By Nick Morgan
People often ask me some variant of the following question: OK, so I get the idea that presentations should be interesting, and speakers should be passionate. But I’m an accountant (or engineer, scientist, nuclear physicist, doctor etc.) and what I have to present is highly technical and data-heavy. How can I possibly make that interesting?
My answer always begins with one of the best college lecturers I ever heard. Yes, he was a professor of accounting. He made profit and loss fascinating by talking about the early days of the Wells Fargo company, complete with cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and desperate men riding their horses past human and equine endurance to get to safety.
There was plenty of passion, and interest, and I learned something about double entry bookkeeping.
It can be done.
But seriously, my questioner will continue, how do you make it interesting?
It’s not easy. I’ll grant you that. But it is possible. What it takes is passion. If you’re thinking to yourself that you have a whole bunch of dull stuff to get across to the audience, then you’re already thinking wrong, and you need to start differently. Here’s how you do it.
1. First, realize giving a presentation is all about persuasion, not information. The first step is to figure out what you’re really doing – what are you trying to persuade the audience of? Once you know that, you’re ready to get started crafting a presentation. Summarize that in one sentence – e.g., “I’m going to persuade the audience that double-entry bookkeeping is essential to making modern commerce work, because it allows us to measure, understand, and control what we’re doing.”
2. Ask yourself, what is the problem that the audience has for which my information is the solution? Talk about that problem first, and I guarantee you the audience will be interested. Then they’ll want to hear your solution. That’s when it’s appropriate to give them said information.
3. Don’t give out information, give examples and case studies. Case studies and examples bring dry information to life. Data about a study of drug efficacy is boring – even that much sounds boring – but seen through the eyes of one potential patient, it has a completely different aspect.
4. Use vivid metaphors and analogies. If your information is highly abstract and you can’t figure out a way to turn it into a case study or an example, give us a metaphor. What is it like? Is it like music, or medicine, or cowboys and Indians? Use your imagination. Great teachers understand this and give their students metaphors and analogies to help them begin to understand the field and the theories they must master.
5. If all else fails, turn the information into a contest for the audience. In the ’90s I taught public speaking at Princeton. I had a certain amount of the history of rhetoric from the ancient Greeks to get across, because I thought it was important. Imagine trying to teach pre-law students about anadiplosis, epanalepsis, and paronomasia! The students were not interested and I despaired of getting 100 kinds of tropes and schemas into their heads. Until I thought of Jeopardy. I made the whole thing a Jeopardy contest (what is anadiplosis?) and the students woke right up.
Years later, the same students would shout “What is synecdoche!” across the campus at me when they saw me. I gave out Princeton t-shirts I had designed for the occasion, and the students cheerfully put hours in committing the terms to memory. Just about everyone gets cranked up when there’s a competition involved. It makes your information more memorable. Do remember to give out prizes.
With a little creative thought, any topic – any topic – can be made riveting. I guarantee it. Failure to make a presentation interesting is a failure of imagination. Send me your worst topics and let’s get going. We have a whole world of boring presentations to spare audiences.
About the Author:
Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication, and the good and bad speakers of the day. His passion is to connect the latest brain research with timeless insights into persuasive speaking and writing in order to further our understanding of how people connect with one another. For more information on his company, visit www.publicwords.com