How to avoid boring so people want to listen

We’ve been there haven’t we, the lights have dipped, highlighting the opening PowerPoint slide; someone has shuffled awkwardly onto the stage holding their pointer, introduced themselves, something along the lines of, “I’m here today to talk to you about…” and we’re away. The second slide emerges in the gloom, possibly an agenda or a list of bullet points. Then you take out your sharpened pencil ready to stab it into your leg about 20 minutes into the presentation.

Boring is a killer! In fact in three surveys of financial presentations 2014-2016 by Dave Paradi boring was the number one complaint.

In fact in another survey of 700 business people by Dave, it was discovered that around 30% of presentations required an hours additional work after the presentation just to understand what on earth it was they were listening to in the first place.

Do the maths on the time wasted. The Swiss anti-PowerPoint Party estimate the cost to the European economy as being €4 billion per annum.

How many of those people are actually boring in real life. Maybe I’m too easily pleased but I’ve met very few genuinely dull people. Yes people have bored me on occasion (I’m sure I’ve been boring), but they as a human being, no. And the few exceptions? Mostly, they talked about themselves.

So here are three tips to avoid boring. 

You don’t have to be Stephen Fry. Talk about us, make the presentation about your audience. This is the deal a TED speaker makes before going on stage. “I will give you an insight, and do it in an entertaining way, that will make the next 18 minutes of your life worthwhile”  - see Shona Rhimes’ great talk

If you can’t come up with an insight, just talk about what you and your idea can do for us. One of the best speakers I’ve seen, is John Baekelmans. I saw him at a Cisco event - 40 minutes talking about a product!! How boring should that be? But in John’s hands, we were on the edge of our seats, because he talked about US and what it could do for OUR businesses.

The second way to avoid boring is SURPRISE. And it can come in many forms, surprise in your voice, the way you say something. I’ve seen people sing part of their presentation. Have a look at this… which was all over the news today.

Or surprise by the way they move about the audience. Or the way they begin their presentation. Most TED talks start with a  story, or something dramatic. And then link it to the main subject matter. This in itself is not a surprise but the journey is. We know were probably going to a pleasurable location, and the journey there will be one we’ve not been on before. One of my favourite speakers, is my good friend the brilliant Mark Stevenson. He often swears in the first 3 minutes of his presentation. For three reasons: he wants to put us at ease and say the normal business rules don’t apply here; he wants to surprise us and he has Tourette’s. No I made that last one up. Take your presentation across the line. Fuck it – surprise us.

And the third is humour. So here’s a simple way to add laughs to your presentation. Write down a list of five stories that make your friends and family laugh. Now see if you can link any of them to a business issue. The issue might be “communication”, thinking you have all the answers, “getting to a destination in the end.” Now write the story in joke format. A opening line to set the scene. Then two more sentences (that’s all you’re allowed) to build the whole story. Then your punch line. Then maybe one tag line, after thought that gets another laugh. Finally, underlined, as clear as crystal, the bridge from the joke to the point. A great example of this is Shawn Anchor with his “unicorn story” in this lecture on the science of happiness.

The great thing about a story of course is that it’s incredibly easy to remember so you can focus on connecting with your lovely audience and not trying to remember your next bullet point. Most successful TED speakers use this technique. Add three stories to your next 20 minute presentation and you’ve suddenly got a rich, resonant engaging presentation with a sprinkling of original humour. Just keep it short.

This is not a definitive list. As if there could only be three ways to make something engaging. But it’ll do for now and you have a life to lead.

So what am I doing at the moment? Well, when I’m not boring my kids (talking about me, with no jokes over dinner – what am I doing wrong?), I’m writing a book. This is a dummy run of an early chapter. It’s going to have lots of pics to fill it up so I can justify a high price tag and lack of content. Actually, I’m deliberately trying to keep the number of words down, so the whole thing can be read on a train journey from London to Leeds. Let me know what you think of this bit and I’ll make adjustments.


Jack Milner

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