unBORING presentations

unBORING presentations. Part 1.

There are more boring synonyms in English than there are interesting. 14% more in fact. Look it up. Roget’s has everything from bummer to bromidic, dull to drab, stale to stodgy, tedious to trite and wearisome to well-worn. As presenters we have to be able to separate the un from interesting.

There is a short supply of that kind of interest in the world. The sit up and pay attention kind that’s an essential ingredient of every successful presentation. To grab attention, to engage our audience, we cannot simply rely on their goodwill, or the chain of command that exists in our company. Even if they — the audience — want to pay attention, every boring word we utter or blah slide we show chips away at their precious supply of willpower.*

Attention is the perceptual keyhole which magnifies some information and crowds out others. How can we take a potentially hum-drum subject and liven it up? Here is the first of three scientifically proven techniques to make us interested.


You. One of the most powerful words in the English language. The word that drove a million selfies. The word that fuels social media. You, (or me in my case) is one of our favorite words. That sense of self made it a smart marketing move for Steve jobs to dub everything Apple made with ‘i’.

According to Freud, we all have a healthy amount of primary narcissism which supports our sense of self. This operates a set of ego biases, which help preserve our (perfectly normal) above average self image. For instance, our names are trigger words for us. If you’re at a cocktail party, chatting above a buzz of background noise, your subconscious brain will be on the alert for ‘mentions,’ allowing you to pick out your name, but not other parts of the conversation across the room.

It’s not just listening for mentions of ourselves, taking selfies, or vanity googling (looking up your own name on google). We also notoriously over-rate how good we really are. In one infamous study, 97% of drivers surveyed in the U.S. stated they were above average, simultaneously defying the laws of mathematics and feeding in to the above-average, or illusory superiority effect.

Tapping into that superior sense of self is a winning strategy for a marketer and a presenter. Coca Cola in Australia had their most successful summer ever when they put people’s names on a can.

The trap many presenters fall into is assuming ‘you’ in the abstract. “Of course it’s about them. It’s the 2014 plan for the company. They’re employed by the company. Therefore it’s about them.” Good logic, bad reasoning. Think about the last time you *really* paid attention to an airline safety video. Airline safety videos are very much about you — what to do in the event of an emergency, but I (sorry) don’t pay much attention to them. They only matter in the abstract — if the plane falls out of the sky — which I assume not going to happen.

Your job as a presenter is to make the you real. Social standing, competition, provocative questions, these are all techniques to make your presentation more interesting. That provocative question, obviously, has to be about you, and can challenge previously held assumptions. Here’s a great example, in the form of a street interview. Watch the interviewer ask a first, set-up, question, and then make it all about you.

Notice the two-part reactions to the interviewer. The first time around, the interviewee gave their stance. Once the question was reframed and made about them, it became much more relevant.

Your presentation.

Think about your next presentation. What are you doing to make it interesting? Is it about you? or your content? or have you made it about them? Use this simple tool to make sure your content is relevant before you put hand to mouse.

*Note that we pay attention. We don’t give it. Intimated in this expression is that our attention has a cost associated with it. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, we have a limited supply of willpower, which we tap into to turn our attention to subjects and content that don’t stimulate us.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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