Presentations as Theater

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a rather dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. The PowerPoint was an inevitable part of the presentation not because I was that interested in using the tool, but because it was safe and known by the audience.  Knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more. The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  The presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but right now it’s about changing minds.

As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s). Bore them and there is almost no chance of affecting change.

“Selective packaging of field data to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the field data are developed are perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.”

This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to products by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Returning to the issue that brought this thinking about, what could I do about the presentation?  First, strip it of text. The media tool is the comforting factor, not the content.  PowerPoint serves as a frame around which to build behavioral norms, but what appears on the screen is secondary.  That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video.  Second, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round?” Promote physical interaction and direct interaction between the audience members.  Finally, give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators.  The more they engage the more they will take away.

By Gavin

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