Steven Spielberg's 1975 film "Jaws" has been credited with creating the concept of the modern Summer Blockbuster as a public phenomenon. But more than that, it is a study in how to create and deliver on expectations. Let's examine two key aspects that worked hand in hand.
A few years ago, Buddy Scalera and Joseph Kalinowski at the Content Marketing Institute performed a deep-dive analysis of the iconic movie poster for Jaws. They correctly attribute the popular artwork to Roger Kastel, but got the origin wrong… The artwork used on the poster was created for the paperback version of the book, which had already spent many weeks on the bestseller lists. But that detail is not important to our discussion, because the analysis applies to the book as well as it applies to the movie.
The CMI analysis nicely showcases how the illustration and layout sets up an implicit expectation for the potential audience. Their quick summary of contextual train of thought perfectly captures what I would have come up with as a 14-year old boy:
I want to go see a movie where the giant open JAWS of a shark are rising up through the water to devour a naked lady! Cool! Sexy! Scary!
I now have a very clear expectation of the value proposition and "hook" that stimulates my interest in the offered work.
Both Benchley's book and Spielberg's film include back story on the family relationship of the chief of police. They discuss what brought him to the island and the political BS he has to put up with. Both the book and the movie also discuss shark behavior and facts about their history and habits. But both works are smart enough not to lead with that background information. The first thing that happens in the book is the first thing that happens in the movie… A naked lady goes swimming and is savagely attacked by the brutal jaws of a shark.
As a viewer or reader, I am thrilled by the action. But more than that, I feel a great sense of satisfaction. All is somehow right. I was promised a specific deliverable and I received it immediately. I got what I came for. The creators have generated a wave of goodwill that lets them slow down and fill in some of the details I'll need in order to truly appreciate the full story they want to tell.
I hope the parallels are obvious for presentations. First you need to establish a very specific value proposition - a promise of a deliverable that your audience wants. That deliverable goes into your promotional copy, into your display ads, and into the reminder emails you send to registrants. You relentlessly build anticipation for something cool, something they appreciate.
Then you make that the FIRST thing you deliver in your presentation. You don't gradually build up to the promised information or demonstration. You satisfy the expectation you have created… FAST. After that, you can step back and fill in additional background, facts, and details to let the audience appreciate "the rest of the story."
Most presentations fail the Jaws test. Presenters feel more comfortable establishing a baseline and working their way gradually to the main point they want to make. Many people worry that once they have presented the big conclusion there is no reason for the audience to pay attention anymore. In actuality, satisfying expectations and making the primary point first builds a sense of trust and empathy with attendees. They are in a much better position to understand WHY you are giving them the rest of the supporting information and background. And they aren't distracted by a sense of unfulfilled anticipation.
By the way (and this is the background information that is supplementary to the main point I promised and delivered on), figuring out how to establish the right hook and build the right expectation can be as hard as creating the rest of the presentation! Benchley estimates that he and his editor went through about 125 ideas for a title. The first book jacket cover design featured the town of Amity framed inside a giant open shark mouth. That was scrapped before publication and the released version featured the same concept of the shark rising to meet the swimming girl, but without the exaggerated exposed teeth.
Why don't these create the same expectation in the audience's mind as the later iconic artwork? The scrapped version offers no promise of action. The jaws look like a fossilized display mounted in a museum, or some kind of strange picture frame. Showing a bucolic seaside town has no implied threat. The rising shark was obviously a better choice, but the decision to hide the shark's eyes and teeth make it less of a threat. The final artwork adds motion bubbles to give a sense of direct movement towards the girl. It also adds the separating line between air and water to make the "menace from the unseen depths" more evident.
The takeaway for your promotional materials is to work at making the key promised deliverable more visceral, more immediately relatable and impactful to your audience's triggers. Don't emphasize the town, emphasize the shark. And make sure your shark has teeth!