Steve Kelman shares ideas about how to inject narrative techniques into your humdrum PowerPoint presentations.
Back in the day, I made a lot of presentations to conferences and agency audiences – while I was in government myself, probably three a week. Even after I left government, I often made a presentation a month. And of course I have more recently presented at academic conferences and, though this is a different kind of presentation, teaching in the classroom. So I have worked a lot on how to develop presentation skills.
The management writer Carmine Gallo has written a piece in the always excellent Harvard Business Review Daily Alert, called What the Best Presenters Do Differently. I will confess that her piece didn't teach me much I didn't already know, but still it was extremely useful, especially for those who present only occasionally and for those getting started in this world.
The first point in the article is the most important, "Our minds are wired for story. We think in narrative and enjoy consuming content in story form." I can't actually remember where or how I first learned this point—maybe halfway through my own presentation journey. But I do remember that I glommed onto this idea immediately, because it both so tracked my own experience as a producer and consumer of presentations and because, compelling as it was when I heard it, I had never thought of this before.
Most presentations, certainly those to government audiences, are organized around PowerPoint slides. "But most presentation programs," Gallo points out, "aren't storytelling tools. They're digital delivery mechanisms."
Most PowerPoint presentations are dominated by lists of bullets. "A bulleted list is not a story. A story is a connected series of events told through words and/or pictures. A story has a theme, attention-grabbing moments, heroes and villains, and a satisfying conclusion. Nicely designed slides cannot compensate for a poorly structured story."
So Gallo recommends that you begin developing your presentation by telling and writing down a story. She notes that your words should be complemented by non-word assets that "bring a story to life—videos, animations, graphics or photos. Presenters use text. Storytellers love pictures." Gallo reports that "your audience will recall about 10% of the content if they simply hear information. But the picture superiority effect" means that if they hear information and see a picture, they'll retain 65%." I never started my presentations with a powerpoint, but always tried to start them with a story.
In a talk I frequently give on change management, I wanted to illustrate the point that the old saw, "Change is hard in government because people resist change" is oversimplified. Some people do resist change, I noted. But in most areas of life, we don't say that people in general resist change—but rather that some resist it and some welcome it. I then say this applies to conservative and trendy people in fashion styles, and I illustrate this with a picture of a person dressed in a conservative, traditional suit and another one dressed in the latest style. (The first is like me, I state—though adding that "my wife would say I have no style at all"—and the second is like my younger daughter, still serving as an illustration for her dad after all these years.)
Stories can be verbal and not just visual. Almost 30 years after I left government, I still run into people who remember a story I frequently told about my then 3-year old daughter (for anybody who remembers this story, she turns 35 next month!) to illustrate why I wanted the government to start using vendor past performance in making new contract awards. I told the story that I once took her to Chuck E. Cheese to get pizza, and when they gave her a prize costing 100 tokens though she only had 70, I said (as a dad trying to teach a child about how nice people treated others nicely), "Isn't that a nice lady who gave you a 100 token prize for 70 tokens," she replied, "They want us to come back again next time." I then concluded, "If even a three year-old can understand the value of using past performance to improve the service we get from people we deal with, surely there is a way the government can figure out how to do the same thing."
A second point of Gallo's is that "the human brain was not built to make sense of large numbers. Data is abstract until it's put into context that people can understand. And people can understand people." I have been fascinated in academic contexts to see how very often colleagues whose research presents aggregations and trends try to persuade us of what they want us to believe by citing a single example revolving around a single person.
The other important point Gallo makes is that "Presenters are predictable. Storytellers surprise audiences. Most PowerPoints are boring because they're predictable. We know what comes next—another slide of bullet points, followed by another, and another. A good story, however, has the element of surprise."
In my presentation on change management, I want to make the point that some government officials do not correspond to the stereotype of cautious, plodding bureaucrats. I ask the audience to close their eyes and develop a mental picture of an individual with the following description: has worked at one organization, the Defense Logistics Agency, for 30 years buying uniforms for soldiers. I pause and then say: "Let me show you the business card he gave me at a conference." After another pause, I click forward to the next slide, which shows a business card with the picture of a character from Star Trek, and the identification "Starship Captain" and the person's name, with the text, "Twenty-first century logistics solutions." After the laughs, I add: "People don't always correspond to our stereotypes."
One important point not in Gallo's article is that PowerPoint presentations, certainly in government, are far too busy, with a barrage of bullets. To make things even worse, probably the most common presentation method in government is for people just to read their bullet points. (If that is what a speaker is going to do, I often thought, the speaker should just hand out the slides and not bother to make a presentation at all, which eliminates the middleman.)
I want to challenge readers to do better.