7 ways to find your presentation story.

Presenters should change the format of their presentation every 5-7 minutes to maintain audience engagement. One of the most compelling ways to change it up is to tell a good story.

Stories engage the brain and make a message more relatable. As you tell your story the audience naturally pictures the events in their mind, creating rich detail and making memories.

It isn't always clear to a presenter, however, what story they should tell or how to find a story that's compelling. A story supplementing a presentation should be:
  • On-topic: It should somehow support the message at-hand, if only tangentially.
  • Engaging and relatable: It should have universal appeal to your audience. Even if it involves something they may not have experienced, the theme of the story should be something everyone can relate to.
  • Evocative and emotional: The story should captivate the audience and resonate on an emotional level.
  • Short and concise: Just the facts ma'am. Leave the long tangents and embellishments to Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving. Don't take too long to get to the point.
  • No inside jokes (unless ALL the audience is in on the joke): There shouldn't be anything missing from the story that needs to be there. If a stranger wouldn't "get it", assume your audience wouldn't either.
  • True...or not: A story doesn't have to be *completely* true, it just has to have the ring of truth. Obviously you shouldn't make up facts/figures, but adding a little embellishment is no presentation sin.
But...what if you don't have any stories? You've lived a sedate life. You've never climbed to the top of Mount Everest and had that funny thing with the sherpa happen to you...

There is always a compelling story *somewhere*. Here are a few ways to discover stories for your own presentation.

1. Your life:
So you haven't climbed Mount Everest. That doesn't mean that you don't have compelling anecdotes from your life.

Visit your childhood experiences. Were you ever on a team? Do you have siblings? Did you go on family vacations? What about your own kids (if you have them) or friend's kids? Have you traveled? What about college? Did you have a wedding? Think of the significant emotional events in your life, and there are bound to be one or two nuggets that can be tied into your message.

2. The process of creating the presentation:
Creating a presentation can be a story in and of itself, as long as it doesn't get too navel-gazey. Did you expect to have to do this presentation? Was it difficult to put together? Did you discover any surprising things along the way?

Assembling your PowerPoint slides on the airplane on the way to the conference isn't much of a story, but it can be a jumping-off point to more insightful commentary. "As I was sitting there on the plane, wondering what the heck I was going to talk about and trying to ignore the thin trail of drool on my shoulder coming from the stranger in the middle seat, I realized..."

3. From pictures:
If you're stuck for inspiration try looking at pictures--from your life, from past events, or from the great wide world. A story doesn't *have* to be true--some of the best stories are fables. Speculating as to what's going on in a compelling picture, or creating a metaphor based on an image and tying it back to your message is a good shortcut to a story.

Perhaps a picture of the company's founders will inspire an origin story that dovetails nicely with the current goals of the coming year. Vintage photos, kids, animals, evocative imagery--all of these things can be good jumping-off points.

4. An origin story:
A story is basically who-what-when-where-why-how. We had a client revealing their new marketing plan to their retail sales managers. Instead of just giving the plan, they told the story of how it came to be; how they were inspired by visiting the factory and that informed the direction of the plan. Not only was it engaging, but it gave a richer picture of the marketing materials at-hand.

How did a new product come to be? What trials and tribulations were overcome? How did you develop the new sales plan? What informed the decision? What happened last year that is making what you're saying this year relevant?

5. Plum the sports world:
Sporting events and personalities have natural arcs of triumph and trial, success and downfall, drama and delivery. Sports anecdotes are very popular in presentations, but there's a reason for that; they're naturally evocative.

Not all people can relate to sports (or a particular sport), but most can relate to a struggle against overwhelming adversity, not giving up during harsh conditions, or beating the competition against all odds.

6. Famous figures:
Like sports figures, famous writers, personalities, actors, musicians etc. often have strange and compelling stories because they are often thrust into strange and worldly situations that create anecdotes. Picking familiar figures and tying in their story/anecdote to your point can create a moment of humor and engagement.

One speaker we heard tied the company's message of teamwork and making risky decisions to the origin of The Beatles, for instance.
Why doesn't that third Beatle look familiar?
7. Internet story:
When all else fails, the internet is a practical repository of stories. Anecdotes, metaphors and experiences abound and are shared freely. It's not difficult to find an interesting story online after searching some keywords that relate to your message.

Here's where you do have to measure the truth, however. Not everything on the internet is factual (gasp!) and while it's fine to use fables, don't present a false story as the truth--always fact-check! Snopes.com is a good place to start if an internet story seems just a bit too convenient and fantastic to be true and you want to sniff out its authenticity.
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4 Brain-Based Event Facts

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Engage: 8 Ways to Recapture Your Audience

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How do you convey fireworks?

If the only experience we had with fireworks were pictures and descriptions (or even video clips) then no one would care about fireworks. No one would be motivated to go watch them live because they just wouldn't seem all that great.

No matter how descriptive you are--how much you try to convey the excitement of the colors bursting in the night sky, the boom and explosion, the oohs-and-aaahs, the moment of waiting; that delicious anticipation between individual fireworks--it's something that can never be captured accurately without being there.

That's sort of how a high-energy live event is, too. You can talk about how amazing and motivating and emotional the experience was, you can show pictures of the staging and the team building and the networking, but you can't quite capture the essence of the event. Even if you do, people will default to their previous experiences and work your description into that picture in their mind.

It's one of the reasons why face-to-face events are here to stay; there's really nothing that compares to physically getting people together in the same space. It's powerful and not easily replaced (even though virtual-and-hybrid events tried to make a go of it for a while and are still seen occasionally).

It's also a reason why it can be hard to get a revolutionary event-industry idea to spread. Sometimes you just have to SEE it.

We hear this frustration with fellow event producers all the time; how do I let a client know what the fireworks are going to be like if they've never seen a firework before? How can I convey how amazing and transformative and delightful the experience is going to be?

We're still trying to figure this out ourselves. Here are a few things we've seen work to the benefit of both potential clients and the future event:

1. Invite prospects to events. This gives a client some familiarity with the concept, idea or event process that you're proposing. This is also good for clients who are literal/logistical thinkers and need to see something to nail down what it looks like in their own process.

This can also be difficult to do both because it takes time and effort to travel to a location for a prospective client, and because a current client may be dealing with proprietary information at the event that they can't let out of their inner circle. There's also nothing quite like participation--so observing an event can provide a completely different experience.

2. Testimonials. How do you know which movie to see on the weekend if you haven't seen any of the previews? Probably by looking at the reviews. Or a combination of looking at things you like and matching them with the experiences/reviews of others. You'll go if the reviews are good, you'll go if it's a genre you like and your friends gave it praise. This is why testimonials from clients who have been there and experienced that can be so powerful. They still may not be able to describe the fireworks, but they can generate enough interest and trust so that the prospective client is willing to try seeing them.

3. Building trust. Some people, above all, crave certainty. Introducing seemingly-radical elements into an event is only possible once you've already established a level of trust. With one client, we kept pushing their comfort zone and pushing their comfort zone--but after the experience of the event they said, "We'll never NOT trust you again." Having a history of providing great solutions can go a long way in getting a client to follow your vision or in getting your client to see what a shared vision might look like.

4. Videos/samples/pictures. If you have a concept that is at all visual, try to have as many (good) visuals as possible. This does, however, fall into the firework trap; a video/picture of fireworks just doesn't convey the energy of fireworks. Be careful that poor media doesn't backfire and zap any building excitement you had with underwhelming visuals.
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The elephants showed up to your event too.

Companies have elephants. The metaphorical kind, of course, not usually the zoo-kind.

Rarely is everything exactly perfect in company-land going into an event and sometimes there are major, major issues.

It may seem like getting on a plane and traveling to a 3-day conference/meeting/event would be enough to at least shrink those elephants a bit; but the elephants travel with the audience.

The bottom line? If there's a Big Company Issue, it's going to be hanging out in the event room--in the brain space of each and every attendee--until it's addressed. You can't ignore the elephant, and attendees can't move on with the mindset of tackling the future until the past is brought to light.

We're not saying that every concern or complaint or issue has to be addressed head on--especially if they're minor--but large issues (pending mergers, layoffs, product quality issues, delivery issues, management shakeups, etc.) have to be addressed.

Attendees can't move forward until you've addressed the past.  

Getting everyone pumped up about the coming year and ready to tackle the goals set for the next few quarters is a huge task. It's even harder when morale is low from the previous year. Maybe results were sub-par or maybe the attendees feel they didn't--and still don't--have the tools to be successful. No matter how great the goal looks and how wonderful it will be for all of them to achieve it, if they have the same doubts from the year before plaguing them in the future...you get the same results.

Attendees won't accept promises in the face of unacknowledged shortcomings. 

We know of NO company that always delivers everything on time or as promised. It's the business of companies to be agile and deal with things as they come. Sometimes this means that a new product isn't ready in time or a new training program that was rolled out has to be scrapped. Acknowledge these shortcomings, provide a brief reason (not excuse) for the shortcomings, and the audience will be more likely to accept that the next deadline is going to be met (if it actually IS--companies also have to be realistic in their goals) or that the next training program really IS going to stick around.

Attendees will disregard beneficial information until their worries have been directly dealt with. 

You may be giving the attendees the key to the castle, but if they are stuck back at the moat--what good is a key? You have an amazing new product that will increase their sales, but your attendees are worried that a new manager is going to clean house? Their primary concern isn't going to be the features and benefits of that product until the other issue has been addressed.

Attendees will turn an elephant into a mountain if it isn't managed.  

Occasionally when we bring up getting elephant-type issues out in the open, a client will interject: "But we don't want this to turn into a gripe session!" We don't either. An issue in the general session, however, is much easier to manage than an issue that runs wild (and possibly inaccurately) around the rumor mill/gripe-enabler social hours and networking sessions.

Attendees respect a company that knows where they're coming from--even if they don't agree with the issue. 

Showing the attendees that you actually know what's going on with them; that you know what their life is like and that it's hard having to deal with a particular issue can go a long way. You may still have to enact the measure, but at least the attendees can get closer to understanding why--and that they were taken into account when the decision was made.

Events are a great opportunity to address Elephant-type issues in a controlled way; you have everyone together, you can carefully pre-frame and support new messaging over a number of days, and you can leave with a team more united and on-board than when they left for the event. Don't miss the opportunity by letting the big things hang out in the corner of the room.
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Do you have a case of Zombie Audience?

They stumble out of the general session, bleary and dazed. They have all the hallmarks of classic Zombie Audience; their bodies are there, but their brains? That’s not so certain. They just had 2-3 hours of Very Important Information wash completely over them. But wait? What’s this?

Coffee. Ahead. At the break station.

Hallelujah. Thank goodness for small miracles.


There are three barriers that can turn the audience from an energized, excited and engaged audience into a Zombie Audience.  Overcome these barriers and the audience leaves the event WITH that Very Important Information in their brains. 

The number one barrier? They stop listening. Not on purpose, mind you, but the average person disengages in 6-8 minutes. That is, UNLESS the information is presented in a new, creative, engaging way. 6-8 minutes! That’s less time than it takes to get your morning latte at the coffee drive-through.

The second barrier? They don’t remember the information presented (even if they are listening). Fact: 95% of what is delivered is forgotten 24 hours later without intervention. The really scary part? You don’t know WHICH 5% is sticking. Now that’s a statistic straight out of a horror flick.

The third barrier? They don’t buy in to your message. The thing that convinces you, isn’t necessarily the thing that convinces someone else. Some people want facts and figures, others want to see evidence that a plan has worked before, still others want to know that it’s what their peers are doing.

The point is, the way people learn is the opposite way in which information is usually presented. Break down these barriers and you’ll have a real, live audience who getsyour message—not a bunch of b-movie extras.
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To begin or to end: Where should you put your Keynote Speaker?

How you structure an event has, naturally, a huge impact on the audience experience.

Ideally, a event should build off excitement and end up on a higher note than it ended. There's nothing worse than being exhausted and unmotivated at the end of a three day conference.

When considering a keynote speaker, it's important to take the structure and flow of the entire event into account.

When clients are deciding on their agenda and we're not consulting in that capacity, they have different reasons for putting the keynote speaker in different places throughout the event:

Beginning: We wanted to kick off the event on a high note and put energy into that first morning. You know, set the tone!

Middle: We thought the energy would be lagging, so we wanted to put the keynote in the middle of the event to get everyone pumped up.

End: We want to leave everyone on a high note and have them leave the event feeling pumped.

None of these places is inherently wrong--depending on what else you have planned for the event AND the messaging from the speaker--but here are some things to consider:
  • A keynote is a professional speaker--how will the speaker after him/her compare?
  • Will the rest of the event live up to the promise of the keynote?
  • Does this give the audience adequate time to absorb a really important message?
  • Will the audience forget the message by the end of the event?
  • Are you going to DO something with the keynote messaging throughout the rest of the event?
  • Will the audience be worn out by the time the keynote speaker comes around and/or skipping out on the event to handle neglected business?
So where do you put your keynote speaker? Unless the entire event is structured in a way to keep the audience totally, thoroughly engaged with no lag--we'll usually recommend putting the keynote speech at the end or toward the end of an event. 
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Voting with a Smartphone: What could go wrong?

We found an email in our inbox with the intriguing subject line: Smartphone voting for your next event? What could possibly go wrong?

Since we've been using various audience response pads for large audience-wide games--and have gotten some pushback from people saying, "Why can't everyone just use their phones--why do we have to have separate pads?" this email was intriguing to us. 

We expected to find a new solution; a foolproof way to incorporate smartphone voting--maybe ensuring that concerns like connection strength in a hotel ballroom were addressed and mitigated. But alas, what we found are succinct and compelling reasons NOT to rely on smartphone voting that we've been trying to put into words all along.

Basically it comes down to 3 main points that are tough to regulate--unless everyone has a company-distributed phone (and sometimes not even then).

  1. Phone variations: Everyone has a different make, model, operating system and carrier--all with different operating speeds and load times that can adversely affect the voting or ring-in process. 
  2. Complexity: Phones aren't meant to be voting or ring-in devices. Invariably you're routing a vote through your phone's own security, an app, the internet, etc. 
  3. User responsibility: There's no way to ensure that people come to the meeting with their phones charged, relevant apps downloaded, etc. 

We would also add: For years, the opening messages of meetings have included the phrase: "Please turn off your cell phones...." Obviously if you were using smartphones as a voting device you would not include this message word-for-word, but the original purpose for this message is lost. You don't want your audience to be surfing the web instead of listening to crucial content. You don't want them checking their email when they're supposed to be participating in a teambuilding activity. You certainly don't want the harmonious chimes and dings of alerts, updates, messages, texts and phone calls sounding off in the middle of your meeting either.

When you want the audience to focus on your event and you're trying hard to engage them (with, say, an audience-response game) you don't want to put the number one distraction device (smartphone with internet, email, games, etc.) in their hands and tell them to have it turned on and logged in. 

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Fixing Your Panel of Peril

In the last blog entry we pointed out the ways in which panels so often fail. They start out as good ideas--a way to add more variety and interaction into a presentation or topic--but they are perilous if done incorrectly.

That's not to say that you *shouldn't* have panels. Panels *can* be a good solution--they just need to be thought-out and treated very conscientiously.

Here are some ways that you can "fix" a panel, or ensure that your panel isn't just another way to make your audience "check out":

1. Have a Great Moderator.
A panel without a moderator is like a ship without a rudder; the panelists can wander aimlessly or go off in the wrong direction, have unequal time or unequal focus on a subject.
A panel with a bad moderator adds nothing to the topic.
However, a lively, interactive moderator with a working knowledge of the subject matter can steer a panel away from tediousness or focusing too long on a subject. They can sense when the audience is getting restless and switch to a different panelist, change the tone of the discussion, or even wrap up. A great moderator can also inject humor and interaction in a skilled way.

2. Establish strict rules and structured content/outcomes.
We are amazed how frequently people design panels with no outcomes. Like any presentation, a panel should have a focused result in mind; at the end of the panel, what will the audience think, know, and do differently as a result of what they've heard?
Likewise, a panel should have structure and--dare we say it--some rules. The participants should know what to expect and what is expected of them. Too many times companies bring on guest panelists and therefore feel that they have no say over what the panelists choose to do. However, it is imperative to control the panel for the sake of content clarity and audience interest.
Rules sound imposing, but consider something like--say--the presidential debates. A debate isn't exactly the same thing, but imagine how different (long/one-sided/unfocused) they would be if the candidates didn't have firm time limits on their segments.

3. Solicit audience questions ahead of time.
Audience interaction and personalization is a wonderful thing. However, audience questions during a panel so often go astray; audience members ask questions that are only relevant to them, feel shy about asking "real" questions, or just ask questions for the sake of getting face-time.
We wouldn't suggest cutting out audience interaction, but soliciting audience questions ahead of time allows for a number of things:
  • You get to sort through the questions to select the most broadly relevant topics.
  • You can pre-prepare the panelists so they have relevant/good/thorough answers.
  • You can make sure that you get the quality and caliber of questions that you need to make an interesting segment. 
  • You can steer away from or toward controversy as desired--and you don't get caught up in the mire of a sore subject.
The panelists can still interact with the audience; i.e. asking if there is a follow-up question to one they answered, or soliciting feedback from that answer.

4. Take a cue from late night talk shows--pre-interview panelists to get stories.
Late night talk show guests almost always seem witty, charming, funny and engaging on the show. This isn't because they all *are* witty, charming, funny and engaging (though some may very well be) it's because they have a skilled interviewer (similar to a skilled moderator) and they have been pre-interviewed to get stories.
Stories are one of the most powerful engagement tools a presenter can use. Our brains are naturally attracted to a story; we want to know what happens, brain wave activity increases, we enter active listening mode. A late night talk show guest will have a list of stories prepared that the interviewer can draw from to make the guest seem innately interesting. A panelist should do the same thing; have a reference list of relevant stories and examples prepared around the content at hand.

5. Find points of disagreement/controversy/interest and bring it out. 
In pre-panel interviews, find the elements of the topic that will make panelists disagree or--to put it a more diplomatic way--offer differing perspectives. That's not to say that there should be a panel of negativity or fighting--but panels where the only thing a panelist has to contribute to another's opinion is agreement and elaboration get stale fairly quickly. Panelists should be able to talk about a topic from different, diverse angles and bring their unique spin, perspective and opinion to the table in a way that intrigues the audience and inspires them to hear more. Even if there are only one or two points of disagreement or controversy, sprinkle them into the panel to add interest.
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The Five Perils of a Panel

Panels during event general sessions seem like a good idea at first: you're utilizing different presenters, so there's a change in focus/attention every 5-6 minutes, you're engaging in a discussion format that seems like it would be more engaging, you have the opportunity to get different perspectives, and you may even have some audience interaction in the form of questions.

Indeed, panel discussions at places like ComicCon and similar are exceedingly popular and very interesting to their super-fans. The key there being super-fans.

How about when you have a sales audience and you have a panel of customers?
A panel of executives presenting to the rank and file?

This is an entirely different story. These panels often come off as flat, unengaging and boring. When you look at the best aspects of a great presentation, these elements seem to be missing in panels entirely. So why are these panels so painful and deadly-dull for the audience? Where do panels go wrong?

1. They're usually not needed and have unclear outcomes.
Typically people come up with the idea to do a panel because they think it will be more interesting than a series of presentations. That may be the case, but doing a panel for the sake of doing a panel doesn't produce the results one desires. Panels are not exempt from needing explicit, clear and focused outcomes. Without an outcome, the panel can wander, lose focus or suffer from a lack of focus to begin with.

2. The dynamics of a panel often fall flat.
What is intended to be a differentiated format often offers no differentiation of its own within itself. There is no emotional charge behind a panel. They suffer from a lack of narrative drive, and there is no cohesive story to captivate and intrigue the audience. Often times the presenters lack chemistry or relation to each other, so even the format of the panel cannot be used correctly.

3. Panel presenters have a broad spectrum of ability.
Some panel members may be very engaging and others may not. This would seem to be fine, but often those that aren't engaging or may not even have much to say about a topic at hand feel obligated to jump in on a topic to fulfill their panel time or justify their presence on the panel. Instead of hearing from an expert in a cohesive way, the audience may hear from several non-experts in a disjointed way. With uneven presentation skills, the audience comes away with the experience provided by the lowest common denominator.

4. Panels give a lack of control over presentations. 
Panels--especially those featuring gracious customers or outside volunteers--offer very little control over the messaging and storyline. It's easy, within a panel discussion, to veer off-topic or into taboo territory. Presenters may grandstand or focus on what they find interesting about a topic versus what the audience needs to know or what the audience finds interesting.

5. Audience questions fizzle out in a panel.
This is not a problem unique to panels, but it can be amplified by the panel format. In order to incorporate audience interaction, panels often will solicit questions from the audience. The audience will then typically ask what is most important to them personally...and it may have absolutely zero relevance to anyone else in the room. Generally audiences are not great at moderating their question level to the broader interest of the group at large. In a panel, then, you may have a question come up with little relevance, but that ends up taking up a large chunk of the panel time.


Panels aren't all bad--don't get us wrong--it's just that they are so often misused and abused. So how does one go about fixing panel perils? Our next blog installment will cover what you can do to make a panel more effective.
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