Make your presentations stickier: these 3 books can help
July 28, 2007
If you want to be a better presenter — or help others to be — here are the three books you should get (two I have recommended repeatedly). Notice that these are not books about presentation. Most of the great books that will help you make better presentations are not specifically about presentations at all, and certainly not about how to use slideware. The first book gives the context. The second one gives the basics of design. And the final one which I am introducing to you today — Made to Stick — gives you the ammunition for crafting messages that are simple, effective, and “sticky.”
(1) Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind gives us the context of the new world we’re living in and why “high touch” talents — and that includes exceptional presentation skills — are more important than ever before. Professionals today around the globe need to understand how and why the so-called right-brain aptitudes of Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning matter like never before. The best presentations of our generation will be created by people who have strong “whole mind” aptitudes and talents. (Dan Pink's blog).
(2) Universal Principles of Design. You will not learn how to crop an image in PowerPoint, or any other tips on using slideware from this book, but you will get a very good and intelligent introduction to fundamental design principles and practical applications of those concepts. A good complement to this book is The Elements of Graphic Design which provides more depth specifically in the area of graphic design. First comes understanding, then comes technique.
(3) Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is my favorite book of the summer. I can’t believe I didn't read it sooner. (My pal Nancy Duarte gave me a copy; she said she knew I would love it. She was right!) In this book the Heath brothers are interested in the question of what makes some ideas effective and memorable and other ideas utterly forgettable? Some ideas stick and others fade away. Why? What the authors found — and explain simply and brilliantly in their book — is that “sticky ideas” share just a few principles in common. Sticky ideas have elements of these six key attributes: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories. And yes, these six compress nicely into the acronym SUCCESs. (Made to Stick website.)
Think in terms of SUCCESs
The six principles are relatively easy to incorporate into messages — including presentations and keynote addresses — but most people fail to use them. Why? The authors say that the biggest reason why most people fail to craft effective or “sticky” messages is because of what they call the “Curse of Knowledge.” The Curse of Knowledge is essentially the condition whereby the deliverer of the message can not imagine what it’s like not to posses his level of background knowledge on the topic. When he speaks in abstractions to the audience, it makes perfect sense him, but often to him alone. In his mind it seems simple and obvious. The six principles — SUCCESs — are your weapons, then, to fight your own Curse of Knowledge (we all have it) so that you can make messages that stick.
Here’s an example that the authors used early in the book to explain the difference between a good and “sticky” message and a weak (yet all too common) message. Look at these two messages that address the same idea. One of them should seem very familiar to you.
(a) “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”
(b) “…put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”
The first message sounds similar to CEO-speak of today and is barely comprehensible, let alone memorable. The second message — which is actually from a 1961 speech by JFK — has every element of SUCCESs and it motivated a nation toward a specific goal that changed the world. JFK, or at least his speech writers, knew that abstractions are not memorable, nor do they motivate. Yet how many speeches today by CEOs and other leaders contain phrases like “maximize shareholder value…yada, yada, yada”? Here’s a quick summary of the six principles you should keep in mind when crystallizing your ideas and crafting your messages for speeches, presentations, or any other form of communication. (I’ve included large thumbs of the slides I’ll use in future when I talk about these ideas from Made to Stick).
• Simple. If everything is important then nothing is important. If everything is priority then nothing is priority. You must be ruthless in your efforts to simplify — not dumb down — your message to its absolute core. We’re not talking about shallow sound bites here. Every idea — if you work hard enough — can be reduced to its bare essential meaning. For your presentation, what’s the key point? What’s the core? Why does (should) it matter? For your visuals the mantra is: Maximum effect, minimum means.
• Unexpectedness. You can get people’s interest by violating their expectations. Surprise people. Surprise will get their interest. But to sustain their interest you have to stimulate their curiosity. The best way to do that is to pose questions or open up holes in people’s knowledge and then fill those holes, say the authors. Make the audience aware that they have a gap in their knowledge and then fill that gap with the answers to the puzzle (or guide them to the answers). Take people on a journey of discovery. (The Discovery Channel’s MythBusters is about the only thing I can watch on the virtually unwatchable boob-tube these days as the TV program does a wonderful job of posing questions and then answering them, often in quite unexpected ways.)
• Concrete. Use natural speech and give real examples with real things, not abstractions. Speak of concrete images not of vague notions. Proverbs are good, say the authors, at reducing abstract concepts to concrete, simple, but powerful (and memorable) language. For example, here in Japan we say “ii seki ni cho” or “kill two birds with one stone.” Easier than saying something like “…let’s work toward maximizing our productivity by increasing efficiency across departments,” etc. And the phrase “…go to the moon and back” by JFK (and Ralph Kramden before him)? That’s concrete. You can visualize that.
• Credible. If you are famous in your field you may have built-in credibility (but even that doesn’t go as far as it used to). Most of us, however, do not have that kind of credibility so we reach for numbers and cold hard data to support our claims as market leaders and so on. Statistics, say the Heath brothers, are not inherently helpful. What’s important is the context and the meaning of those statistics. Put it in terms people can visualize. “66 grams of fat” or “the equivalent of three Big Macs”? And if you showed a photo of the burgers, wouldn’t that stick? There are many ways to establish credibility, a quote from a client or the press may help, for example. But a long-winded account of your company’s history won’t help. In Japan especially, having a well-known trusted business partner or some big-name customers help establish credibility. The Heath brothers outline many good examples of credibility in their book..
• Emotional. People are emotional beings. It is not enough to take people through a laundry list of talking points and information on your slides, you must make them feel something. There are a million ways to help people feel something about your content. Images, of course, are one way to have audiences not only understand your point better but also to feel and to have a more visceral and emotional connection to your idea. Explaining the devastation of the Katrina hurricane and flood in the US, for example, could be done with bullet points, data, and talking points, but images of the aftermath and the pictures of the human suffering that occurred told the story in ways words alone never could. Just the words “Hurricane Katrina” conjure up vivid images in your mind today no doubt. We make emotional connections with people not abstractions. When possible put your ideas in human terms. “90 grams of fat” may seem concrete to you, but for others it's an abstraction. A picture (or verbal description) of an enormous plate of greasy French fries stacked high, a double cheese burger (extra cheese), and a large chocolate shake (extra whip cream) is visceral and sticky.
• Stories. We tell stories all day long. It’s how humans have always communicated. We tell stories with our words and even with our art. We express ourselves through the stories we share. We teach, we learn, and we grow through stories. Why is it that when the majority of smart, talented people have the chance to present we usually get streams of information rather than story from them? Great ideas and great presentations have an element of story to them. But you see storytelling everywhere in the workplace. In Japan, for example, it’s a custom for a senior worker (sempai) to mentor a younger worker (kohai) on various issues concerning the company history and culture, and of course on how to do the job. The sempai does much of his informal teaching trough storytelling, though nobody calls it that. But that’s what it is. Once a younger worker hears the story of what happened to the poor guy who didn’t wear his hardhat on the factory floor one day he never forgets the lesson (and he never forgets to wear his hardhat). Stories get our attention and are easier to remember than lists of rules.