What’s Your (Audience’s) Problem?

If you don’t know your audience’s problem, you’ve got a big problem. Because without a problem, your PowerPoint has no pivot point, and its center cannot hold.

Here’s a case in point. George had done a great job of creating a series of 10 clean slides, featuring a very clear headline that summarized the main idea of each slide, a solid 3-act story structure, and an interesting visual to illustrate each idea. He had placed all explanatory text in the Notes area below the slides, giving the slide area breathing room and making sure that when he printed out Notes Pages, he would have a very meaningul handout. A job well done. Except. There was something missing at the very beginning — the thing that that would either focus everyone’s attention, or leave it scattered and confused.

I could see what was missing from George’s PowerPoint, because I was missing the same thing at a recent workshop. I had worked hard to create a very good presentation, but the results fell short of my audience’s expectations, and mine. What had happened that unraveled all my presentation preparation? I had a chance to figure it out later that day when I gave the same workshop to a different group. Although I used all the same materials, I simply adjusted a few words at the beginning, and the rest of the session was a hit. I had found that the difference between results and regrets all came down to a simple problem.

Peter Drucker is one of the most original thinkers I’ve come across, and for him to call a book "a first-class and highly original, but also highly practical, treatise both on how one thinks and how one presents thinking," there was no question I needed to read Moving Mountains, by Henry Boettinger. Sadly, the book is out of print, but happily, I was able to get a used copy and in it I found some of the most insightful thinking about presentation problems. According to Henry:

“Think of some problems you know of right now: personal, family, career, business, community, national, or global. What do they all have in common? One thing, at least. All problems consist of a mismatch between two things: what actually exists, and what we want to exist (in our desires and imagination). Since we also perceive events taking place in a stream of time, a problem’s solution must be in the future. Some time, short or infinite, separates the present set of unsatisfactory circumstances from those we want to replace them with. These two aspects, mismatch between two conceptions, and their separation in time, furnish the clue to why other human minds can become interested when a problem is stated explicitly, and why they founder if they have to guess at what the problem is.”

In other words, when you set up the core problem of every PowerPoint as a mismatch between a current state and a future state, your ideas become the pivot point that spins the powerful engine of your presentation forward.

Let’s apply this idea to George’s PowerPoint. The topic was about motivating people who provide support to customers — an issue that’s important to every business. The core problem boiled down to a matter of beliefs, results and actions. The current state was that everyone in the company had the belief that it was important to treat their customers well. However, the company had not been achieving the future state it desired — results. The fundamental mismatch here was between the things people believed today, and the improved results they wanted in the future. George proposed that it was specific actions that would bridge the gap between belief and results, and his presentation promised to take his audience there, if they were willing to come along for the adventure. I knew I was.

I drafted up an animated slide for George to try out, consisting of three boxes. beliefsAs the word "beliefs" appeared on screen on the left, George could ask: "What do we believe about customers?" He would listen, repeat back responses, and confirm: "We’re in agreement here that we all believe we need to treat customers well." Then the word "results" fades in at the right side of the slide, and he would say: "But how are we doing with our results?" He would listen, repeat back responses, and confirm: "We can also agree that we’re not doing as well as we’d like, and that we have, in fact, a big gap between what we believe and what we want to achieve. What will it take to bridge that gap?" Then the word "actions" appears between the "beliefs" and "results". "Ladies and gentlemen, nothing less than the right actions will bridge that gap! And that’s what we’re going to explore today — the course of actions we need to take in order to transform our beliefs into results."

Get the picture? Seeing and defining the problem-statement is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but when you get it right, your entire PowerPoint will pivot around the powerful energy that a centered problem can provide.

Tip: You can use PowerPoint as a tool to solve your (audience) problems. A very simple graphic can have a powerful effect and help you cut to the graphical chase — right-click to download the above example here, and take a look at how it’s built. Think about your next presentation — can you distill down your audience’s core problem into struggle between a current state, a future state, and how you will close the gap? Write a word representing the problem at left, a word for the future state at right, and a word for the bridge between them. As in the example slide, animate each word to fade in as you ask questions of your audience, and guide your talk in response. When you’ve solved the problem of your problem, don’t be surprised if your presentation holds tightly together and your ideas start to spin into clear meaning and productive engagement.

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3 Responses to “What’s Your (Audience’s) Problem?”

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