Wednesday, 4 June 2014

‘Kill some darlings’ before delivering your business presentation

The subject of editing business presentations has been very much on my mind in the past week, with two very different clients having to face up to making big cuts to their content.

Client number one was a large public sector organisation that had two hours in which to convey a myriad of messages in an interesting way to a wide range of different stakeholders. The dilemma was that, while the allotted two hours was a very long time to keep any audience’s attention, when carved up into separate slots, none of the speakers would get enough time to say anything in a meaningful manner.

Client number two was one of the young PR executives I am guiding through their Apprenticeship. Her task was to explain the programme to her colleagues, highlighting the areas in which they could help her and she could help them. “So I have compiled text and pictures on each of the 18 modules”, she said, “but I fear that it is going to be rather boring for them and I won’t have time to get through it all”.

I explained to both clients the principle of ‘Killing your Darlings’ – a film and TV makers’ expression to describe the process that leads to them leaving a lot of content ‘on the cutting floor’ – or its digital equivalent. They go to all the trouble of scripting, rehearsal, acting and filming, only to throw much of it away.

Watch the deleted scenes on DVDs and you will typically hear the director explaining: “it’s a lovely scene, with both the leads giving great performances, but it wasn’t really moving the story forward. So it had to go. The same happens in business presentations: you have a favourite anecdote, a nice video and your PA has slaved over a very tricky graphic – so naturally you are going to use them all. But you need to be every bit as ruthless as those film directors – and keep killing ‘darlings’ until your presentation is as tight and crystal clear as it can possibly be.

Both of my clients warmed to this theme and realised that a lot of darlings faced the chopping block. With the public sector client it forced us to realise that the majority of the audience would be made up of one type of stakeholder, so the content could and probably should focus largely on them. With my Apprentice, I asked her to consider how many of her 18 different modules were realistically ones to which her colleagues could make meaningful contributions. We concluded the answer was six or seven. At a stroke, two thirds of the content could be killed off. Of course, she would give a quick overview up front to show the length and breadth of what lay ahead, but she would rapidly move on and announce that today she would be focusing on the six units where she and her colleagues could work together to mutual benefit.

The resulting presentation personified the realisation that another client came to last year: “I see”, he said, “don’t tell them everything; just tell them what they need to know”.

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