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Give killer presentations: Think like a writer

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

One of the most striking scenes from the AMC TV series Mad Men was about a memorable presentation. In the show, advertising creative director Don Draper convinces Kodak to call its slide projector the "Carousel." It's a powerful presentation because the whole time Don is talking, he's showing amateurish snapshots of his family. The presentation is so powerful and evocative that one of his colleagues runs out in tears.

The scene was conjured up by writers who understand the overwhelming power of pictures.


The human mind is hard-wired for stories. We crave them. We need them. We can't resist their appeal. So tell stories in your presentation.

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end and involves at least one protagonist -- a person that other people can relate to who experiences the events in the story.

In the beginning, there's a balance. In the middle, that balance is disrupted in some way. And at the end, a new balance is established. That's what a story is.

The key to bringing stories into your presentations is to personalize the information you're already giving. Instead of talking about some big change your company went through, tell a story about the person or people who made that decision that led to the change, and explain what they went through to reach that decision.


People remember and crave images and stories. The other thing people remember is emotions. In fact, when your audience leaves the meeting room, your entire presentation will be judged on only one thing: How you made them feel.

I've seen presentations where the presenter gave almost no information, or said nothing useful. But he was funny, and people walked out saying, "That was great!"

Good emotions for presentations to instill in audiences include shock, fear, nostalgia, joy and excitement. But most of all, people remember humor.

Don't do "schtick" or prepared material. Don't tell jokes. Instead, expose the humor in the material you're presenting. Instead of trying to go for the big laughs, convey the mildly amusing shared reality you have with your audience. Keep it real.


Most presentations are nothing but information. The presenter puts all the information on a series of slides, then drags his victims through those slides, point by point.

Here's a much better idea: Put all the information on paper or into an electronic document and distribute it to the audience after the presentation. (Don't do it before -- you want everyone looking at your vivid pictures, not shuffling through your boring information.)

Never distribute your slides or notes. The handout should be its own document of supporting material.


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