Is Technology Changing a Core Principle of Effective Presentations?

Presentation experts may disagree on a lot of things, but virtually all of them agree that a presentation is very, VERY different from a piece of writing, such as a blog post.

And of course it is. Presentation and writing are different in many ways, with the key one being that the audience of your presentation cannot rewind.

If your audience doesn't get something you said or is momentarily distracted (angry text from boss!), they can't just hit pause, rewind the tape and review the point you made. With no regard for their plight, the presentation train choo-choos on.

Readers of your article, on the other hand, can go back, jump forward, or teleport freely from any place in the writing to any other place, unrestrained by space or time.

This is why popular blog posts can offer 10, 20 or even 100+ points and tips - because blog posts are more like references than a one-time experience. The reader can always bookmark the link and come back to it later.

Presentations, on the other hand, should have one point (ok, the consensus is between one and three). Coaches and gurus endlessly exhort speakers to devote their precious time not to introduce new points, but to use repetition, stories, data, etc. to reinforce 1-3 messages that they'd like to sear forever into the brains of their audiences.

As champion speaker Craig Valentine said: "If you squeeze information in, you squeeze your audience out." The excellent Dr. Michelle Mazur wrote that a speech isn't a blog post. "In a speech, less is always more."

I've always followed this advice like a commandment to live and die by, and I still believe it's true. I'm just not sure it's as true as it was before, and whether it'll stay true.

Because technology is changing the way most people experience presentations.

Technology is changing how we see presentations

I couldn't find reliable numbers for this, but I'm quite certain that the number of presentations, lectures and other public speaking being posted online is exploding.

Just consider all the TEDx events (nearly 17,000 so far according to TED), RSA, Le Web, The Moth, Ignite, Pecha Kucha, not to mention the rapid proliferation of online learning and skill-sharing platforms that also post lectures.

Even long-running events that never put their talks online have started to do so.

Combined with the world's move towards mobile, this has big implications.

As an audience - unless you're someone who's always at conferences - most presentations you see are through a screen, not in the flesh.

How most people experience presentations today

How most people experience presentations today

Now, if you only make private presentations that never get posted online and become public, this obviously doesn't apply to you.

But if your presentation does get online, and receives even a few hundred or even a thousand views? The majority of your audiences are online.

And guess what? These audiences CAN rewind.

This is obvious: Someone watching the Youtube version of your talk can absolutely rewind and re-listen to anything you said, as many times as it pleases them.

And we do this all the time. We listen to a talk on our phones while doing something else on autopilot (like driving or laundry). The speaker makes a point that intrigues us, and we quickly stop, rewind, and listen again (and jot down notes or compose a tweet).

We can also fast-forward, jump to any point in the talk, turn on subtitles (in ever more languages), or stop to google additional intel on any random point.

What's the implication of this? Does it weaken the imperative for presentations to simplify and narrow down to a single key point?

Successful talks that flout the one-message rule

In fact, many amazing presentations do not have a single key point. Or two. Or three. 

Instead, they offer MANY ideas - ideas that don't fit neatly into one little bucket.

Sure, there's usually an overall theme, but it's a BIG theme, under which many different ideas compete for our attention and social sharing.

And each time you go back to re-watch the presentation, you're delighted by something that you hadn't noticed before.

Just like a great essay, in fact, or... (gasp) a great book.

One example is this TED talk by Sherry Turkle. She spoke about the impact of technology on human relationships, but she offered many provocative ideas that were difficult to group together cleanly - "We expect more of technology and less of each other", "If we don't teach our kids to be alone, they'll only be lonely", etc.

Another example is this wonderful exploration of radical thinking by Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler. Sure, everything he presented had to do with how to think and act differently, but the ideas covered a spectrum larger than the Amazonian biodiversity.

These talks didn't offer just one takeaway message, they offered lots of them. And each message likely appealed to different audience members.

Judging from the standing ovation both talks received, their audiences clearly didn't mind that the speakers failed to stick to one single message.

Another example is Alibaba chief Ma Yun (Jack Ma), who is widely adored as one of the best public speakers in Asia, if not the world.

His presentations aren't clean, neat affairs of 30 minutes of stories and data supporting one key message. Instead, they're often a stampede of unconventional ideas, clever quips and surprising wisdom that no summary can herd into one clean barn.

Yet people absolutely LOVE his talks. They go back to savor them again and again, each time taking away something new, each person drawing different lessons.

Just like with a great essay or a book.

Okay... but what does this mean?

It means that - at least for presentations aimed at online audiences - not simplifying everything down to one neat idea is okay. Not aiming for total understanding the first time is okay. You CAN have more layers, complexity and nuance.

As long as your audience have a reason to watch, and re-watch.

Delivering a presentation worth re-watching presupposes that people would want to re-watch it (and to finish watching it the first time!). This part of the equation will likely never change. 

This means that you should be engaging. You need to design your talk so that the ride is so enjoyable, people willingly follow you even when they're not sure where you're going.

The ride should be so enthralling that, even before the audience reaches the finish line, they exhale and go: "let's do this again!"

Not an easy art to master.

Your thoughts?

Got a different take? Think I'm full of it? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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