Make me care

Written by Martin Sykes on 1 June 2013 in Features

Presenters need to focus their content on issues their audiences care about, says Martin Sykes

I recently attended a three-day conference at which dozens of presentations were trying to influence hundreds of people to change the way they work. Some sessions had a lot of evidence, others had plenty of analysis and recommendations, but, as I sat through the sessions, I became more and more depressed.

With a combined audience of a thousand people, and an opportunity to drive major improvements, we were assaulted with bullet points and clipart that drove most attendees to their inboxes to handle life's daily details, instead of understanding the changes being proposed. I have a simple philosophy: if you're going to put in the effort to prepare and deliver a presentation, and others are prepared to spend the time listening to it, it should make a difference. But as I talked to other attendees about their recollection of the sessions they had attended, it was clear that, 24 hours after the event, most could not remember what the key message had been.

You might be excused for forgetting some of the details - but not the key message.

So what was wrong? In many cases the presenter had made two common, related mistakes:

  • including content that was irrelevant to the audience
  • failing to make the message specific to the audience.

Make your content relevant and specific

"One of the worst things about knowing a lot, or having access to a lot of information, is that we're tempted to share it all."

Chip and Dan Heath Made to Stick

All the presentations had been created and delivered by experts who believed that, to get the message, the audience needed to be thoroughly educated on the material. Unfortunately, many experts forget that the audience has a limited ability to consume information, and members rarely need to become experts themselves to understand the issues and the actions the presenters are asking them to take.

Whether it's words, a graphic element, or use of a colour or a shape, it's generally true that what you include in your presentations is just as important as what you don't include. Too much information can muddy the message.

The number one mistake in presentations has nothing to do with bullet points or reading from the slides, and has everything to do with the message being too abstract. Many of the presentations were strong on concepts and recommendations but did not provide any evidence or content that the audience could personally relate to. When the audience can relate the content to its own experience, it becomes engaged. It's simply more interesting than generalisations.

I was recently training a class on the use of storytelling and visual design techniques to improve their presentations. Every attendee had been asked to develop a presentation to convince an audience to support a major change in their business, built around a dataset they had received beforehand to explain the business issue.

Some presenters helped the audience to understand the data with a table or graphic that clearly explained the facts - one had spent many hours on a beautiful layout - but when they reviewed each other's presentations, they began to realise that they all had failed on one key aspect. Every presentation was answering the question what is that? with a factual answer when, instead, they really should have been answering the question why should I care about that?

Tell the right story

The goal of most presentations is to persuade the audience to do something. Data can convince members of the argument, but still they walk away and do not act. Persuasion comes when they are convinced and care enough to act. Persuasion is based on emotions, personal fears and imagination. One presentation in my class included a slide titled "Why this matters to you". It cut through the data to make one key point that made the argument personal and specific to the target audience.

Back to the conference where this article started, keynote presenter Alison Levine got it right. In 2010 she joined an elite group of 30 people around the world who can claim to have climbed the highest peak on every continent (including Antarctica) and skied to both Poles. In her presentation, we heard about the way she formed a team to climb Mt Everest, failed, then returned to try again. This was one long adventure, delivered as a series of short stories to make key points about leading teams to achieve difficult goals.

When I looked around the room, containing all 1,000 attendees, some had indeed opened their laptops or taken their phones out to check emails. But this time they were just draining their batteries as everyone sat and listened to the presentation, leaving their keyboards untouched.

Levine had great visuals of the team during their adventure on Everest. She also had slides with words to reinforce the key messages and physical props for some stories. What these had in common was clear continuity through the presentation, and a complete relevance to it. Each picture was a clear part of the story of a specific incident that was then followed by the lesson that she wanted to bring to the audience.

It didn't matter that no one else in the room had experience of climbing Mt Everest; the examples she used were about building teams, gaining support and overcoming challenges - all activities that everyone could relate to.

Use specifics to make your point

Levine demonstrated a number of great techniques in her presentation. The most effective was the use of short, specific examples to illustrate key points.

You can do the same. Start with a specific experience you can tell as a short story that your audience can relate to. Build out a generic point you want to make from the specific situation, then give your audience a recommendation based on this point. Then repeat the process, or stop.

You don't need to climb mountains to have stories your audience wants to hear. In another great session, a presenter simply started interacting with the audience and asked members to recount difficult conversations they had experienced with customers and the lessons they had learned. Everyone has personal stories and experiences - you just need to put in a little extra effort to use them to make a difference in your presentations.

Stories are one of the best methods of incorporating emotion and personal interests in a format that the audience can relate to directly. If you recall emotion and personal connection, this moves the audience from being convinced to being persuaded.

Creating your story

There are many different ways to develop stories but the one I used in the classroom is called CAST, which has been created to bring together techniques from many different disciplines to help presenters reimagine their core content into a visual story that the audience will care about. This works particularly well when the presentation is about making a change and we are in a position to describe what that change may involve.

"Organising is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it' s not all mixed up."

Christopher Robin, in A A Milne'sWinnie the Pooh

CAST refers to four different dimensions that should be considered when developing presentations: a focus on the content that filters out all irrelevant details; an understanding of how the audience will react to the content; a defined structure and characterisation in the story that imparts a sense of urgency, and a visual design that clearly integrates the message in order to lead directly to the conclusion.

The first part of CAST is about focusing the content on just what the audience needs to understand: breaking it down into the why, what, how, and what if, then ensuring this all links together coherently. The aim is to minimise any content in the story not tied directly to the outcome you want, and why the audience should care about it.

In the classroom, each presenter now started to analyse the content from their presentation and break it down into three different groups: why, what and how. Content in the 'why' category ranged from the economic situation to management decisions, but each had to be clearly identified as having relevance to the audience. Content that is categorised as 'what' described what should change, including people, processes, culture or buildings, and typically started with the situation today. The third content group described 'how' the change will happen, and this is the important part for the story because the 'why' and 'what' really only set the scene. Good stories are based on action and the 'how' is where the action happens.

Cui bono

When translated from the Latin into English, cui bono means 'for whose benefit'. At the conference, many of the presenters had included content because it mattered to their personal agendas, not to the issues for the audience. Often I find I am advising on how to improve a presentation only to realise the author is focused on what he wants to say and not why the audience will want to listen.

Start the planning for every presentation with a clear insight into what the audience can take from it to help members achieve their own goals. Begin with the belief that no one cares about your message and structure your story to make them care. When your audience cares about the conversation, you can go one step further and influence it to make a decision, for something its members want.

The second part of CAST is about how the different members of the audience relate to each other, how they make decisions and what decision-making and learning styles might be most appropriate for communicating the message to them in the right way.

If you've identified clearly what your audience wants, the next step is to remove even more of the content you thought you might deliver that is not directly relevant to its need for education or to make the decision. This is painful but necessary. Now, how will you ensure the audience pays attention to what remains? The evidence is clear - people remember stories and are influenced by them. If your audience cannot remember your content, how will it act on it?

Crafting the story

The third part of CAST is where you start to create the story, developing the right structure and characterisation that you need to deliver the content. You need to link that story to a sense of urgency for the audience to understand why it should act on your message now.

As the class found, it can be difficult to build one long story to flow through a presentation but there is another way that works just as well - as Levine had used at the conference. Each 'how' is told as a short story that first describes a specific experience, then this is generalised to develop a message that can relate to the current situation and, finally, a key point is made to take the overall story one step forward.

Stories that just keep moving forward and are very positive are fundamentally not that interesting. People remember stories with twists and situations to be resolved. Perhaps there is an early milestone where the overall story takes a sudden turn and the audience realises there are problems it had not yet identified but, if they are not dealt with, the whole idea will fail.

Later the audience realises that it is at the point where one final effort will make all the difference, but that the effort will require a strong personal commitment. If it has been agreeing to the direction throughout the story, it will want to remain consistent with its previous decisions and make that effort.

Often the short story will also include a reminder for the audience of the key reason why it should be acting on the message. The last short story will bring the presentation to a close, but it is also leaving the audience with a sense that it has taken the journey with the presenter and now is ready to take on the challenge that has been described.

There's much more that we covered in three hours of looking at story structure, using metaphors and how to tell stories, but this one technique of mapping the why, what and how was identified as the most significant contributor to the restructuring and reimagining of a presentation's content. Everyone in the workshop now had a structure for telling a story. Each one of them used what they knew about the customer's current issues to develop a compelling sense of urgency, and use the mapping of why, what and how to develop the structure for delivery.

Back to the presentation

The last part of CAST uses visual design techniques to help you create your content in the right format for the situation. When asked to do a presentation, many people assume they need to create a presentation deck and then they plan to deliver it just once - but the reality is that some people in your audience need to listen to the story multiple times or in different formats, so you need a plan to communicate effectively and then design each part to integrate into the overall message. Some presentations do need a set of slides, others could be more effective if delivered interactively with a whiteboard, some with good handouts and some might simply be a great personal story.

The surprise for many in the classroom was that this was the first time we really returned to creating the presentation slides but with a much more focused story, based on content the audience would care about. They all agreed that it was a lot easier to create a compelling presentation from this position than from their original starting point.

The final advice I gave to the class was to avoid ending the presentation with a 'key points' list. If you have a template with a last slide to list the messages the audience should take away, delete it. If you need this to be sure your audience has the message, the content of your story is probably not good enough. Finish instead with a reminder of why the audience cares about your message and why now is the time to act.

If the audience does not care, it will not act on your message.

About the author

Martin Sykes is a coach in Microsoft's enterprise strategy team and one of the authors of Stories That Move Mountains (Wiley). He can be contacted at

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