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.

Anthology Product Marketing

I’m a storyteller. I realize this based on the fact that I tell them a lot. I’ve been told by a lot of people that I tell stories all the time. I’m okay with this. And a lot of the time I’m totally good at it. But one of the side effects of being someone that enjoys telling stories is that you recognize them in others and you start critiquing.

One of the more recent trends I’ve seen in product marketing revolves around stories. We’ve seen people telling all kinds of narratives about how disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s important because it frames the discussion for everyone. But I’ve also noticed some companies focus less on the framing story and more on the pieces. And it made me realize that’s a different kind of story.

Pieces and Parts

Merriam-Webster defines an anthology as a collection of selected literary pieces or passages or works of art or music. When I think of an anthology movie or video series, I think of a collection of disconnected stories around a framing device. Sometimes that device is as tenuous as a shared narrator, such as the Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. That these series have been made into movies shows how well the format can be adapted to longer media.

Whereas a typical drama has a beginning, middle, and end that follows the same characters throughout the whole runtime, anthologies tend to have segments that focus on a specific piece that’s not necessarily connected to the rest. It doesn’t have to be connected because it’s a self-contained piece. The only connection to the rest of the story is the framing device.

If you’re brain is already working on how to extend this to technology, you’ve probably already equated the framing device to the usual “positioning statement” that’s given at the beginning of a presentation. Here’s the strategy or the vision for how we want to change the world. The individual pieces that the company makes are the parts of the anthology. They are the singular stories that tell the bigger narrative. Or at least they’re supposed to.

In the case of the Twilight Zone, there is no connection aside from Rod Serling telling us about the story. It’s like he’s reading them out of different books. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Pulp Fiction. This is probably the most beloved Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s a tightly-integrated anthology. All three stories are interwoven with each other. Even though they are three separate narratives they share the same characters and setting. Characters from the first story appear in the second and third. It feels like a real connected narrative.

The difference between Pulp Fiction and the Twilight Zone is pretty apparent. So too does the difference between companies that have tightly integrated the story for their individual pieces versus a company that has just put someone in front of the parts to tell you how it should all work together.

Discussion in the Details

When you’re deciding how to tell your product marketing story, ask yourself every once in a while “How does this tie into the big picture?” If it takes you more than ten seconds to answer that question yourself you’re on the road to an anthology series and not a cohesive story. Always refer back to the original statement. Frame your discussion along the lines of the basic premise of your story.

Think of it like writing paragraphs in middle school. Have a main idea and a couple of supporting details that refer back to the main idea. Always make sure you’re referring back to the main idea. If you don’t you need to evaluate what you’re trying to say. If you want a cohesive discussion you have to see the thread that ties everything together.

That’s not to say that every product marketing story needs to be tightly integrated and cohesive across everything. In fact, trying to tie some random piece of technology into the bigger story with a random framing device can feel stilted and out of place. It has to make sense in the narrative. Claiming you have a cohesive strategy for cloud storage is great when you add in telemetry and SD-WAN support. But if you try to pivot to talking about 5G and how it supports your cloud storage you’re not going to be able to tie that into anything without it feeling out of place.

Go back to the basics. Ask yourself what the story is. Don’t try to focus on the pieces. Focus instead on what you want to tell. Some of the best anthologies work because they have different storytellers contributing to the overall piece. If you have a story from a single storytelling you get some exciting integration. But if you have different ideas and visions working together you can come up with some really interesting discussions. Don’t sell your people’s ideas short. Just give them the direction they need to make it work.


Tom’s Take

Before anyone starts filling in the blanks about who the company in question might be, the answer is “all of them”. At some point or another, almost every company I’ve ever seen has failed at telling a good story about their technology. I don’t fault them for it. Marketing is hard. Making deep tech work for normal people is hard to do. I’m not trying to single any one company out. Instead, what I’m saying is that everyone needs to do a better job of telling the story. Focus on what you want to say. Figure out how to make your vision sound more like Infinity War and less like Twilight Zone. The more integrated your message, the less likely people are to focus on the parts they like the best to the detriment of the rest of the story.