Powerfully Land a Small Number of Big Ideas

Excerpt from “The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design,” by Tim Pollard (Conder House Press, December 2016).

The single biggest key to extraordinary communication is one simple idea. All great communication is great precisely because it adheres to this principle, while all lousy communication is lousy expressly because it violates this same principle. And the principle is this:

Whenever you communicate, what you are trying to do is:

Powerfully Land a Small Number of Big Ideas

That said, doing this is a bit trickier than it might seem. As cute and “Twitter-esque” as this is, it’s not merely a slogan. This insight gets to the very heart of how the brain works, and it is a touchstone that we are going to return to time and time again.

The human brain doesn’t do very well at storing and retrieving facts and data, especially large quantities of facts and data. But the human brain traffics very well in ideas.

For example, if you were to finish reading this book and a friend asked you what it was about, you wouldn’t give much detailed information, and you certainly wouldn’t recount any data. Instead, automatically and without thinking, you would reduce it to the small number of ideas you had taken away.

The key word here is “reduce”: The human brain is reductionist. We are already overloaded with information, and it’s getting worse every day. Our brains would melt if they tried to process and store even a fraction of the information they are exposed to, so as a result, what the brain consistently does is reduce the information it receives to its simplest and most concise form.

One of the most extraordinary examples of this phenomenon comes from a famous episode in recent U.S. history, the O.J. Simpson trial, and is wonderfully described in the book “The Micro-Script Rules” by Bill Shley (by the way, this is a fabulous book all communicators should read. Shley argues, correctly in my view, that given the reductionist nature of the brain, the precise linguistic structure of your idea warrants your close attention. Put another way, word your idea very carefully).

In the Simpson trial, the prosecution laid out an extraordinary amount of data, taking about seven mind-numbing months to do so. But history suggests that this enormous quantity of data was nullified by one simple idea—seven words offered by Simpson’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran. Without my even writing it, most of you are already mouthing it. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

In the workshops we teach, something like 80 percent of the participants can retrieve that phrase, unaided, the moment I begin to talk about it. That’s pretty astonishing when you consider the trial took place back in 1994. And while it’s certainly been knocking around popular culture since then, that single idea from more than 20 years ago still remains solidly embedded in most people’s memory. (Note: Interestingly, the phrase often is remembered as “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” I think “glove” is sometimes added to provide context when the phrase is cited outside the context of the trial.)

This example of the stickiness of an idea is far from unique. On August 10, 1940, Churchill spoke at length about the heroic exploits of a remarkable, outnumbered group of fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. I doubt anyone knows the full text of that speech, but 70 years later, almost everyone—certainly those in Britain—knows the phrase, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The whole speech is actually remarkable, but it’s that one idea that stuck.

Likewise, President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is only one idea from a much more developed speech. The speech itself may not be remembered, but the idea survives.

By the way, here’s a pop quiz: Do you notice what all three of these sticky ideas have in common? Read them again and see if you can tell.

The answer is that they are all antithetical, meaning they each present two competing thoughts and then challenge you to reconcile them. It’s a powerful device for engaging an audience’s brain.

I could cite example after example, but the point has been made. The human brain is reductionist. It doesn’t traffic at the level of facts and data; it traffics at the level of ideas. The big lesson for us is that in presentations, we need to work with that fact and not against it.

Everything we do as presenters needs to be about finding and nailing those big ideas. When you give an audience the big idea that emerges from your data rather than just the data, it’s exactly what the reductionist brain wants. The idea simply snaps into place, as though the audience were saying, “Ah, that’s it.”

Excerpt from “The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design,” by Tim Pollard (Conder House Press, December 2016).

Tim Pollard is the founder and CEO of Oratium, a communications firm helping organizations from Fortune 500 companies to law offices hone their presentation and messaging skills. In his decades-long sales and marketing career, Pollard has held key positions with Barclays Bank; Corporate Executive Board; and Peacemaker Ministries, a nonprofit specializing in conflict resolution. He is the author of “The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design” (Conder House Press, 2016). 

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