"Think Different." The incredibly effective (and grammatically infuriating) late nineties marketing campaign for Apple is still studied as an example of how to differentiate a brand and make iconoclasm work for you.
People love pointing to non-conformist geniuses to show the power unleashed when you break away from conventional norms and boldly follow your own vision: Picasso and his cubist painting. Miles Davis and his cool jazz movement. Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and his nonviolent non-cooperation independence movement.
What many people miss in these stories is that to break away from tradition effectively, each of these people studied, practiced, and understood the traditional approaches first. Picasso didn't start out painting crazy flattened faces with both eyes on one side of the nose… He spent many years learning and practicing realistic painting techniques. Miles Davis studied music theory and trumpet technique at Juilliard. Gandhi studied law and jurisprudence in London.
What does that strange introduction have to do with this blog's focus on web presentations? Lately I have heard an uptick in people asking "How do I make my webinar stand out?" Often the subject is brought up by the technology vendors themselves. Web conferencing companies are always pushing for greater use of features. When they started coming out with interactive polling, every vendor said you need to incorporate polls in order to make your webinar great. When webcam video became practical, the vendors said you need to appear on webcam in order to stand out. There's currently a big push to include video clips from services such as YouTube or Vimeo as webinar content. If a vendor has another unique feature, you can bet they will tell you it is the thing that is going to let you "Think Different" and deliver a great presentation.
I'm not against the use of any of these features. Judiciously applied, they can indeed add flair to a presentation and recapture attention from an audience. But don't think that you can skip over a good, solid grounding in the basics of the art form. In our context, that refers to fundamental presentation skills.
- Structure content to address audience interests and priorities
- Practice your presentation, refine, and practice again
- Create supporting visuals that concisely emphasize and support key concepts
- Demonstrate interest, enthusiasm, and empathy
- Make sure listeners grasp the value they receive from your presentation
If you can't confidently and unambiguously say that you have these five fundamentals thoroughly in hand, adding a video or a poll will just be icing on a bland cake.
Once you understand how the science of presentation works and can deliver a conventional presentation competently and engagingly, you can move on to examining opportunities for alternative approaches. You can play with audience expectations and add specialized content.
If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at this wonderful comedic video by Pat Kelly satirizing the structure and delivery of an on-stage TED Talk:
Some would say that this demonstrates how formulaic and mundane TED Talks have become. I say that you could take every… single… word… of Mr. Kelly's stage instructions and apply them verbatim in your next presentation. You would receive a standing ovation and acclaim as an incredibly polished, confident, and effective speaker. Mr. Kelly has done the analysis for you and created a point by point guide to effective delivery.
Once you mastered this presentation style, you would be ready to branch out into Lawrence Lessig territory or maybe even try your hand at a Dick Hardt slideshow:
Don't be seduced by flashy features or unconventionality for its own sake. There are plenty of bad performance artists nobody cares about. If you are going to Think Different, make sure you know what you are being different than. And that you have a darned good reason for using the difference to be more effective. It can work. You can be the next Marlon Brando and change the face of acting forever. You'll just have to be sure there is a method to your madness.