Rules for Sharp Presentations #3: What to Illustrate and What Not to

November 22, 2010

In this third and final installment of my presentation series, I’m going to talk about what to show on the screen and what not to. At several conferences this year, I saw people illustrating their analogies. For example, at one conference this year, I remember a very good speaker talking about meetings and what a waste of time they can be. He used this slide to illustrate:

We all know meetings are often a waste of time. Asking us to look at pictures like this when you have an important point to make is a waste of our time. (Note to presenters: don’t commit the same mistakes you’re telling your audience to avoid.) With the emergence of cheap stock photography (and easy photo stealing via Google image search), speakers are more often illustrating their analogies. As I said, I’ve spent over 1,000 hours on my talk, and I put a lot of time earlier this year into making killer analogy slides, borrowing heavily from NASA photo archives and spending money at iStockPhoto.com. Here’s an example, which I made back in August to illustrate the phrase “On the semantic web, we are always making apples-to-apples comparisons”:

Pretty cool, huh? I even had the apples falling in, one by one, like on a slot machine. My bad. This is simply a distraction from my main message. After I realized that illustrating the analogies was the enemy, I found more of them in my talk than I thought – I was using them as filler. I had a lot of work to do. Here’s the slide that replaced that one:

And here’s what I said once that slide was up: “On the semantic web, we are always making apples-to-apples comparisons. When our search tools can automatically find the best deal for us, we’ll see whose advertising tricks are most effective and which aren’t so good for customers.” Note that I did not walk the audience through this example. Instead, I used red type to draw the conclusion and challenged the audience to follow visually while listening to me at the same time. Knowing that they have a lot to do, I delivered this sentence slowly, watching them to make sure I still have an open communication channel as they looked at the screen. If I had walked them through this example, they would know that in the future they can be half listening and still stay with me. By saying something else and making them work out the situation on their own, they knew that they had to pay 100% attention or they’d be lost. And they did. In this way, by presenting a lot of challenging material and never reading my slides, I held their attention for 55 minutes, making them want more after I was done.

I didn’t take out all of my analogy slides. For example, I left this one in:

While this was up, I said: “The goal of 20th century marketing was to own the customer. The harder it was for the customer to switch to a competitor or turn off your service, the better.” I use this analogy often, talking about “lobster trap” marketing or “roach motel” thinking, but in this case I did not say those words – I let the image do that while I said something else. The fact that I haven’t illustrated all my analogies makes this one more memorable.

Here’s another one I had to toss into the trash:

That one hurt, because I was quite attached to it and had spent days putting it together, not to mention it featured my photogenic son. I was going to use it for my ending, where I tell the audience we are headed on a journey into new territory and no one knew what was ahead. Then I remembered that visual trumps voice, and that people would remember the slide but not the message, so I deleted it and instead just brought their attention back on me, standing on stage, where I delivered the final message without any illustration. That was much more powerful, because they could feel my passion and my call to action, they were thinking about their own situations while watching me. This kept me in control at the end, when it was important to bring everyone back to reality and the mission ahead, rather than ending on yet another slide.

I ended that talk powerfully, knowing people won’t remember anything I said. But they will remember how they felt, that I closed my argument and that they saw the overall logic come together. That’s all I can hope for – they can get the content again at their leisure by reading my book.

So, if you’re not supposed to illustrate the analogies, what should you show on the screen? Show examples, the way I did with the apples-to-apples point. Show the application of your ideas. Here’s my prescription for a successful talk:

  1. Use a few title and organizational slides to present the framework of your narrative.
  2. Show examples of your key concepts.
  3. Show the minimum necessary charts, graphs, numbers, and data. Summarize it and only show the most important numbers. It’s fine to show heat maps and bell curves, but make sure your graphics emphasize the takeaway message, not the raw data.
  4. Show a key slide that starts a story, and then engage the audience with your masterful storytelling abilities.
  5. Start with you; end with you. Don’t let the slides take over the show.
  6. Be ruthless in editing your talk down. Present just what you need to get the audience on board and no more.

Here’s Dan Phillips doing just that, with about 3 minutes and 10 slides too many, but he does a good job guiding you through his world of ideas. He pulls you in with his stories. You listen to him, because he paints pictures with words while letting the images behind him reinforce the story. Here’s Dan Gilbert doing an even better job. After this, wouldn’t you love to have lunch with Dan Gilbert? I would.

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