When it comes to constructing a business presentation, you might assume that the more you know about the topic, the easier you will find the process. Actually, the opposite is often true - those with really deep knowledge of their subject matter tend to struggle with construction because they are afflicted by the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.
Outbreaks of the Curse have been most prevalent in my presentation skills coaching at a leading University where I help some of the most brilliant post-graduate students with pitches to potential investors. Having lived and breathed their projects for some years - often to the exclusion of almost anything else – they actually struggle to explain what it is they have invented. Sometimes it takes them so long to do so, that they run out of time to lay out their business plan. We have to work hard at getting their message into a neat little nutshell and positioned right up front in the running order. On one excruciating occasion, however, a student decided to manage without the coaching with the result that the Q&A kicked off with an investor asking: “This all sounds very impressive, but what actually is it”?
Fund Managers also tend suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. Their super-sized brains simply cannot cope with distilling their messages down to something the rest of us can process in the time available. In one instance I took the highly unusual step of declaring: ‘Let’s not even try to teach him any Presentation Skills; let the sales guys do all the heavy lifting and just wheel out the Fund Manager briefly so that the audience gets a glimpse of his ‘boffin credentials’.
Most recently, I discovered very clear symptoms in a highly accomplished author and broadcaster. She is giving a talk on a leading rock star and she is travelling to the USA to give the talk, because she is the world’s leading authority on the said rock star. She needed help with construction, though, saying: “I’ve got so much material, I don’t know where to start. Shall I show some clips here, play some music there, how am I going to fit it all in”? I pressed her on the nature and knowledge of the audience and listened to the general sense of what she wanted to say. We then put the two together and drew up a simple three-part structure. The elements of the structure immediately suggested material that should fit within them; and if anything did not answer that brief it would not be included. My client relaxed because the curse of all her knowledge had been lifted and she could now focus on being magnificent in her delivery.
So the Call to Action here is: when constructing a presentation, seek help from others who are broadly within your target audience but know little or nothing about what you plan to say. Only then can you be sure of hitting home with your message. Having done exactly this with many people over a number of years, only recently did I realise that the psychologists call the problem the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. I am indebted to InsightAgents, whose blog here goes into more detail and links to a video discussion with Steven Pinker, who discusses this and the many other issues featured in his latest book The Sense of Style.