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Smart Presentations: Ban "Safe" Presentations

It's time to go out on a ledge and risk it all to make a lasting impression.

There's a great post on the Creating Passionate Users blog about the Zone of Mediocrity that threatens all creative efforts (which includes presentations). Author Kathy Sierra really nailed it:

"Today, it is often far more risky to create something ‘safe’ than to take a big frickin’ chance on something deeply provocative, dangerously innovative, or just plain weird."

"Today, the more you try to prevent failure, the more likely you are to fail."

"Safe will keep you safely out of the spotlight."

And "out of the spotlight" is where you DON'T want to be once your presentation is over and you walk out of the room. Instead, you want your audience to be so psyched about what they've heard—about what they've experienced—that they keep talking about it long after you've gone.

How do you achieve that? Not merely with snazzy graphics or fancy animations. If the most memorable thing about your presentation is how it looks, why even bother presenting? You might as well just e-mail them the slides. Form without substance is like shelling out $120 for a ticket to a Broadway show and then walking out saying, "Well, the scenery was interesting…"

But most presenters don't have to worry about that. Most don’t get that far. Most achieve the Zone of Mediocrity because of their content, and the delivery that accompanies it.

Why do people do "safe" presentations?

• They're easier to create
• They're faster to create
• They're easier to deliver
• They aren't likely to get you fired
• They're the "approved" script
• That's how we've always done presentations
• You won't forget what you want to say

And what do safe presentations look like? Lots of bullets, lots of text, lists of features, really complicated graphics, and—often—a presenter reading off the text of the slides.

Audiences see these every day, and such presentations blur into one gray, murky mass. When the audience next encounters a presentation that leads with the name of the product or focuses first on the background of the presenter’s company, then the Zone of Mediocrity adds another presentation to its depths.

Get Out of the Zone

So how do you avoid the Zone of Mediocrity? How do you move away from safe presentations into a realm where your presentations transform your content and energize your audience?

FIRST: a compelling message

SECOND: a simple, visceral presentation

THIRD: boldness

You'll find ideas on here and my blog, The YouBlog, that can help you with the first two items, so let’s look at the third one. We’ll start with a story…

I was working with a client, helping him redo his presentation. He'd made a great start in applying the You-Me Principle—there was a clear improvement from his original version to the new one. But when I looked at his presentation, something really powerful jumped out at me.

His company provides software that takes visual data analysis to very sophisticated levels and allows people to "see" things that are otherwise hidden to the eye. And the "Before … After' examples were knock-outs.

I created a version of his presentation that showed only these before and after pictures, and put all his text into the "Notes" sections of the various slides. It was the same presentation, but the effect was dramatically different.

His eyes widened when he saw it. He'd never given a presentation before that didn’t have text on the slides. But he understood the impact it would have on his audience and he embraced the challenge of giving this new, bold type of presentation.

Not everyone is going to magically see a brilliant "answer" just because they decide they’re going to be bold. Boldness more often comes in seeing a different way to do something—a way not tried before (as in the example above) or a different kind of approach—and then having the resolve to DO IT.

How about you?

How can you elevate your presentation efforts?

Can you do your presentation with little-to-no text?
Try it.

Can you do your presentation without using slides at all? Try it.

Can you treat your presentation as a conversation, rather than a monolog? Try it.

There are risks, of course—a risk that it won't work; a risk that your boss won't agree with your approach; a risk that [fill in the blank]. But who is the presentation really for? For your boss? For you? Or are you doing it to try to influence and motivate your audience?

Presuming the latter, and presuming you've got a really compelling idea for them about how your products or services or ideas can positively affect their business, then the riskiest way to go (in terms of your ultimate success) is to play it safe. The least risky way is to fill their heads with images and ideas about how they can achieve their goals.

So be bold in your ideas, be bold in your delivery and you're sure to see bold new results.

John Windsor, an online columnist for Sales & Marketing Management, is President of Creating Thunder, a Boulder, Colo.-based communications training and consulting company. As author of the popular YouBlog, John offers a unique mix of innovation, communications, sales and marketing ideas. An award-winning marketer, John has held vice president positions in marketing, sales, and business development and has worked with companies like American Express, Reuters, Staples, and Knight-Ridder.