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Give killer presentations: Think like a writer

Mike Elgan | Feb. 13, 2013
Most presentations are boring and forgettable. But why?

Most presentations are boring and forgettable. But why?

Business presenters have every advantage: A captive audience, big graphics and the benefit of being there in person. Yet most presenters fail to break free from the soul-killing dreck that makes PowerPoint presentations so dull.

Have you ever wondered how good novelists can hold a reader's attention for hours at a time with nothing but words on a page? Have you wondered how good Web writers can keep people glued to the screen when the whole Internet beckons?

I'm going to tell you how to apply skills from the craft of writing to make your presentations enjoyable and unforgettable.

But first, let's understand why most presentations are so bad.

What's wrong with presentations

PowerPoint presentations usually involve a lot of pretending. The speaker pretends to be excited. The audience pretends to be interested. Everybody is faking it.

Most collections of slides are packed with fake images -- stock photography, clip art and other inherently false imagery.

The human mind is very good at detecting insincerity and fakeness and is repelled by it.

Most business presentations fail because they're based on bad assumptions. Here are some examples of those assumptions:

The audience cares about you and what you have to say. (They don't.)

The audience is thinking about what you're saying. (They're not.)

The audience can grasp the details of your complex slides on first exposure. (They can't, and they won't.)

Most presenters act like their audience is made up of information-harvesting robots, not human beings.

If your presentation contains 10, 15, 20 or more slides, and each slide offers several points, you're assuming that people are somehow going to grasp, memorize or learn dozens or hundreds of facts. This isn't going to happen. You'll be lucky if they remember three.

Business speakers approach presentations like it's a transfer of information: "I have all this information I want you to know, and when I'm done presenting you will now have the information."

This is the worst kind of delusion, because everyone knows it isn't true. People usually retain little more than a general impression.

So if you want to make your presentations entertaining and unforgettable, you should learn from people who are good at enjoyable and memorable communication: Writers.

How to present like a writer

A typical business presentation breaks down communication into subjects like these:

Our company.

Our product.

Our product's architecture.

Our value proposition.

These might be the right categories to discuss if the people in the audience were passionately curious about you and your company. But they're not.

In fact, the reason you're presenting is not to satisfy curiosity, but to inspire curiosity. A forced march through your company's details will inspire nothing but despair.


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