Most Presentations Are Boring (but They Could Be Amazing)

December 6, 2013 Nancy Duarte

When’s the last time you saw a presentation that made you sit forward in your seat, catch your breath, or wipe away a tear? Not every presentation is meant to elicit such a strong response, but even a weekly team update or sales presentation can have a big impact when done well.

We give presentations to persuade people to adopt an idea we really believe in. (If that’s not the purpose of your presentation, then it’s not worth giving. Send an email or circulate a handout instead.) But breathing life into an idea requires a lot of hard work and dedicated time. Creating a presentation that communicates your idea in a compelling way requires more than simply throwing together bullet points and charts—the kind of blather that we’ve come to call a presentation.

A survey conducted by Distinction a few years ago showed that of the executives surveyed, over 86% said that communicating clearly impacts their careers and incomes. Yet only 25% put more than two hours into preparing for very high-stakes presentations.

I have one question for these executives and others like them: how badly do you want your idea to live? It’s time presenters made a serious commitment to the craft of understanding their audiences and delivering a message that will resonate—a key part of any effective marketing campaign.

For years I’ve studied the psychology of storytelling and entertainment, and experimented with applying that methodology to presentations. After all,the history of presentations is linked with the history of art, entertainment, and communication. The Lascaux cave paintings, which date to 15,000 BCE, are widely acknowledged to be the first instance in history of representing an idea with a picture. Perhaps these early ancestors were using these drawings to deliver some kind of message to the whole tribe or to create a shared story that they could celebrate and remember. We could also look to the Greeks, who pioneered the study and practice of oratory around 500 BCE, for advice on public speaking.

My point in listing these milestones is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel whenever we open PowerPoint. We can look to the science and history behind human communications that have been around for millennia.

Take the psychology behind an entertaining story. Whether you’re watching a bedazzling James Cameron flick or listening to your friend tell you about her weekend, compelling stories must have an ebb and flow. What provides that moment is contrast in content, texture, and delivery. Just like when you tap your toe to a good beat, your brain enjoys tapping along with a good story, but only if something new is continually unfolding and developing. In fact, in both storytelling and music, the brain responds to the same underlying pattern of anticipating and achieving peak emotional moments.

The Shape of a Story

When I studied hundreds of speeches that made historical impacts, I found that they contained this same tempo of tension and release. In fact, I found that these speeches had a shape representing oscillations between the current state—“What Is”—and the desired state—“What Could Be.” Moving back and forth between these two extremes suspended the audience between tension and release. The speakers used the audience’s increasing desire to attain the “What Could Be” state to build support for their ideas.

The Hero’s Journey

Another insight that can transform presentations comes from Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. His concept is that there is an ancient pattern imprinted on human beings that works as a survival mechanism to help us go through life’s big transitions. The stages move from Ordinary World to Call to Adventure, and then to steps such as Meeting with the Mentor, Tests, Allies, and Enemies—and more. I found it immensely valuable to apply Vogler’s research to presentations in that the speaker is the mentor and the audience is the hero. That might seem backward, especially for those of you who have sat through or given hundreds of PowerPoint presentations. But when the speaker’s number one goal is to prepare the audience to go on a journey to adopt her idea, she will need to turn the hero into a true believer. She will need to understand the hero’s potential objections and anticipate all of the drawbacks and obstacles the hero will encounter along the way. Think Yoda and Luke Skywalker.

Drawing on different realms of knowledge will enable us to think far more critically about presentations—not to mention marketing and business communications in general. Even adopting a few lessons from other media could transform how you communicate in the boardroom or at the next sales meeting.

You could help change the game, one slide at a time.

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