A Recipe for Presentation Success


When I was a kid, I loved to help my mother bake. My absolute favorite thing to make was a pecan pie. I made sure I was always the one that got to do the work to fix it during the holidays. When I was first starting out I made sure I followed the recipe to the letter. I mixed everything in the order that it was listed. One of the first times I made the pie I melted the butter and poured it into the mixture which also had an egg. To my horror I saw the egg starting to cook and scramble in the bowl due to the hot butter. When I asked my mom she chuckled and said, “Now you get to learn about why the recipe isn’t always right.”

Throughout my career in IT and in presentations, I’ve also had to learn about why even if the recipe for success is written down properly there are other things you need to take into account before you put everything together. Just like tempering a mixture or properly creaming butter and sugar together, you may find that you need to do some things in a different order to make it all work correctly.

Step by Out of Step

As above, sometimes you need to know how things are going to interact so you do them in the right order. If you pour hot liquid on eggs you’re going to cook them. If you do a demo of your product without providing context for what’s happening you’re likely going to lose your audience. You need to set things up in the proper order for it all to make sense.

Likewise if you spend all your time talking about a problem that needs to be solved without telling your listeners that you solve the problem you’re going to have them focused on what’s wrong, not on how you fix it. Do you want them thinking about how you get a flat tire when you run over a nail? Or do you want them to buy your tires that don’t go flat when you run over sharp objects? It’s important to sell your product, not the problem.

It’s also important to know when to do those things out of order. Does your demo do something magical or amazing with a common issue? It might be more impactful to have your audience witness what happens before explaining how it works behind the scenes. It’s almost like a magician revealing their trick. Wow them with the result before you pull back the curtain to show them how it’s done.

The feel for how to do this varies from presentation to presentation. Are you talking to an audience that doesn’t understand the topic at all? You need to start with a lead-in or some other kind of level setting so no one gets lost. Are they experienced and understand the basics? You should be able to jump in at a higher level and show off a few things before going into detail. You have to understand whether or not you’re taking to a group of neophytes or a crowd of wizened veterans.

A counterpoint to this is the crowd of people that might be funding your project or startup. If they’re a person that gets pitched daily about “the problem” or they have a keen understanding of the market, what exactly are you educating them about when you open with a discussion of the issues? Are you telling them that you know what they are? Or are you just trying to set a hook? Might be worth explaining what you do first and then showing how you attack the problem directly.

Weaving a Story

The other thing that I see being an issue in presentations is the lack of a story. A recipe tells a story if you listen. Things have relationships. Liquids should be mixed together. Dry ingredients should be combined beforehand. Certain pieces should be put on last. If you put the frosting on a cake before you put it in the oven you’re going to be disappointed. It’s all part of the story that links the parts together.

Likewise, your presentation or lesson should flow. There should be a theme. It should make sense if you watch it. You can have individual pieces but if you tie it all together you’re going to have a better time of helping people understand it.

When I was growing up, TV shows didn’t tell longer stories. Episodes of the Addams Family or Gilligan’s Island stood alone. What happened in the first season didn’t matter in the next. Later, the idea of a narrative arc in a story started appearing. If you watch Babylon 5 today you’ll see how earlier episodes introduce things that matter later. Characters have growth and plot threads are tied up before being drawn out into new tapestries. It’s very much a job of weaving them all together.

When you present, do your sections have a flow? Do they make sense to be together? Or does it all feel like an anthology that was thrown together? Even anthologies have framing devices. Maybe you’re brining in two different groups that have different technologies that need to be covered. Rather than just throwing them out there you could create an overview of why they are important or how they work together. It’s rare that two things are completely unrelated, especially if you’re presenting them together.


Tom’s Take

If all you ever did was list out ingredients for recipes you’d be missing the important parts. They need to be combined in a certain order. Things need to go together properly. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes when you do it for the first time and you don’t understand the importance of certain things. But that learning process should help you put them together the way they need to be arranged. Take notes. Ask for feedback. And most importantly, know when it’s time to change the recipe to help you make it better the next time.

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