I was recently invited to speak to MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of a unique program called the Mastery in Communication Initiative. In its expert speaker’s series, Stanford invites “pioneers in the field of communication” to share their insights and to coach business students in the art and science of persuasion, pitching, communication, and presentation skills.
In my presentation, which you can see here on the Stanford Business School YouTube Channel, I gave students very specific techniques they could use immediately to pitch their ideas to colleagues, instructors, and professional investors. I shared three essential components of all successful presentations. By ‘successful,’ I mean presentations that accomplish their intended effect—to move people to action, to close a sale, to receive project funding, etc.
Successful presentations are understandable, memorable, and emotional.
Understandable. Successful presentations are free of jargon, buzzwords, complexity, and confusion. Although there are many ways to make a presentation clear and understandable, my favorite technique is what I call the “Twitter-friendly headline.” I learned this from studying Steve Jobs and other inspiring communicators. In 2001 the iPod was “1,000 songs in your pocket.” In 2008 the MacBook Air was “The world’s thinnest notebook.” Steve Jobs always described his products in one sentence. Even before Twitter existed, Jobs’ product descriptions never exceeded 140 characters.
The other day I spoke to bestselling author Daniel Pink about his new book, To Sell is Human. Pink is skilled at public speaking and had years of experience as a political speechwriter before he wrote books. When he prepares for a presentation he asks himself, “What’s the one big idea I want people to take away from my presentation?” If you’re pitching a product, what’s the one thing you want your customers or investors to know about it? If you can express it in 140 characters or less, you’ll help your audience make sense of your product and how it will benefit their lives.
Memorable. If your audience cannot remember what you said in your presentation or recall your idea, it doesn’t matter how great it is! Again, there are many techniques to communicate ideas in memorable ways, but my favorite is a concept I’ve discussed in an earlier column—the rule of three. Neuroscientists generally agree that the human mind can only consume anywhere from three to seven points in short term, or “working memory” (This is why the phone number is only seven digits. Long ago scientists discovered if you ask people to remember eight digits, they forget just about the entire sequence of numbers). The magic number—not too many and not too few—seems to be three.
Try to incorporate the rule of three in your presentations. You can divide your presentation into three parts, discuss “three benefits” of a product, or give your audience “three action steps” they can take. Packaging the content into groups of three makes it far easier to remember.
Emotional. There’s a large body of research that shows the emotional component of a message trumps the analytical. Yes, you need to show data and evidence to reinforce your position, but it’s the emotional part of a presentation that often moves people to action.
Storytelling is the easiest and most effective way to make your presentation emotional. I once interviewed a prominent attorney who won the largest punitive judgment against a pharmaceutical company at the time—$250 million. He showed me the slides he used in his opening argument. The first six slides told a story and showed pictures of the person who lost his life. When the trial was over he asked the jurors why they voted the way they did. It seems the drug company lawyers had called to the stand scientists who confused the jurors with mountains of data and statistics. The jurors, however, were more moved by the simple story that opened the trial. They specifically mentioned the story as one of the reasons behind their decision. Stories are powerful, under-appreciated, and rarely used. If you want to stand out, tell more of them.
Poor communication and presentation skills can sink your brand and your career. I see it happen all the time. I’ve also seen way too many great ideas go undiscovered because the people who have those ideas fail to communicate effectively. We need big ideas to solve big problems, and we need inspiring leaders who can present those ideas so they are understandable, memorable, and make an emotional connection with their audiences.