference. It was a well-run, high-energy two days filled with exciting talks. I gave the keynote, which seems to have gone over pretty well. I’ve worked very hard on my talk. I’ve probably got well over 1,000 hours in preparing this one talk. I’ve made hundreds of slides and cut out most of them to get the final version, and it could still be better. Over 15 years of public speaking and more than 120 speeches, I’ve learned some things about presenting to audiences. I’ll use my blog posts this week and next to give a few of them, hoping to help you give better presentations.

Giving the keynote speech to Web 3.0 at Cyberport, Hong Kong, last week.

I’m not going to cover everything, but I want to make three important points about public speaking: 1) people don’t remember anything you say, 2) people get bored quickly if you don’t give them enough to do, 3) don’t illustrate the analogy, illustrate with examples. I’ll cover each of these in a blog post. Here’s the first of three.

Principle #1: People don’t remember a single word you say
The general rule in speaking is that people can’t remember more than three principles, so lay out your three most important points and drive them home. I respectfully disagree. I don’t think people can remember even one principle if you say what it is and explain it, or if you show slides of text and read them. You could show a single slide with your three points, talk about them, and no one would have a clue what you said the next day. This is the same with television, by the way – audiences remember what they see, not what they hear. Here is what people actually remember.

  • They remember what they see. If you have a compelling slide that really means something, audience members will probably remember it. A great example is a competitive map. You can talk about the competition or your market in general, but if you can plot the landscape on two meaningful axes, people will get a visual sense of how things lay out. Or you could have brilliant animation, as Hans Rosling features in his talks. In general, 2×2 matrices that really mean something can be quite effective, because they are simple enough to understand. Trying to do too much in a single slide or trying to force the facts into a matrix or analogy when they should be displayed another way assures that people will forget it.
  • They remember what they visualize. If you can tell a story well, you don’t need any slides. Garrison Keillor told all his stories sitting on a stool in front of an audience and broadcasting on the radio, and his stories were visual and memorable (I can still see the woman in the red dress walking into the Lutheran church, and it never even happened). In this captivating TED talk, Rory Sutherland takes us to several places and situations that I remember vividly, even though he used almost no slides and spent most of his time telling stories. The stories were wonderful, and the general message stays with me still.
  • They remember what you do. One of the most memorable things you can do is something unexpected. Ten years ago in my keynote I used to borrow an audience member’s watch, take it on stage, and smash it to pieces with a sledge hammer. At the end of the talk, of course, I gave it back in perfect condition. Not only did it hold people’s attention until the end of the talk (no one wanted to leave in the middle before finding out how this situation would resolve (and it held one particular audience member’s attention more than others)), it was also the single thing people remembered more than 6 months later. If you sing or dance or use a prop to drive your point home, they will remember it if it’s appropriate and well performed. In my current talk, I illustrate the principle of pull by asking for a volunteer and “sending” that person a copy of my book by putting it into an envelope and having the audience pass it from hand to hand. This is something they will remember, and it artfully illustrates the concept of pull, because I instruct the person to move during the pass, and the audience has to react and follow the volunteer to collectively “deliver” the book. Another excellent prop is a wet human brain if you can hold it in your hands and talk about having a stroke.
  • They remember who you are. They really won’t remember a word you said, but they will have a sense of who you are and how you project yourself. If you’re different or interesting in some way, they will remember that. As an example, Wade Davis, a storyteller and modern-day shaman, speaks passionately and eloquently about indigenous people around the globe. He uses such big words and fancy academic language that no one can really understand what he’s talking about. But we remember him. We remember how we felt in his presence. We were intoxicated, even though we understood practically nothing of it. And we remember wanting more. (Don’t try that at home.)
  • One good analogy can really drive your point home. If you remember Geoff Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm,” you may well remember his graphic and the concept of the chasm – the gap between early adopters and early majority. This is an excellent analogy that served Moore well for many years (until he invented the tornado and the bowling alley and lost his audience). Too many analogies or inappropriate analogies and your audience won’t remember any of them. If you’re not good with analogies, stay away from them – too many people think they are above average drivers and above average analogy makers, and they just end up getting in more wrecks than they would if they kept things simple.
  • They remember how they felt. If you tell stories, if you paint pictures with words, if you tell some jokes in the middle and jerk a few tears in closing, they will remember that you were in control and you communicated. They remember that they wanted to know more after you were done, and that they would love to have lunch with you and pick your brain. If people feel this way, you’ve done the job. Don’t screw it up by going too long, trying to do too much, or taking too many mini speeches disguised as questions.

Next: People Get Bored Quickly

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