Many of us have jobs where we “sell” our ideas to others, even though lots of people are not in professional sales per se. Everyone has to sell, even if you are just selling ideas to your teammates, your boss, your kids, or the really big boss, your spouse. The better you become at being persuasive, the more likely you are to make a positive impact, to be memorable, to help others, and, if the planets align, to advance to positions of greater responsibility.
The problem is that it is quite difficult to rise above the constant noise, to create and deliver an outstanding, memorable presentation in a noisy, crowded, distracted, multi-media world that we live within.
In my career, I have attended thousands — literally thousands — of presentations. Every week, I attend at least ten. Most of the people at the front of the room, or in front of the Zoom webcam, were selected to lead the presentation or discussion as recognized experts or managers in their field. What’s mind-boggling is how few of the sessions are actually compelling, captivating, and memorable.
A lot goes into rising several deviations above the level of the average presentation.
Some crucial aspects take a lot of practice and are quite nuanced — for example, does the presenter achieve a personal connection to the audience even though he is speaking to a room of 300, or she is speaking over Zoom or Teams to a crowd of 1,000. Details include the ability to command attention, to make a positive first impression in seconds, to appeal to the senses despite the distance. Many of these nuances have to do with one’s voice modulation, facial expressions, and body language, things that take time, coaching, experience, and effort to adjust and improve. Julian Treasure offers food for thought during his speech at TED.
Fine-tuning details aside, the vast majority of items for creating a compelling and captivating message can be easily baked into your effort if you follow a specific, proven formula, a checklist recipe for greater effectiveness. You must be willing to put in the work — to take your presentation that you thought was done and re-engineer it for a week or more — and then practice your honed message once it passes the checklist test as no one “kills it” the first few times he or she presents it — but if you do, I believe you will be able to achieve top 10% presentation messaging and become more compelling and memorable. Always remember that the Beatles played ‘Hey, Jude’ hundreds of times for live audiences, gathering feeedback and making adjustments, before it became a global hit.
I have invested years creating a checklist that works, coaching others on how to improve their message, and of course, applying these principles to my own presentations:
Sakalas Wonderlist a.k.a. Sak’s C3 Checklist:
A Checklist for Creating a Captivating and Compelling Presentation:
- Always start with Why, not What or How
- Why appears on more than one level — at the company level, Why do we exist — what do we believe — what makes us want to get up in the morning. The easiest way to do this when in doubt is to simply have one slide that says “We Believe ________” — no reason to be too subtle.
- The “Why” at the here and now level — Why we invented or created this product, or why I have this specific idea — why solving this problem is worth the effort — instead of all the other things you could do with your time and money.
- The personal “why” — Why this idea / solution / product is near and dear to me — why it drives me personally — why I’m a believer.
I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s uber-famous break-out moment when he gave his “Start with Why” TED talk at a regional event. He later followed it up with a book, and has now created an entire career launch — because his message is dead on right.
- Re-configure your story to make the audience the hero / the protagonist of the story — you can never be the center of the story — people care about themselves, not you. The easiest way to implement this is to start with something like “We have noticed a lot of our customers encounter this challenge, or a lot of our customers are working on this problem”. If you do this well, success is noticeable as members of the audience nod in agreement that they too, face the same issue.
- Stories follow the same pattern — no matter if you analyze the works of William Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, or Stephen Spielberg. There is always a hero who faces a big problem. The hero finds an experienced advisor who gives him or her the understanding needed and helps him or her create a plan. The plan leads to a climactic moment where the hero either wins or loses. If the hero wins, he or she is transformed into a greater person, ready for greater challenges in the future. If he or she loses, there are always grave consequences.
- This story formula can apply to a company, a product, or a person.
- Distill the story to its essence. As a good rule of thumb, 50 – 75 words is probably the maximum you should strive for.
I suggest watching this short session with Donald Brown, author of StoryBrand. It is invaluable in getting to the essence of your company’s story, or a product’s story, or a service’s story, or a personal story that will capture people’s attention.
- Strive for crystal clear differentiation versus the closest competitors / alternative choices / competing ideas. A big mistake is to list differentiators that are not different. You must be clear as to actual differences that people will remember and agree are actually differences. Often you do not get to pick — for example, if a competitor has a well established differentiation of ‘safety’, you will not succeed by differentiating that you are safer than safe.
I suggest reading “Differentiate or Die” by Jack Trout. While is was written years ago, it helps frame your thinking on this important aspect.
- Focus on benefits that the audience / customer wants, not the benefits that you want. Its all about your audience. Anticipate what the audience wants, and then show how your idea-product-solution will offer the benefits are a great fit. Your benefits should outweigh your focus on what it is or does by a factor of 2:1. As Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt memorably pointed out decades ago, people want a hole in the wood board, not a shiny drill. Too often, we spend our time talking about our shiny drill.
- Change your message to fit your audience, every time. A generic message to a generic, broadly diverse audience will usually fall flat. Bespoke messaging sells 300% better than generic messaging. Neil deGrasse Tyson observes on Masterclass.com that few people realize how much time and effort he invests in every single presentation that he does. He attributes much of his success to this custom, audience-aware message preparation.
- Assume you have only 5 – 10 minutes before many people will tune you out. Email, texts, slack messages, dogs barking, kids barging in to the office, ADD — lots of things can and will happen. Everything else is a bonus. Learn from how newspapers write articles — they have a well-honed formula. The first few paragraphs have the whole story. You want the audience to get the key aspects of your message in the early innings of the game, just in case they tune out soon thereafter. After you have your high-level message done in just a few minutes, you can then go into greater detail, re-enforcing the same message, during the middle of the presentation or paper.
- Always summarize three key takeaways that you hope that they got from your message. Ask people if that is what they got. If they did not, it’s a good time to engage in a conversation at the end. The takeaways should confirm the ‘newspaper format’ first 5 – 10 minutes (see previous checklist item #6).
Consider starting with your three key takeaways as well ending with them — while this is not super-creative, there is wisdom to making sure people “get” the message that you are hoping they receive from your moment in the limelight. There is no doubt that people pay more attention to the first minutes than the last ones during an hour meeting.
Why three? Three is not magical, but it might be a maximum to hope for. I have seen success with five takeaways, but you are asking a lot of your audience — will they remember anything if you ask them to remember five? To that end, less is usually more.
- Create a sense of urgency to take action. If there is no reason to act, people will not remember it nearly as well as you hope. Ideas go stale without next steps faster than lettuce in your refrigerator. Sometimes it seems like the lettuce wilts just going from Whole Foods to the refrigerator at home!
- Set the hook right away and grab their attention right away – nothing matters more in the first minute. Don’t spend time introducing yourself — it is much better if you get someone else to introduce you before you start.
- Best — Start with a personal story, that connects to the main purpose of the message in no longer than two minutes. People lean in when they know its a story. We like stories. Use the words “before I plunge in, I’d like to share a story (that happened to me / that I found super interesting / that really applies to our topic…). This is the best way to connect to the audience quickly because it reveals your personality and how you think.
- Good — If you can’t find a good-fit story to use, start by asking questions that ultimately reveal some startling facts. This also connects you to the audience, but not quite as well as a personal story, because it is less revealing of your personality and like-ability.
- Better than nothing — If you can’t figure out a story or startling facts, tell a good joke. Jokes are hard unless you are very adept at telling jokes.
- Use visual analogies throughout. There is a mountain of research that proves, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that when a person imagines a visual in their mind, they then remember the concept that you hope to convey. Jesus preached in visual parables and analogies for a reason: they work. If you are selling a software tool chest that helps you build new applications quickly, compare that to Lego City Kits that help you build an entire city, full of skyscrapers and firetrucks, quickly, on a conference table. The visualization matters.
Do you remember my visuals of customers wanting a hole, not a shiny drill — or ideas wilting faster than lettuce in the refrigerator? These illustrate my point: visualizations work where words on a slide fail to stick.
- Find your hook and chorus, the spine of your presentation, and repeat it often. Most hit songs have both a hook (short one – three words) and a chorus that are catchy and memorable. The best speeches do as well. Find the theme that ties your message together and insert it at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Barack Obama turned his primary loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire into momentum that propelled him into the White House when he found a hook (“Yes, We Can!”) that resonated with the electorate that fateful night.
There are another dozen of so techniques — items such as creating a bit of mystery, suspense, surprise, emotional moments — that can help with the compelling, captivating and memorable aspects of your effort, but they pale in comparison to the importance of the ten checklist items above. These dozen are the frosting on the cake, while the ten on the checklist above make up the cake itself.
Note that everything on the Sakalas Wonderlist applies not only to spoken presentations but to other forms of presentation as well, such as writing a killer white paper brief or creating a one-page website.
Lastly, I do not believe that powerpoint sucks, as many people mindlessly incant for shock value and an easy laugh. Powerpoint and Keynote can be great, if they support and enhance a great message with great delivery. The most common mistake people usually make is trying to make too many points using one slide that has too many words on it. If you decide to make one and only one point per slide, you will be on the path to becoming a Keynote Jedi or Powerpoint Jedi someday. There are incredible presentations without a single slide, and fabulous presentations with only a white board, but the truth is that many, if not most, will include a presentation tool — especially in business — so why not learn to use it well?
If you remember anything at all from my discussion today, it is:
- Killer presentations don’t happen by accident
- The 11 items on the Sakalas Wonderlist will help you succeed in creating a killer presentation.
- It will take sincere work and practice to achieve a great result.
- Never forget that people like stories 1,000% more than presentations without a story.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I’m happy to help.
PS> C3, if you were wondering, stands for compelling, captivating, and concise. Being concise, leaving plenty of room for questions, is much better than boring people with additional details that take away from the core message. I believe that designing your presentation to encourage questions (that you are well-prepared to answer) is actually “great design” that leads to success.