FEATURE1 June 2009

Stage directions

Let’s be honest, how many of us have given a dull presentation? Ray Poynter reveals the results of a survey that maps out a sure path to a compelling presentation.

The term ‘Death by PowerPoint’ has become the popular cri de coeur of people anxious to highlight the problem that too many market research presentations are frankly rubbish. However, it seems the message is beginning to get through, as evidenced by the range of innovations at this year’s Research Annual Conference. In order to improve something, we need more than just an intention to change, we need to know what we mean by a great presentation.

Great presentations
Having made the decision to improve our presentations we are faced with a conflicting array of advice. Visual explanation expert Edward Tufte describes PowerPoint as “evil” (and was the first to coin the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint”). Silicon Valley’s Guy Kawasaki says we should use 10 slides, limit the presentations to 20 minutes, and use a minimum font size of 30 point. Marketing guru Seth Godin produced five rules, the first of which is “No more than six words on a slide. EVER.” Author of PresentationZen Garr Reynolds (of PresentationZen) talks about the benefit of putting “25-30 hours or more of planning and designing the message, and the media”.

While there is much we can and should learn from these leaders in the field of great presentations, it is clear that their field is not market research. Most research presentations are constrained by tight budgets, short turnarounds and a need to convey complicated and sometimes detailed information. So how do we transfer the ideas from other disciplines to our domain, in order to define and create great presentations?

Researching research presentations
Being a market researcher, as well as a presenting nerd, my response to the question “What is a great market research presentation?” was to conduct research. The core element of the research was a survey amongst 254 market researchers from 42 countries.

Key Messages
The key messages from the research are:

  • The focus of any presentation should be the audience. However, audiences report that presenters often seem to think the presenter or the data are the focus.
  • Since audiences and situations differ, there is no single best way of presenting. Requests from audiences are often contradictory, reminding us that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
  • Audiences expect presenters to be confident, capable, and rehearsed. There is little tolerance these days for a presenter who turns up and simply delivers the content in a clear but unengaged way.
  • Conference presentations and research debriefs are different and have different requirements. Conference presentations can be of general interest, but debriefs have to answer specific business needs and should provide useful guidance for decision makers.
  • Audiences want presentations to be shorter and to provide deeper insight, while at the same time being enjoyable.
  • Themes that have been talked about for the last few years such as storytelling, are important but so are issues such as confidence, ability and a willingness to put forward an argument, not simply a report.

In order to create great presentations we need to listen to these messages from the recipients of our work.

Great conference presenters
In order to investigate great conference presentations, the research asked participants to think about people who give great presentations, and then to discuss what made those presentations so good. In total 114 presenters were mentioned, but only ten were mentioned twice or more.

These ten, presented in no particular order, were

Andy Dexter

David Smith

John Kearon

Justin Gibbons

Mark Earls

Martin Lindstrom

Neil McPhee

Paul Marsden

Rob Campbell

Steve Jobs

I have seen most of these people present and I would certainly agree that they are good presenters, and well worth making the effort to see.

The ten key characteristics
The research produced 246 descriptions of what makes a great presentation. These descriptions have been analysed and produced ten key characteristics of great conference presentations.

  1. Content. It does not matter how clever you are, you still have to have something interesting to say. If people are going to give the speaker 20-25 minutes of their life, they want more than entertainment, they want to hear something useful, something they did not know before.
  2. Voice. The presenter needs to actively use their voice. One comment in particular highlights the extent to which voice is central to the process, “It’s partly his voice – he never speaks too quickly, and his tone is modulated and smooth without feeling put on - but it’s more that you feel that he’s speaking to you personally, not just reciting a bunch of jargon from a PowerPoint slide.” In a presentation the best way to emphasise a point is not to use caps, not to use bold, not to underline, but to use the presenter’s voice.
  3. Audience. The focus of the presentation has to be the audience, not the data and not the presenter. Key comments include “their understanding of their audience”, “being interactive with their audience”, and “engage the audience (not one-way traffic)”. Like a considerate lover, we need to concentrate on “How was it for you?”
  4. Story. For the last few years everybody who is anybody has been saying that storytelling is the key to better presentations, and there is clearly a lot of support for this view. Attendees are looking for narrative themes, analogies and anecdotes. They don’t want to see data, they want to hear what the data means and what its implications are.
  5. Style. One of the hardest concepts to isolate is style. People know they want style, but they vary in what they mean and how they describe it. For example “Style, speaking to the audience, PAUSING for emphasis, no notes, entertaining with some levity, self deprecation” and “Relaxed and informal style, but also confident, upbeat, lively”. The variation in the descriptions of what ‘style’ means makes it harder to define it. However, it is clear that style is not something that just happens, it is the presence of a personalised approach, something which goes beyond just competence, something which adds that others would not have added.
  6. Ability. The word ability occurs frequently in the responses, linked to a variety of topics. Presenters need to realise that it is not enough to make an effort, presenters need to develop the skills to be able to deliver against these standards.
  7. Argument. The use of the words argue and argument, for example “The way he or she argues the content” and “Argument, passion, and slides” show that people are looking for presenters to be more than a neutral reporter, they are looking for a case to be put forward with coherence and passion.
  8. Confidence. Confidence is to some extent related to ability, but it also expresses the way that ability is used in the communication process. For example: “Confidence, thorough knowledge of what they are going to present, they don’t just read out slides, they summarise well and point out things which are not obvious from slides”. If the audience has confidence in the presenter, then he or she does not need to hear about every step, enabling the focus to be on the findings and not the process.
  9. Engaging. Audiences want to be actively engaged. This is one of the biggest changes that has happened over the last 30 years. It is almost as if audiences are suffering attention deficit syndrome. If presenters do not engage audiences the message will not be heard, and will be of little value.
  10. Humour. Many responses talked about humour. Audiences aren’t looking for non-stop laughs, but they are looking for humour to be used as part of the audience-focused engagement process.

Client debriefs
The 32 clients in the survey who received debriefs were also asked to use the same approach to define the characteristics of great debriefs. The assumption is that there are important differences between client debriefs and conference presentations, and this is borne out by the data. Although the ten points mentioned above, in the conference presenting section, are important, their focus shifts when dealing with business objectives.

Three key points dominate the needs that were articulated for client debriefs:

  • Business understanding. Presenters must do their homework; they need to know about the market and know about the client. They need to understand relevant factors such as legislation, production factors and distribution logistics. They need to produce their findings in the context of business outcomes.
  • Analysis. The presentation should express the results of analysis, not simply describe the process or the data.
  • Structure. The interest in storytelling that we saw in the context of conference presentations morphs into structure in the more serious context of the debrief. The common thread between storytelling and structure is narrative theme.

Some clients want the presenter to make specific business recommendations. But, other clients want to be given the analysis, in the context of the presenter’s business understanding, in a clear and coherent way, so that they can make the business decisions, in the light of the research.

This last point emphasises two things:

There is no single best approach.

A presenter needs to know whether the focus of the debrief should be the analysis or the recommendations.

How to improve?
The analysis looked at the best way to get from where the market research industry is at the moment to where it needs to be. The key thing that presenters should be aware of is that the competition is getting better. The competitive set in this sense comprises agencies and individuals who are making a difference, important figures from other industries and the media.

The following four comments illustrate what is being called for and how far the industry has to go:

“Value to the client/audience should be the focus of the presentation.”

“Some agency debriefs are still a summation of everything they captured in a quant survey.”

“Move away from mere reportage to telling a story. From findings to learnings.”

“Moving away from being scripted to being rehearsed.”

The last point is a key reminder that every presentation is a performance. There are three levels that a presenter can perform at:

  • Make it up as they go along, looking at the screen and saying what they think it means.
  • Creating a script for the presentation, but leaving most of the script on the screen.
  • Rehearsing the presentation to create a better piece of communication.

Too many presenters are operating at the first of these levels. Many presenters think they are doing a great job, but are only reaching the second level. It is the third level that we need to aspire to, and at present just a few are reaching it.

I can hear you, but I don’t understand you

As part of an ongoing project to learn more about market research presentations a further survey looked at what differences there were in the terms that people understood. This survey was conducted among 126 people, using a similar frame to the main project, asking people how well they understood a variety of terms and phrases. There were some startling findings, for example:

Phrase/Word% Understanding
White elephant56
Perfect storm35

Although the term ethnography was widely understood, other terms, which one might have expected a market research audience to be familiar with, were less well known. If you watch the TV news it sometimes seems that every new catastrophe is described by the newsreaders as a ‘perfect storm’ of some description, but the phrase was only understood by 35% of the respondents. Malcolm Gladwell’s agent of information in the Tipping Point, the Maven, was only meaningful to a quarter of the sample, despite at least one research agency using it as part of its name.

The picture is more stark when the role of language and age are considered. Just 43 people out of the 126 had some language other than English as their first language, and not surprisingly they tended to be less likely to be familiar with the phrases, with just 5% recognising Maven. However, ethnography was just as familiar the non-native speakers as it was to those with English as their first language.

More disconcerting, for somebody like me aged over 50, was the gap in the scores for people under 40 compared with those over 40 (note only 38 people out of the 126 were over 40 ). Whereas 89% of the over 40s knew the term White Elephant, this dropped to 40% for the under 40s. Similarly, 58% of the over 40s understood the phrase Perfect Storm, but only 24% of the under 40s, did so. From a presenter’s point of view, we need to be careful in not assuming too much about what audiences know and understand. If you are speaking to a multi-cultural audience, check your phrases work the way you think they do. And, if you are over 40, presenting to a roomful of twenty-somethings, do not assume those common expressions are actually common.

Steps to improvement
There are many ways for presenters to improve their presentations and this section addresses just a few of them.

Attend courses, read books, watch videos and learn more about the current theory of presenting. Note, much of what makes a great presentation now is different from what made a great presentation 30 years ago. Audiences are different and the competitive set is different. Think about how today’s TV news reporting differs from the lengthy and deferential reports of 40-50 years ago.

Make a point of asking your clients to say who they think presents well and then find out what they are doing.

Keep up to date with what the vanguard are doing and saying. People such as Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, and Garr Reynolds. Watch the TED videos, seek out the highest rated ones and evaluate why they are so highly rated. In particular watch the ones involving Hans Rosling.

Practise and rehearse, but don’t confuse the two. Practice is how you develop the skills for presenting. Rehearsing is how you improve a specific presentation.

Seek feedback from people who attend your presentations, including colleagues. Ask them to tell you something you should change, and something you should not change. Most people are willing to be honest with you if you adopt this simple one positive and one negative model.

Speaker notes

Hans Rosling is founder of the Gapminder Foundation, which works to promote development through better use and understanding of statistics. In other words, he’s trying to save the world through good presentations (like this one: tinyurl.com/4x3pq2 ). His Trendalyzer tool – bought by Google in 2007 – animates world development statistics, using different-sized and coloured bubbles to represent countries and their populations, and showing how key health indicators have changed over time in relation to GDP. Rosling is also a medical doctor. And a sword swallower.

How did your software for animating statistics come about?
When I was teaching back in the 80s I saw that the students had a very bad world view – the Tintin world view, I call it. I was struggling to show them that there were not just ‘western’ and ‘developing’ countries but a continuum of countries. We produced the first animated bubble chart in 1998 and it was amazing when people saw the bubbles move, how they started to understand. We’ve now put up 200 years of world development statistics on Gapminder.org and you can see, for example, that there is no place in the world as dreadful as the UK in 1800.

Why do people find it so hard to make statistics accessible and interesting?
I have no real explanation. But what I tend to see is that people who know number analytics get very conventional in the way they communicate. To bring data to life they have to be more humorous. On the other hand, those who have humour make jokes because they don’t understand it and they want to use humour to cover up. There are also problems working with international development data because it doesn’t exist in a unified format and the international organisations tend to restrict how it can be used. Statisticians are very protective of their databases, which holds back innovation and means we can’t bring the data to a really big audience. I’m waiting for the day Larry King has animated data behind him on his show rather than those ugly little dots he’s had for the last ten years.

”The best-informed people in western Europe are the CEOs of the major international companies”

Hans Rosling

Do you think people who are good with numbers tend not to be good at presenting?
Yes, I think so. Sometimes academia is recognised for being complicated, and there’s a perception that analysts have to be boring to be trusted. As well as being a statistician I’m also a sword swallower (if you go to Wikipedia and look up sword swallowing, I’m the picture) and I’ve done this in some of my presentations to make the point that some things that might seem impossible are not. I’m trying to combine the skills. The amount of recognition I’ve been getting indicates that more people should try this.

Do you worry that some people will just never understand these things?
No. The best-informed people in western Europe are the CEOs of the major international companies. But academia and government and politicians have difficulty. I’m basically a typical Swedish social democrat so for me to give credit to business is painful, but in this case it’s true. Those who didn’t understand have gone bankrupt.


15 years ago

At Incite we believe that great communication is one of the most important issues for research, so I was very interested to read Ray’s piece on ‘Stage directions’. Whilst it is interesting that there are popular (if predictable) seasoned presenters out there, I don’t think that it is really relevant to compare our peers from the research industry with the likes of Steve Jobs. Personally, I think innovation and fresh talent are the key to the long-term future of our industry and we should also be giving young researchers the opportunity to show off their skills. This is why Incite put together the ‘Research X Factor’ for the MRS’s Research 2009 Annual Conference – encouraging industry-wide talent to take to the stage and demonstrate their creativity and presentation skills with a view to challenge all of us (including the more seasoned presenters) with fresh perspectives.

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15 years ago

Great Survey Ray - validated some of my thoughts and learnt somethings new too ! :) Cheers Dipen Mehta www.un-boxed.me

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15 years ago

Great Survey Ray - validated some of my thoughts and learnt somethings new too ! :) Cheers Dipen Mehta www.un-boxed.me

Like Report