How to make better presentations making use of the two systems of the cognitive processes.

A group of former entrepreneurship students told me recently that one of the main impacts of the course was in the way they have done their presentations afterwards. This made me think that it might be useful to share some of the ideas we introduce to the students.

One of the most difficult tasks for an entrepreneur is the presentation of her business idea to a panel of investors. It is usually an unequal confrontation because investors spend much of their time watching these kinds of presentations and losing an investment opportunity will not be the end of their career. For the entrepreneur, on the contrary, the presentation is the culmination of many months or years of work in identifying a problem, talking to potential clients and partners, developing and testing both the prototype and the business model, and all that effort can have been in vain if she fails to attract the interest of investors. For this reason, we spend a lot of time in entrepreneurship courses preparing and training the final presentation. This has evolved in such a way that examples of initial presentations of successful companies like LinkedIn, YouTube, Mint, Buffer or Square are now being used to show students what not to do.

The most important thing

The first idea is that the presenter is more important than his presentation. An investor always gives more value to the team than to the project and the entrepreneur can not afford to not be the center of attention. This idea applies to any presentation, where the most important thing must be our presence. In order to have that focus we need to look at the audience rather than the slides and convey more information than what is written there. What is in the slides is an illustration of what is being said and not the other way around. Despite the importance of the presenter and his team, it is increasingly more common not to present them in the beginning of the presentation. Let’s see why.

From emotion to rationality

The second idea is to start the presentation by giving the priority to emotion. The first few seconds are decisive in engaging the audience, and at that time we must assume that their brain is functioning in “System 1”. This fast, instinctive, and emotional mode of functioning is presented in the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman as opposed to the slower, more analytical and rational “System 2”. This is not the time to present complex numbers or reasoning, nor to summarize what we are going to say next. The presentation of the team at this time will not remain in the audience’s memory and it will wast the few seconds we have to capture their attention.

A conflict

The third idea is to expose a conflict that will help us to make the message more clear. The protagonist, or hero, who may be a person, an idea or a concept that we think is good, faces one or more antagonists that represent what opposes us or something that we want to change. For example, the protagonist may be a new result or a new solution to a problem and the antagonists are the existing solutions or previous results. The division between good and bad, the basis of the plot of many stories, can help us bring to the audience to our side.

The three act narrative

The film industry is a testament to the importance of how a story is told. There are films produced with reduced means that catch the public’s interest while others with exceptional means can not do it. The narrative structure is almost always based on principles that have been known since the Greek playwrights. In the book “Beyond Bullet Points”, Cliff Atkinson suggests precisely that the presentation narrative should be divided into the three acts of Greek tragedy: setting, confrontation and resolution. As in a film, the presentation must begin by offering us the setting in which the action will take place, as well as the protagonist and the antagonists . The next act must have a growing tension where, for example, the problem that we are trying to solve is becoming increasingly important. When the tension reaches its climax it is time to present our solution or idea. In the cinematographic plot, the climax corresponds to the final fight where the hero defeats the villain. The last act, the resolution, is the moment to present the details and the fundamentals of the solution. At this stage the interest in the narrative has already led the audience to activate “System 2” in their brain, becoming available for a more analytical reasoning. It is time to present the economic benefits or results of experiences that demonstrate the benefits of what we are proposing. It is also the time to present costs, capital requirements and other details.

Grand finale

The end of the presentation is usually the main memory that the audience takes home. It must, therefore, be designed in a way that makes the message memorable without conflicting with what has been said previously. Here it will be important to convey to the audience active phrases and calls to action.

One way to improve your presentations is to study reference presentations: the TED Talk on Ken Robinson’s Education 2006, Steve Jobs’s 2007 iPhone launch, Jaime Jorge’s pitch on WebSummit 2014, Al’s speech Gore on WebSummit 2017, etc. I hope these five ideas can also help.

Luís Caldas de Oliveira, @LuisCaldasO

Adapted from my article in Jornal i, January 23rd, 2018