Tag Archives: presentation

The Discovery Channel Test

Presentations can be boring. Talking about your work can be boring (to other people). When you’re sitting in a talk or a session that you find boring (and you can’t figure out WIIFM – what’s in it for me)… you learn less.

Although we shouldn’t have to use clickbait techniques to satisfy societally decreasing attention spans, it is easier to learn and retain information when it’s interesting. So I encourage all of you to apply the “Discovery Channel Test” to every presentation, talk, or session you contribute to or lead.

The reason I call it the “Discovery Channel Test” is that there used to be a program called City Confidential that was on all the time. Even though City Confidential was a show about murder mysteries, the first half of the one-hour show was about the city or region where the crime occurred. They talked about when the town was first settled, and key families who made the town what it is today. You heard about stories of intrigue, and challenges the town was facing today. They made the story about the town itself so captivating that EVERY SINGLE TIME I was caught off guard when they ended the first half-hour segment with “You’d never believe a murder could happen here.” Through the hundreds of times I watched this show, I was always shocked when this point came. “Oh, yeah… this is where that murder mystery happened, and we’re about to find out about it.”

Any production crew that can spend a half hour off-topic, keep me interested, and give me a dopamine burst right before the main point of the show… has achieved something great. And you, too, can achieve this same greatness when you’re talking about your tech stack or a new architectural initiative or that project you did last year that improved customer sat. Make it interesting by applying….

The Discovery Channel Test (* = could also be called The Good Podcast Test)

Rule 1: Use an emotional hook up front. Why should any of the people in your audience not leave after the first five minutes? Don’t make them guess! Tell them specifically why this topic might be interesting, or surprise them with an initial feeling of novelty or unexpectedness. Jonathan Lipnicki’s character in Jerry Maguire (1996) was great at this, with his “did you know?” questions. The dopamine surge you create with an emotional hook will keep them engaged for long enough to get hooked on your story.

Rule 2: Find the wow nugget(s). This is one of the things the Discovery Channel has always been really good at: getting me interested in things that I didn’t think were interesting to me. Remember that your projects and initiatives, no matter how cool they are to you, will be boring to other people unless you TRY to make them interesting. I try to tell my high schooler that even in the most boring classes you should be able to find some nugget, some angle, some insight that helps you see the subject matter in a way that grabs you. Find that angle for your audience, and then spoon feed it to them.

Rule 3: Use examples, screen shots, visuals, diagrams. If your presentations are full of slides with words, people will start yawning immediately and may or may not actually hear those words. You can also reduce ambiguity with examples and screen shots. For example, saying “we used Python for this project” is far less compelling than showing the tree structure of the code (or a simplified diagram) and annotating it with what each piece did to get the overall job done. Saying “we used Confluence” is less compelling than saying “we set up a confluence site at [this location] and agreed to put [this kind of information in there]” because if someone has a need for [that information] – at least they know a first place they can look for it.

Rule 4: Spoon feed the closing thoughts. At the very end, remind people what you want them to remember when they leave. Remind people why that’s interesting, and how it might benefit them in the future. Make it concrete and tangible. For example, can you give them reference material, or an infographic, or a checklist that they can use in the future? Don’t assume that people will get something out of your presentation just by attending… spoon feed what you WANT them to get out of it.

How to Give a High Quality Presentation

I’m out in Colorado this week working with the NEON cyberinfrastructure team to put together presentation material for a big review meeting they’re having in June. It’s a challenging project, chock full of interesting and complex envisioned science experiments, elaborate engineering to design, construct and collect data from sensors scattered all over the country (and even airplanes), and the need for a high-performance interconnected software and hardware architecture to keep it together and maintain the data flow.

In short, it’s a hugely complex project – and for these presentations in June, we may only have an hour to condense all that technical information down into something understandable, well-organized, and compelling. How do we do it?

The answer: using effective storytelling. Quite randomly and serendipitously, I ran into a blog post by Chris Spagnuolo this morning (Twitter: @ChrisSpagnuolo) called “12 Things I learned from Story Time”. Apparently he went to the library recently with his 3 year old, and while listening to the story and observing the behavior of the children and the storyteller, extracted lessons for professional presentations. (I have a 3 year old too, so this post really connected with me!) Here’s a snippet of his insight into how to give a high quality presentation:

Ah, the expert mind…it always convinces us that we can’t learn from “simple” experiences. But after it was over, and I reflected a bit on Story Time, I realized that there were valuable lessons to take away from it that we can all use in our presentations. Believe it or not, librarians and others who read to children at Story Time may be some of the best presenters in the world, and we’ll never see them on TED or hear much about them (plus they have some of the toughest audiences in the world). If you really want to get your presentation game on, maybe you should start reading books to the itty-bitties at your local library.

I’ll encourage you to click through to read the 12 lessons. The suggestions complement Stephen Denning’s insights into storytelling as a leadership tool as well. Thanks for sharing, Chris.