Virpi OinonenI was once approached by someone from a major technology firm with an interesting – and terrifying – question. He asked if I could do a 75 minute presentation at a technology conference in the US. After oohing and aahing for about a month I finally said yes.

I was worried about three things:

  1. 75 minutes is a looong time to keep people interested and engaged
  2. There would be over 200 other presenters in this 10 000 attendee conference – how will I stand out?
  3. I’ve never done public speaking and they told me there would be approximately 500 people attending my session… (a bit scary)

So I decided to do two things that I know from experience to work well together:

  • I built the presentation around a story – I know a story format will be more memorable than a lecture
  • I decided to use cartoons (lots of cartoons..) and turn it into an illustrated talk (so even if my talk would suck, at least the audience has something interesting to look at)

And guess what, the presentation went pretty well!

You can watch the entire talk here.

People came to me after the presentation and said it was the best presentation they had seen so far (and this was day three of the conference). A couple of people who reviewed the talks ranked my talk in the top five – including the head of research of a major technology research firm (for me a big compliment). People approached me after the conference to ask more questions and the video recording has been viewed almost 5000 times (I haven’t dared to watch it myself, though..).

How you can do the same

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a public speaking star to be able to do a memorable presentation that will get people talking about you, and your firm/product/initiative. If I can do it, you can do it.

Two key things for making your presentation stand out:

  • Tell a story. Even if everybody else would be following a lecture format. (We are neurologically hardwired to like, trust and learn from stories).
  • Use cartoons or other consistent and memorable visuals that add another dimension to your talk. I prefer cartoons because I can visualise abstract concepts as well as add a bit of humour.

How to build a story

The process of building a story is relatively simple (but that doesn’t mean it’s easy!)

  1. First, you have to determine the one idea that you want your audience to remember. This main idea will be at the heart of the conflict and the climax. Mine was: you can drive enterprise social from the bottom up if you recruit allies and think strategically.
  1. Find a story that has a conflict that is based on your key idea (if you don’t have a story, ask your colleagues, clients or crowdsource your social networks).

  2. Make sure the story has:

    -A beginning: Set the scene and introduce the Problem
    -A middle: Conflict (the Problem becomes a real issue)
    -An end: Conflict (Problem) gets solved (or alternatively you gain an insight)

  1. Use the story as a structure where you hang your insights, research evidence and anecdotes – it’s narrative glue for all the random bits and pieces of information you have in your head or notebook! For example: I talked about a declining participation rate in our enterprise social network, and then cited evidence from a research firm that this is actually really common. Then I continued my story.

Do not underestimate the time that goes into this phase. I spent quite a long time in an almost catatonic post-it note editing mode (my flatmate thought I was re-enacting a crime scene investigation in the hall). I got a long piece of paper and divided it into six sections (the basic structure of the talk) and then kept adding and removing ideas (anecdotes and evidence) until I was more or less happy with it. After that I started to think about the cartoons.

 Working on my talk for the Microsoft SharePoint conference

Remember: the art of storytelling is about delayed gratification

When you follow the storytelling format you hold people’s attention by NOT telling them everything right away. When you follow a lecture format you do the opposite: you tell them what you’re going to tell them (bullet points!) and then go through those bullet points in detail. It can feel counterintuitive to “withhold information” to increase anticipation when you are used to the lecture format. But believe me, storytelling is a much more effective format for delivering information.

Cartoons – the secret weapon in a presenter’s toolkit

Cartoons are deceptively simple, but pack a punch. The power of the cartoon is that it can explain something that is abstract (it can be difficult to take a photo of the concept return of investment, but it can be drawn). There is also something inherently unthreatening about a cartoon that helps to get the audience on your side. I like to think that they make you a bit more human and approachable in a way that slick graphics can’t. They also go well together with another powerful presentation element: admitting failure (nothing is more powerful than admitting that you failed – and then showing what you did to address the failure). A cartoon can add a lighter, humorous layer to the failure.

I had 40 cartoons in my presentation and very little text. The cartoons also acted as cues so I knew what I was going to say next. Some cartoons were simply variations of the same cartoon so it didn’t actually take that long to create them. I reused quite a few of my old cartoons about the same topic so I didn’t have to actually create too many new cartoons. (I’ve built my cartoon image bank over the last year or so, so I have where to choose from).

Keep the visuals consistent!

You’ve probably seen lots of presentations that have no visual consistency: photos, graphs, cartoons and other elements become a visual hotchpotch that makes your presentation look unprofessional. Try to find at least three good visuals that are consistent rather than try to find 20 poor graphics.

Tips: If you use photos you can make them look consistent by making them black and white (there are lots of free online tools that you can use, including this one). If you use cartoons you can use just one spot colour to add a bit of consistency (and align them more closely with your visual brand).

I created consistency by creating cartoons in the same style and by using one colour (blue) in both copy and the cartoons.

Where to find cartoons and other visuals

This can be tricky. You might find one cartoon or photo that you think is perfect, but try to find 20 good cartoons and photos that illustrate all your points – not so easy. If you want to create your presentation yourself here are couple of ideas to get you started:

  • If you talk about abstract ideas decide on a visual metaphor/theme (choose something concrete) and search for photos or illustrations that fit into this metaphor or theme. For example: building a house, seafaring, exploration, sports.

  • Stock photos can make your presentation look a bit generic and bland (or worse).

  • Want free pictures? You can search copyright free photos on Wikimedia commons and Flickr Creative Commons search and elsewhere that fit your theme (remember to search for concrete terms rather than concepts). This list of public domain photo resources might come in handy. For example a lot of US Government agencies have copyright free images that you are free to use in your presentation. You can get an idea what’s available courtesy of the US Government by using this handy search engine.

  • Hire a cartoonist/illustrator (cartoonists can usually come up with clever concepts as their job is to do the “think as well as the ink”. Look for people with a simple style (the more detailed an illustration the longer it takes to produce) and people who are used to drawing abstract concepts (We here at Business illustrator are obviously happy to help as this is our speciality).

Have you used a story structure and/or cartoons in your presentation? (Share a link!) How did it go?