We Can Put an End to the Boring Presentation

Start by taking cues from the place that still effortlessly captivates us, even for hours: the movies.

Have you heard that our attention spans are now shorter than that of a goldfish? According to researchers at Microsoft, a goldfish can pay attention for nine seconds, but us, only eight.

Ask any senior manager who spends his or her day in conference rooms and you’ll hear why: Presentations are now an endless parade of charts. With literally hundreds a day, trying to absorb and remember the key points takes a huge toll. It’s part of why so many execs are burned out and why so many great insights and ideas end up going nowhere.

But what if there were a way for Learning and Development (L&D) to help employees raise their presentation game and turn this barrage of charts into a form much easier for senior managers to remember and relay to their teams, a way that can help them inspire and lead?

I can already hear the celebration. So how do we do it?

Follow What Works

If maintaining attention is our goal, we can start by taking cues from the place that still effortlessly captivate us, even for hours: the movies.

That may sound gimmicky, but if you think about the way movies tell stories––quick, simple, visual and powerful––it’s actually what execs have been wanting from presentations all along.

But the best news is that you can get a lot of movie power without even using video. Here are a few examples.

An Easier Way to Get Simple

Screenwriters use a technique that not only keeps their stories simple and powerful, it also saves them a ton of time and keeps them out of the weeds. They start by developing their three key scenes––the one that kicks off the story, the turning point and the climax––before anything else. Then, they use them as beacons, so they always know where the story needs to go. It works for presentations, too. Decide your three most important points first, then build your presentation around them. Give them greater emphasis like a movie director, and you’ll also ensure stakeholders remember them––definitely more than if you evenly emphasize 15 points.

Now that you have your key story, take another cue from movies and cut what you don’t need. Hollywood calls it “killing your babies,” because we become emotionally attached to our work and lose perspective on what really matters. In Hollywood, though, no one kills their own. The screenwriter cuts the novel, then the director cuts the script, then the editor cuts the shots down to the bare minimum we see on screen. And 99 percent of the time, we don’t mind. In fact, because these cuts help us remember what’s truly key to the story, we come away with more.

Presentations can be strengthened the same way. In one of our workshop exercises, employees find a colleague close enough to their work to understand it, but far enough from their own weed pile. They share the three key points they want their stakeholders to remember, then ask their colleague to cut anything that gets in the way. I’ve seen people cut 80 percent from their partner’s deck. Their partners are always grateful.

Make It Real

Even when a movie takes place in a crazy fantasy world, we can still relate to it because the characters, settings, and action make it feel real. This same effect can be brought to any slide, even a bar chart, by describing it through an example. After all, every slide is about something happening, or an opportunity for something to happen. We often turn to drawings or metaphors for those slides, but following the movie path of showing it with a photograph or video can make it more understandable and relatable. It’s also much easier to put together because photos are easy to find.

Make It Powerful

Movies move us because they speak to our emotions. There’s something about bullet points and templates, though, that forces presenters to speak purely to the rational. But it’s also why so many presentations are forgettable. By evoking emotion, presenters can go beyond merely informing, to inspiring their stakeholders and instilling confidence in their initiatives. That’s when things really happen in a corporation.

For instance, create a sense of urgency at the beginning and you’ll compel everyone to listen to your presentation. Movies know this, which is why the “Inciting Incident” is the first key scene. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke sees Leia in the hologram. Once he does, he has to save the princess, and we as viewers share his urgency. Neuroscientists have found these scenes cause our brains to release cortisol, which also intensifies our focus.

Showing stakeholders a big upside to be gained or a big downside to be stopped can create that same urgency. Stating it in emotional terms such as “beating a competitor to the punch” makes it far more engaging than any market-share pie chart.

And then there’s the emotional tool movies use to create those big moments we feel and remember: tension. Presenters can use tension as well to create moments around their key points, so their stakeholders feel and remember. For instance, anticipation, the hallmark of thrillers, can be raised with a simple pause or provocative question before revealing the key point. Another trick is the “dolly push” shot you see in every love story. The camera moves toward the actors so we emotionally bond with them. Presenters can emphasize a big point by walking slowly toward the stakeholders like a dollied camera to increase tension, create a bond, and drive home the power of their point.

Dozens of Techniques

It’s amazing how many movie storytelling techniques fit right into the typical presentation process. Maybe it’s because movies feel natural to us, but employees also find the method easy to learn and put into practice, often right away.

And when they see how much more their stakeholders engage, absorb, and remember their insights and ideas, it inspires everyone to make a bigger difference.

Now that’s a happy-ending rewrite we can all get behind.

Ted Frank is the principal story strategist at Backstories Studio and the author of “Get to the Heart.”


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