I was coaching a team of senior logistics executives once and eventually the time came for the one person who didn’t really want to be there to make a presentation. He was an engineer whose job essentially had been to construct data warehouses in far-flung destinations. By way of pre-amble I asked him what was his general feeling about giving presentations. “A necessary evil”, he replied, “that I don’t enjoy”.
He ran through his presentation as quickly as possible. It was based entirely on showing us screen shots of a complicated budget approval form. It wasn’t much fun for anyone and my feedback included: “none of what you showed us was actually a presentation aid; if you have to use that stuff, at least tell us where to look; and please, when you run through the ‘Benefits’ list at least show some enthusiasm there”.
I made a point of cutting my feedback short and said: “Let’s forget about your presentation for a moment. You have presumably been to these far-flung locations. What did you tell your loved ones when you got back”? “Actually”, he replied, “they were quite upset with me as I hardly contacted them at all, because it was almost impossible to get a phone signal. I knew they would never believe me so I started taking photographs of the telegraph poles to show how archaic the communication systems were. I had plenty of opportunity to do that because the traffic was an absolute nightmare; we sometimes sat going nowhere for an hour at a time. The only upsides were that the people were absolutely charming and food was unbelievably delicious”.
Suddenly, by getting him to think how he relates the situation to his family rather than to a procurement committee we had the building blocks for some storytelling. We had local colour and indications of inside knowledge. We also the potential for a central plank for the presentation – a striking image that would be memorable and maybe even sum up the whole situation. At the moment, though, it was just a snapshot stuck on the guy’s phone as an excuse for why he had appeared to be ignoring his family.
“Show me one of those pictures”, I said. As he reached for his phone a smile was beginning to spread across his face. What we then christened the ‘Mad Telegraph Pole’ had more wires coming, going, criss-crossing and hanging loose than you could even begin to count. Then, to my delight, he reached his own conclusion: “actually, this would be a good way of explaining why I have asked for so much in the infrastructure budget”. Bingo! To my even greater delight, the man who just a few minutes earlier had been declaring the process a ‘necessary evil’ said: “I’m quite looking forward to doing this presentation again”.
We hear a lot about the need for storytelling, but few go on to explain what to actually do about it. As I have said before, it is often the apparently trivial things that can provide invaluable material. Here’s another tip: Forget for a moment the people you are planning to address; how do you talk about it to your loved ones?