The loooooooong pause

Many people tend to believe that tension is created by holding back information and having people wait for the reveal. Casting shows love to do that (“The winner is … looooong paaaauuuuuse … the winner is … even looooooooooonnnggger paaaaaaaauuuuuuuuse …”).

Often, though, a much more satisfying experience of tension is created by the opposite approach. By providing information leaves your audience in awe and begging you to tell them more. When you manage to create tension precisely by the things you say then it’s not the performance but the information itself that creates the tension.

If that’s the case you’ll know that you really hit a nerve. Also, it’s the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. Instead of being satisfied by the piece of information they receive, audiences become curious by it. Instead of feeling relieved by the information, tension is built up by the information.

What is a piece of information that you could give your audience that makes them want to know more?

Tell me only one thing

The default mode for presenting is this:

“I’m going to tell you everything I know and when I’m done, you are going to be convinced.”

Of course, we all know how that usually turns out.

The thing is that “everything” is often quite a lot. It’s overwhelming not only for your audience but also for yourself because it’s hard to find the clarity to speak about “everything”. It’s hard to find a structure that makes it easy for your audience to follow along when you speak about “everything”.

A much easier and much more effective way of approaching a presentation is this:

“Don’t tell me everything but tell me only one thing and make it the most interesting thing.”

Make it the thing that makes your audience curious, that’s most surprising or most exciting for them. When you do this and when it really matters, i.e. when they really care about that thing, then they will want you to tell them more. If it’s exciting they will even beg you to tell them more.

And of course you do.

But not by telling them everything but by telling them the next thing that’s so interesting that they will want you to tell them more. And then you do it again and again and again. You drag them down a rabbit hole, drag them ever deeper and make them curious. You lead them up to the point where you’ve actually convinced them.

So, when preparing your next presentation don’t tell me everything. Tell me only one thing and make it the one thing that makes me want you to tell me more. It’s so much easier to prepare. It makes it so much easier to find the clarity to structure your presentation. And it’s so much more interesting to listen to.

It’s the hero we look at but it’s us who we see

Take a moment to think of a hero of yours. What is it that you admire about her? What did she do that you would love to do yourself? How would you have reacted in that same situation?

Whether it’s a movie hero or a real life hero, heroes inspire us because they provide us with a canvas to project ourselves upon. It’s the hero we look at, but it’s us who we see.

Heroes endure, overcome, and achieve things in a way we don’t. Yet, by listening to stories about our heroes, we are able to live a life that’s unlike our own. To get a sneak peek into what it would be like if we acted differently. Or sometimes even to consciously choose a life that’s different from the hero’s life.

This is what great storytellers understand. That it’s not about the hero but about the listener. It doesn’t matter so much who the hero of your story is, whether it’s fictional or real, or whether it’s a customer’s story or your own. But it matters a lot that it is themselves who our audiences see when listening to our stories.

Hard choices

Many people believe that a great presentation makes it easy for the audience to choose you. The easier, the better.

Yet, the most satisfying decisions are the hard ones. The ones where we consciously struggle with the decision.

What makes a decision hard is that it forces us to confront who we are. Do we want this thing so badly that we are willing to pay so much for it? Do we really want to spend the effort of changing our habits to achieve that goal?

If a decision is hard then it is because we care. Because if we wouldn’t, it would be easy, right? If we don’t care, we can just as easily dismiss a thing as we can choose it. It won’t matter much.

So, leading your audience to a hard choice means leading them to something they care deeply about. And if they do, then the decision they make is this:

“If that’s who I am, then this is what I need to do!

This, of course, is only possible if you care, too! Leading them to this point means making them see that you understand something profound about them. That you do care about them.

You care by leading them to the point of no return. The point where this choice needs to be made. The point where tension is so high that it can only be relieved by making the decision.

What separates good from great presenters is that the great ones realise that it’s still the audience who’s going to decide. It has to be. Because when it is, you’ve got commitment. They have consciously decided for you.

Your job is to make this decision obvious. To confront them with it. To make them see clearly so that if that’s really who they are, then, well …

… up to you to decide.

Good and bad is still alive in marketing

When I think back to when I was a teenager, a lot of TV shows had this very clear distinction between good and bad. Today, it has become hard to find a great show that’s like that. Good is never all good, bad is never all bad. Today’s heroes are torn apart by inner conflicts and their darker sides. In fact, often it’s even hard to say whether there’s good or bad at all.

In a way, you might argue that this is what makes heroes heroic in the first place. It is by overcoming their fears and shortcomings and taking responsibility for their cause that they change the world. So, while we still do have heroes, we don’t have good and bad as we used to.

Except in marketing. Many marketers still act as if it’s us vs. them, good vs. bad. In particular, they act as if they are all good and the competition is all bad.

Which – obviously – is not true and everyone, including themselves, knows it. So they try hard to persuade us. To make us believe that they are the good ones. They will shine the brightest light upon themselves, praise their good sides and hide their dark sides.

And in doing so they overlook the fact that the world has moved on. That it’s precisely the rough edges that we admire in our heroes. We admire them because they are like us – imperfect and vulnerable.

Stories help us to convey this mixture of emotions and this is why so many brands have embraced storytelling. Stories make a brand relatable. They make a speaker one of us. We feel with her.

And because we do, we fall in love with what she stands for and what she brings into our life. It is one of the reasons why we buy from her. Because we see how her story matches ours. How our life improves because of their products.

Not because it is all good but because it matches who we are.

How do you relate to the life of your audience?

It’s still story first!

For many of us, the new world of online communication feels like a restart. We have to get used to new technologies and accustom ourselves to speaking in front of a camera. This brings about many new challenges. Which camera is best? How do I arrange the lighting? What’s a good microphone? The list goes on. Yet: don’t fall into the trap of distracting yourself with technology!

To be sure, it’s important to look good on video. It’s even more important to have great sound. But: just as with PowerPoint and any other technological trend of the past, having a great story takes you a long way while great technology has never been a substitute for relevance and resonance of your content.

It’s still story first!

Therefore, this is what you should primarily focus on: How do I need to adapt my story so that it works on video? What’s different for my audience when viewing me on a small screen compared to interacting with me face-to-face? How can I engage them although we might be continents apart?

This has more to do with empathy and storytelling than it does with technology. By any means, use the best technology you can get. But don’t loose sight of what matters most: the connection to your audience.

Best presentation award

As a film director, you can fail at the box office and still win the Oscars. Winning the Oscars can hugely benefit your future projects. It earns you trust and may boost the financial success of upcoming movies.

With presentations that’s often not the case. There is no critics’ price. There is no appreciation for “She had the best storyline”, “The animations were so artistically well choreographed”, or “It was such a clever twist on slide 24”.

With a presentation, it’s always the audience who decides whether it’s been worthwhile, never the critics. So, it always pays to understand who the audience is. Who are they? What matters to them? Why do they grant 30 minutes of their time to listen to you?

By all means, make it clever, choreograph it well, craft a compelling storyline, but do it in a way that works for your audience.

Thoughts on commodities

Is your product a commodity or is it something special that people will go the extra mile for and pride themselves for having done so?

Electricity surely is a commodity. Salt as well – unless it’s the Amethyst Bamboo 9x. What about the mobile phone? Approximately 4.8 billion people own a mobile phone today. Has it become a commodity? Or the iPhone. Is the iPhone a commodity? It’s been sold roughly 1.5 billion times. Can something at that scale not be a commodity? Well, apparently. At least for some people it’s far from a commodity. It’s a device that millions of people look forward to hearing news from. People don’t do this for commodities.

There’s also the other extreme of 1:1 service. Can individual 1:1 service be a commodity? Can a service which promises a solution to your individual problem be a commodity? Apparently. Because millions of people each week get their individual teeth problems solved with a highly standardised service. In essence, although it‘s your individual problem and noone’s teeth are just like yours, the process to cure them works across quite a range of people and given that everything else is the same, you wouldn’t notice any difference.

Of course, everything else is not the same. The service may be human or robotic. It may be a nice environment or an ugly one. They make you wait an hour or treat you on time. They smile or they don’t. You feel welcome or you don’t. You may feel like there’s nothing more important than you or you may feel like everything’s more important than you.

So, where do you fit into this spectrum? Is your product a commodity? Or is it extraordinary? How about the experience of interacting with you? Do you make them feel special? Is it a 5-star service that you provide?

Keep in mind, though, that a 5-star service in itself can be a commodity as well. The perfectly polished, yet soulless hotel suite that you would exchange in a heartbeat for the warm and welcoming 2-star room of Grandma Elaine’s family operated hotel, is not much more than a premium priced commodity for the rich. Whether your product is a commodity or not has much more to do with how you yourself treat it than with the product itself.

How you communicate your product has a huge impact on how people perceive the product. Is your choice of words bland, boring and interchangeable or do you have a distinct voice that speaks to the hearts of your customers? When you speak to us, do we feel like in this moment nothing’s more important than us? If you’re gone, would we miss the personal tone of your brand story that resonated so well with our own values?

Everything is not the same if you don’t make it the same … if you dare to find your own voice … if you dare to show your passion … if you dare to make a difference.

The moment the lights go down

Today is the first time in months that you go to the movies. You’ve decided that this is a movie that just has to be watched on the big screen of a cinema. You’ve taken your seat. Ads are over. The lights go down. And the film begins. How do you feel?

In his 2007 TED talk, J.J. Abrams, the famous film director, framed it like this:

The moment the lights go down is often the best part.

And he’s totally right. When you start to read a book or go to the movies, the moment before you read the first sentence, the moment before the movie actually starts is a moment of excitement. You’ve decided to invest time and emotion in this. You’re willing to expect that this investment will be worthwhile. Maybe you even visualise how the drama will unfold and anticipate your feelings.

In any case, it’s a moment of excitement. It’s tension. The tension of a great experience we’re about to have. The tension of something profound we’re about to learn. The tension of deep emotions that we’re going to feel. Or at least we hope so – that’s why it’s tension and not certainty.

The thing with most movies and with most books, though, is that they don’t actually deliver on this excitement – which was Abrams’ point. This initial moment of excitement is indeed often the best part, as Abrams rightly observed.

But of course, those fascinating exceptions do exist. Those movies which do surpass that initial tension. By far. These are the movies we come back to. These are the books we admire. Which change our lives. And trigger even bigger tension when we read about the follow-up.

When you consistently deliver on this initial tension of the moment the lights go down, you build trust. And with trust you can build even greater tension the next time.

Jonglieren mit Gedanken

Fast jeder kann mit zwei Bällen jonglieren. Mit drei können viele. Vier sind schon schwer, noch mehr kann kaum jemand.

Mehrere Dinge gleichzeitig im Kopf zu behalten, ist ganz ähnlich … Zwei? Ist einfach. Drei? Auch noch. Ab vier wird’s schwieriger und danach knackig. Je komplizierter die Dinge sind, die man im Kopf behalten muss, desto knackiger.

Wenn Sie mit zu vielen Bällen in Ihrem Vortrag jonglieren, wird’s auch für Ihre Zuhörer schwierig. Die Zuhörer lassen Bälle fallen und während sie noch damit beschäftigt sind sie aufzuheben, fallen schon die nächsten.

Leider sind aber die meisten Themen, gerade die, die es wert sind, Thema einer Präsentation zu sein, kompliziert. Da kommt man einfach nicht mit ein paar Bällen aus.

Zum Glück haben Gedanken allerdings eine Eigenschaft, die echte Jonglier-Bälle nicht besitzen. Gedanken können sich zu größeren Gedanken zusammenfügen. Gedanken können andere Gedanken triggern. Aus Äpfeln, Birnen und Bananen wird Obst. Aus Obst, Gemüse und Getreide wird vegetarische Ernährung. Vegetarische Ernährung hat Effekte, die Sie durch eine Geschichte erst veranschaulichen und dann abstrahieren, um daraus eine konkrete Ernährungsempfehlung abzuleiten. Zu jedem Zeitpunkt halten Sie höchstens vier Bälle in der Luft, so dass jeder mühelos folgen kann. Komplex in der Konstruktion, einfach in der Erzählung.

Mit einer klaren Story und einer klaren Struktur können Sie äußerst komplexe Dinge in die Köpfe der Zuhörer bringen, solange Sie die Komplexität sinnvoll und Schritt-für-Schritt aufbauen.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz