The University of California at San Diego just released the results of “a study on spoilers.” The findings are surprising and counterintuitive. Readers were given any of three versions of a story. The versions either presented the story as written with the original surprise ending, or included a prefacing spoiler before the story started, or had a spoiler paragraph stuck in the middle as if it were a part of the work. The study tested ironic twist stories, mysteries, and straight literary works. In all three cases, readers preferred the “spoiled” version over the surprise version. Huh!
How does this relate to the world of business presentations?
The most common way to construct business presentations is to build them linearly. You start from background, add some facts, and then reach a conclusion as “the big reveal” at the end. The belief is that if you give away the conclusion at the beginning, there is no reason for people to stick around. You’ll lose their attention and probably their business.
But it turns out that your audience is not that shallow. You don’t need to surprise them to satisfy them. In most cases, you are better off establishing your main point right up front. Don’t start with “First the Earth cooled, then microorganisms emerged, then…” end up 60 minutes later with “Ecce homo! Modern man!” Instead try turning it around. “Modern man! The culmination of eons of evolution. How did we get here?” Now you have established your main thrust right up front. If an audience member gets an emergency call half way through the presentation and has to leave, they have still received the key message you wanted to convey.
In newspaper writing, this is known as The Inverted Pyramid. Start with the main point of the story. Then fill in supporting facts and background later. The news reporter does not start with the history of railroads in the U.S., the development of the automotive industry, and then in the last sentence work up to the fact that a train hit a car yesterday. That information is the lead (or lede in journalistic lingo).
Think about a prosecutor’s opening statement to a jury. The first thing he or she says is “This man is guilty. He committed a crime. You are going to hear the evidence over the next few days and when you do, there will be no doubt left in your mind that he needs to go to jail.” No prosecutor in his right mind would ever build up to a surprise ending that the defendant is… (gasp) GUILTY!
Don’t be afraid to tell your audience up front that your product or service solves a problem. Don’t be afraid to give away the results of your study in the first slide. A well-designed and well-delivered presentation will hold interest even without a surprise conclusion. According to UCSD, your audience is likely to prefer it that way.