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Drop the Bullets and Start the Story

Tell the story and drop the bullet points Tell the story and drop the bullet points

Anyone can stand up in front of an audience and present. Presenting well so that people enjoy your presentation and feel moved in some way by it is a skill which takes practice. Many presenters have the attention of their audience for the length of time it takes to say “Hello” and quickly lose them before they even say “I’m…”.

This week I spent two days at a conference in London which had a good selection of people presenting topics covering digital publishing subjects. Overall, the presenters were good mostly, and some were excellent. The presenters that gripped me were not the ones I would have necessarily have thought would have a subject that interested me. No, the presenters that were  gripping, inspiring and interesting were good story tellers.

The poor presenters disconnected themselves with the audience in two ways:

  1. They expected us to read their slides.
  2. They did not build a relationship with us.

When you watch a film at the cinema, the most text you see in them are the credits. The main film stars, the director and the producers get their names displayed briefly at the start but rarely do you see two names on the screen at the same time. Everyone else gets their names displayed at the end as the audience is walking out. In scenes when a character is, say, reading a note, the director zooms in on the single line of text or they will highlight the important sentence. But the director does not expect you to read the whole letter or newspaper.

So, why then do so many presenters think that we can do the same when trying to follow their presentations? When was the last time you saw a film at the cinema which contained bullet points? I expect you cannot recall one film that used bullet points.

Relationships take time to build. You never start a good relationship by talking to someone you are trying to attract as if you were trying to speed talk. To build a relationship, you speak slowly so that your words are heard. You listen, you watch for body movements and you don’t ask questions which give the person you are opposite no time to think. You ask them questions which are easy to answer.

And yet, so may presenters fail to connect with the people they are trying to attract because they do not make their audiences feel as though they have any empathy with their situation. For instance, Barack Obama’s slogan for his presidential campaign in was “Change We Can Believe In“. It wasn’t “Change I Can Believe In“.

Nevertheless in the conference this week, the zeitgeist on Twitter from the audience in several presentations was along the lines of “This guy is trying to sell to me and I don’t like it“. The audience switched off from listening and moved in protesting. Business life has moved on and people are more sophisticated. You cannot sell to them. They have to buy from you and they only buy from you if pass through a process of building trust to form a good relationship.

As a result, the presenters who didn’t connect with the audience wasted a huge amount money and opportunity at the conference by distancing themselves and failing to entertain us.

Here are my recommendations for excellent presentation skills:

  1. Go and watch a film and note how much text you see in it.
  2. Judge the script and the acting and ask yourself how you would improve it.
  3. Buy the book Beyond Bullet Points‘ by Cliff Atkinson and practice what he preaches.
  4. Read this blog – Presentation Zen
  5. Spend some time studying relationships.
  6. Practice in front of a mirror until you find yourself entertaining.
  1. 28/05/2009 at 3:41 pm

    Ouch, #6 is hard. If you can find yourself entertaining after the tenth run through, you’re doing right.

    I was always taught that if you want to make a presentation really compelling, say to yourself “did you get that” while looking around the audience after every important point. It helps you slow down and sound self-assured.

    I’m giving a presentation this afternoon, so it will be interesting to see if I practice what I preach.

    (And clever Twitter marketing, btw. I’m guessing you have a standing search for seminar, followed me when it come up in my stream and I came to have a look. Neat.)

    • 31/05/2009 at 8:56 pm

      Hi Nicholas,

      Thank you for your comments. How did you your presentation go?

      That’s a good idea about looking around the audience to judge whether they have ‘received’ your point. I will try that next time I present.

      Twitter is a very useful tool. I am still learning how to use it effectively and, so far, it has provided me with some interesting contacts and business!



  2. 01/06/2009 at 3:41 pm

    Completely failed, Will. I had so much to say that I spoke really fast. I did remember to pause after the key points though.

    The presentation went well, I think, but not by practising what I preach.


    • 01/06/2009 at 10:52 pm

      Hi Nicholas,

      That’s good to do! Pausing allows everyone to catch up!

      Thank you for letting me know


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