Most speeches and presentations are dull affairs. Soporific experiences to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Part of the fabric of everyday life; like a visit to the dentist – but more frequent.
But why should this be? After all, there are plenty of interesting, articulate people around. So how is it that so many of them are rendered boring when called upon to stand before an audience and speak?
Ask a colleague what they think of PowerPoint and you’ll find a clue. Chances are they’ll tell you that in their experience most PowerPoint presentations are about as stimulating as a general anaesthetic. However, if you ask them about the presentation they’re currently working on, don’t faint from shock when they tell you it’s going be a PowerPoint one.
Could this apparent contradiction be explained away by the fact that they are brilliant at using PowerPoint? Surely if that were true, we’d already be living in PowerPoint heaven. No, the usual response is that they use PowerPoint because everyone else does. It’s just the way things are – like taxes and computer crashes.
We humans are inherently paradoxical creatures. Within our hearts we dance to two very alluring but contradictory tunes. One expresses our overwhelming need to be part of the herd, while the other gives voice to our acute desire to discover and assert our individuality. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.
Take, for example, the history of stock market bubbles and crashes. From time to time the herd becomes caught up in the frenzied buying, or selling, of shares, irrespective of whether or not it’s a good time to do it. This is a powerful demonstration of just how much the herd’s behaviour is driven by the heart, not the head. The greed of the herd inflates the bubbles, while its fear pops them, and creates the crashes. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of this mayhem, it’s the handful of individuals moving in the opposite direction who amass the profits.
It may seem like a giant leap from the stock market to the writing of a speech, or presentation – but it isn’t. Interesting speeches and presentations are written by individuals, not herds. So always ask yourself: “what kind of speech, or presentation, would the herd produce in this situation?” And then do it a bit differently.
The key word here is ‘bit’, because you’ll find that even the slightest deviation from the predictability of the herd will result in a disproportionately substantial benefit. There’s no need to go mad and turn everything on its head. Think instead of chaos theory and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas.
In your next presentation you could decide to surprise, and delight, everyone – including yourself – by not using PowerPoint at all. Or, you could try using it sparingly: a small number of slides as an accompaniment to your script, rather than as the main course.
The problem with herd slides is that they usually have far too many words and bullet points in them. You could experiment with slides that contain no words at all, just an image. And the image you choose could be one that acts as a visual mnemonic for one of the small number – ideally not more than three – main points you want your audience to take away with them.
When you’re writing your script make an effort to avoid over-used words and phrases, because the herd is addicted to them. So try not to be ‘passionate’ about things. ‘Passionate’ is a perfectly respectable word that’s had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of over-use and abuse.
Genuine passion is associated with intense emotion. Nowadays the herd is passionate about everything from ice-cream to plumbing. But if you’re passionate about everything, you end up being passionate about nothing.
So give praise to the herd, because thanks to its existence, being interesting isn’t half as difficult as you might think. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust your individual impulse, and allowing it free rein. And, finally, remember to pay attention next time your individual impulse asks the question, ‘why?’