Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: For a Punchy PowerPoint, Pose A Problem

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, the place to find simple ways to upgrade your communication skills.  Today it's about an easy trick that guarantees improved audience engagement for your PowerPoint presentations. 

But wait --

Oh my gosh! 

That guy in the picture is being ATTACKED BY BEES!  Hundreds of them!

What's he going to do?  Where will he go?  


Hold on.  Is your attention focused now?  Are you reading this, wondering where I the author am going to take you next?  Are you curious about the outcome?  Concerned about that poor guy?  If someone told you to stop here at this point and exit the blog, would you resist?

Hopefully your answer to at least some of those questions is Yes.  Take a snapshot of your own state of mind right now, regarding the story of the bee attack.  That's the state of mind that you want all of your PowerPoint presentation viewers to have by Slide 3 of any presentation.  You want them to be fascinated, bought in, and fully engaged.

How often do your PowerPoint decks achieve that goal?

(But what about the bees? Don't worry, I'll get to them eventually.)

I'm bringing you through this little demonstration to illustrate the tip I'm going to tell you about today.  Basically, it is this:

Setting up a counter-intuitive or unexpected problem in the opening moments of your PowerPoint can prevent snooze-watching and ensure that your audience stays with you and gets the point.  

If you don't recognize the term snooze-watching, that's because I just made it up.  I think it's an accurate description of the way many people approach PowerPoint.  They settle back, prepared to be bored by pie charts and clip art.  The awful truth is, most of the time their expectations are right on the money.  Companies don't invest enough time training their managers on how to put together PowerPoint presentations, so they usually come across dorky and dull.  (In fact, judging by the way colleges and other learning institutions approach classwork and assignments, it seems as if they think that the only good PowerPoint is a godawful PowerPoint, which just validates my opinion that the main agenda of most American educational facilities is to Perpetuate The Myth... but that's the subject for another blog post.)

Back to you and your next battle to keep the whole conference room from dozing off.  If you are facing an audience that's used to snooze-watching their way through meetings -- or if your presentation is scheduled after lunch -- you really need to wake things up on the screen.  And I'm not talking about importing cutesy YouTube clips or New Yorker cartoons.  Unless those are laser-focused and completely congruent with your topic, they can be deathly distracting, or (worse) cast a patronizing pall on the proceedings. At any rate, you can't start every PowerPoint with a sleeping cat falling off a sofa.  (What were we saying about dorky and dull?)

I'm also not talking about visual elegance, supercharged graphics or killer slide composition, though if you want to enhance your PowerPoint presentations as a whole, I do recommend improving your skills in those areas.  There are plenty of other blogs that can help you there (such as this one -- click here).

No, I'm talking about coupling an age-old movie plot device that never fails with a slick messaging tactic that always works.  The equation looks like this:

Set Up Conflict + Unexpected Twist = Riveted Audience

In the movies and on TV, the opening conflict scene is a time-honored tradition.  That's because it's effective.  Within the first few minutes of any drama or action flick, a mini-story unfolds that gives the audience a dissonant jolt and makes them care enough to keep watching.

In their book Made To Stick, Chip And Dan Heath agree with this premise.  They devote a whole chapter to how Unexpectedness can capture attention, hammer home an idea, and make it memorable.  Why haven't you read this book yet?  Get your hands on it!

Sorry I seem to be digressing so much.  I'd better get back on topic and stay there.  Yeah, and those bees are still on my mind, too.  Don't worry, we're getting to them.

The Unexpected Conflict Opening is an easy concept to grasp.  Just think about how every Law And Order episode starts.  Some poor unsuspecting New Yorkers find the body, right?  And in an unexpected place, right?  (After twenty seasons of Law and Order, we loyal viewers aren't shocked when a stiff shows up -- but it's still fun to play Where's Dead Waldo in the first few seconds before the camera reveals that episode's crumpled cadaver.  In fact, after watching one of those weekend cable LAO marathons, I find myself peeking behind trash piles in trepidation as I walk down New York's grittier side streets.  Seriously, has the bottom of every stairwell in Manhattan been bathed in bloody pulp by now?)

In the same way, your PowerPoint needs to grab attention in its opening moments by setting up an unexpected conflict of some kind.   Not a murder, of course (let's leave your feelings about the project out of the discussion for now), but more like a conflict of concepts, or a clash of ideas.

Of course, all PowerPoints do address some kind of question, such as:
  • How will our company proceed with X?
  • What are the results of project Y?
  • What are the features of product Z?
But that's exactly the question you don't use in your rollicking kickoff.  It's too obvious -- too expected.

I like to take the main premise of my PowerPoint -- its key objective -- and question its very validity.  My Unexpected Conflict Opening for each of these presentations would translate like this:
  • Does our company really need to proceed with X?
  • Is it worth this audience's time to even hear about project Y?  
  • Is product Z actually a stupid idea to begin with?
Let me give you an example.  And no, I haven't forgotten about the bees.

The Bad Health Tease 

In a presentation I delivered yesterday about a company's employee wellness incentive program, I started by introducing myself and the topic, Such-And-Such Worksite Wellness.  (Sorry; it's proprietary material, so I can't be more specific.) Then I immediately asked my audience how they all were feeling.  When they said fine, I pressed them:

"Really?  You're all okay?  You're feeling tip-top?  100 per cent?"  

After getting multiple affirmatives from everyone (and pushing them perilously close to their annoyance threshold), I continued: 

"Well that surprises me, because you're all employees, right?  And we know that most employees are not where they want to be with their health."

Do you see how that sets up a dissonance right away?  I then continued by changing the slide to reveal a montage of smiling employees, doing their jobs.  I continued:

"In fact, the very need for an employee wellness program is puzzling to me.  After all, employees are a capable group, as a whole.  They do their jobs competently.  They cross things off their To-do lists.  Give them a project, and they're on it.  They keep the company on track.  Yet their own health goals are often off track.  In fact, you might say that though they're experts at driving the business, when it comes to driving their own goals... "

At this point I changed the slide to reveal a picture of a car plummeting off a high rocky ledge into oblivion. I continued my narrative:

"They are driving off the cliff!  Hey -- are those some of your employees in that car?"

Nobody was snooze-watching at this point.  I had used a counter-intuitive conflict to set up my approach to a possibly-boring presentation topic -- the features and benefits of a corporate wellness program.  I had done so in an unexpected way that now had everyone's attention.  

In case you missed it, there were actually four conflicts in my little set-up:

1. Why do we even need an employee wellness program?
2. If employees are so capable, why are they a mess with their health care?
3. Are you guys even telling the truth about your health status?
4. And then there was the car-off-the-cliff slide, which was unexpected and counter-intuitive in its juxtaposition with the previous slide of smiling employees. The image was a subliminal tension-producer, and when I coupled it with my provocative tease question about who was in the car, I invoked the ultimate conflict: life versus death.

By the third slide, the audience was hooked in so many ways that the rest of the presentation was a cake walk.

Punch Up Your Powerless PowerPoints

If you've read earlier posts on this blog, you know that I'm somewhat jaded when it comes to the whole PowerPoint format.  I think:
  • it's been overused and misused.  
  • its very structure is too plodding and predictable.  
  • it tends to quell conversation and kill collaboration.
  • it widens the gulf between presenter and audience.   
Most of us have been so exposed to all of these viral PowerPoint shortcomings that by now we've developed PowerPoint resistance.  Snooze-watching is just one way we cope with our chronically-lowered expectations.

Yet we must still use PowerPoint.  It's effectively established as the standard presentation mode of the business world, and it's not going away any time soon.  In fact, the new PowerPoint 2013 version is waiting in the wings for launch, and you can even install a preview version  to explore it. (But anything you create with it will need to be delivered via your own laptop for the time being, plus you'll also also need to install an extra empty operating system to house it if you want it to co-exist with your current PowerPoint software --so this test installation is a step that I for one am not prepared to take.  Let me know what you think if you try it.)

No matter.  The beauty of the Unexpected Conflict Opening is that it works with whatever version of PowerPoint you're using.  You can create the tension you need to keep your audience engrossed without any special formats or features.  It's the power of the story. 

Use the example I've given above to doctor the opening of your next PowerPoint show.  Try to:
  • Kick off with questions that question assumptions
  • Toss out an unexpected problem that goes one level deeper than what your audience is expecting;
  • Establish a dissonance between ideas
  • Link your thought flow to something counter-intuitive.
About the guy being attacked by bees: all he did was run about fifty feet down the path, and the swarm left him alone completely.  That's because most bees are territorial, and when they attack, they're only protecting their hive.  With bees, moving a short distance into new territory makes all the difference.  

Similarly, it's just a short distance between perpetuating those annoying PowerPoint Blahs and achieving perfect PowerPoint Buy-In.  You can bridge that distance with your first three opening slides.  A well-crafted Unexpected Conflict Opening can carry your audience's engagement right through to your very last paragraph, just like my bee story has kept you reading right up until now.  Gotcha!  

Now go and do likewise, my intrepid PowerPoint paratroopers!  And leave a comment to tell me how it works out!

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