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Presenting to Win: the Art of of Brainstorming

When preparing for a presentation, forget the left side of your brain and exhaust the right. This sample chapter shows you the steps necessary for a successful presentation, and it sings the praises of the skill of brainstorming in order to find focus.
This chapter is from the book

The Data Dump

As you've seen, a critical component of crafting a great presentation is that, first and foremost, you must get your story right. While a strong speaking voice, appropriate gestures, and skilled answers to challenging questions are important factors, none of them will yield a really powerful presentation unless your story is clear and leads your audience directly where you want them to go: your Point B.

Creating your presentation begins with the development of your story. Here is one of the first places where traditional methods of creating a presentation can go wrong.

Remember the MEGO syndrome? It strikes when Mine Eyes Glaze Over during a presentation that overflows with too many facts, all poured out without purpose, structure, or logic. When that happens, the presentation degenerates into a Data Dump: a shapeless outpouring of everything the presenter knows about the topic.

All too many businesspeople labor under the mistaken assumption that, for their audience to understand anything, they have to be told everything . . . to tell them the time, they have to be told how a clock is built. As a result, they give extensive presentations that amount to nothing more than Data Dumps: "Let's show them the statistics about the growth of the market. Then we've got the results of the last two customer satisfaction surveys. Throw in some excerpts from the press coverage we got after our product launch. Give them the highlights of our executive team's resumes. And don't forget the financial figures, the more the better." I call this the Frankenstein approach: assembling disparate body parts.

The audiences to these Data Dumps are hapless victims. But sometimes the victims rebel. "And your point is?" and "So what?" are the all-too-common anguished interruptions of audiences besieged and overwhelmed by torrents of excessive words and slides. Those interruptions, however, are made more out of self-protection than rudeness. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I hope that you'll never inflict a Data Dump on any of your audiences. But performing one is vital to the success of any presentation. The secret: The Data Dump must be part of your preparation, not the presentation. Do it backstage, not in the show itself. (The Greek word "obscene" originally described any theatrical action, such as a murder, that was kept off-stage, out of the scene, because it was improper to display such behavior in public. In this sense, you can regard a Data Dump as literally obscene.)

What you need instead is a proven system to incorporate a thorough Data Dump into the development of your story. Brainstorming is the ticket. It's a process that encourages free association, creativity, randomness, and openness while helping you consider all the information that may (or may not) belong in your presentation. Later on in the process, you can sort, select, eliminate, add, and organize these raw materials into a form that flows logically and compellingly from Point A to Point B. At the start, the key is not to apply logic to the materials, but simply to get them all out on the table where they can be examined, evaluated, and sorted. Do the distillation before the organization: Focus before Flow.

To understand this approach, it's important to consider the different processes and skills that go into the creative effort of developing a presentation. These are concepts I've drawn from my shared experiences with professional creative people in the media.

Left Brain versus Right Brain

Scientists have long been fascinated by the way in which different mental functions are centered in different areas of the human brain. Most of the higher brain activities occur in the cerebrum, which is divided into left and right hemispheres. According to most scientists, the left and right halves of the brain are responsible for different forms of reasoning. The left side controls logical functions. It's associated with structure, form, sequence, ranking, and order, and tends to operate in a linear, first-one-thing-and-then-the-next fashion. The right side controls creative functions. It's associated with concepts and is essentially nonlinear in its operations. The right brain bounces around among concepts, following connections that are impossible to explain logically.

Building a presentation is a creative process. That means starting with the right brain.

Here's the problem: Most presenters, when developing their stories, tend to apply a left-brain approach to what is really a right-brain process. They try to jump immediately to a logical, structured, linear end product, when their right brain is still caroming around in nonlinear mode.

Why? Because businesspeople are essentially results-oriented rather than process-oriented. Now, I'm sure that you, like most businesspeople, are quite process-oriented when it comes to critical matters such as long-term strategy, product design, or problem-solving; but these are all subjects for off-site meetings. Backstage!

When it comes to results-oriented tasks, like a presentation to a very important client with a deadline (on-stage), you want to get there in the shortest distance between two points. A time-consuming process might delay the result. If the process (left-brain ordering) is not effective (a Data Dump) while the right brain is doing what it's going to do anyway (free-associate concepts), you're going to have to traverse that seemingly short distance over and over and over again. You'll end up spinning your wheels.

The solution is timing. It's not a matter of more time; it's about the proper use of time. Get the sequence right: Let the right brain complete its stream-of-consciousness cycle before applying the left brain's structure. Focus before Flow.

A vivid illustration of the distinct difference between right and left brain functioning is spoken language. Speech reflects the way the right brain operates in its spontaneity, its grammatical and syntactical messiness, and in its frequent logical leaps.

Let me illustrate with an excerpt from the live presidential debate between then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore. The debate, in a town hall format, took place on October 17, 2000, and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer was the moderator. Each candidate was given a chance to respond separately to questions posed by ordinary citizens. Here is Governor Bush's response to the following question: "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?"

You're going to get tax relief under my plan. You're not going to be targeted in or targeted out. Everybody who pays taxes is going to get tax relief. If you take care of an elderly in your home, you're going to get the personal exemption increased.

I think also what you need to think about is not the immediate, but what about Medicare? You get a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options. Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is—is—is important, but it doesn't keep up with the new medicines. If you're a Medicare person, on Medicare, you don't get the new procedures. You're stuck in a time warp, in many ways. So it will be a modern Medicare system that trusts you to make a variety of options for you.

You're going to live in a peaceful world. It'll be a world of peace, because we're going to have clearer—clear-sighted foreign policy based upon a strong military, and a mission that stands by our friends; a mission that doesn't try to be all things to all people. A judicious use of the military which will help keep the peace.

You'll be in world, hopefully, that's more educated, so it's less likely you'll be harmed in your neighborhood. See, an educated child is one much more likely to be hopeful and optimistic. You'll be in a world in which—fits into my philosophy; you know, the harder work—the harder you work, the more you can keep. It's the American way.

Government shouldn't be a heavy hand. That's what the federal government does to you. Should be a helping hand. And tax relief in the proposals I just described should be a good helping hand.1

Remember (if you still can) that the original question had to do with how a 34-year-old single person with no dependents would be affected by the candidates' competing tax plans.

The response given by Governor Bush (soon, of course, to be President Bush) veers and rambles all over the place. He never specifically addresses the question of how a 34-year-old single person would be affected by his tax plan . . . except at the very end of his ramble with the broad, general assertion: "You're going to get tax relief under my plan," which doesn't explain how much relief or what kind.

Governor Bush begins by talking about offering an increased tax exemption to those who care for "an elderly," forgetting or ignoring the fact that the person who asked the original question specified that she had no dependents.

Next, he skips to Medicare (a subject of less-than-immediate interest to a 34-year-old). Then he skips further off the path on to the topics of world peace, military policy, education, and finally, work ethic.

Six subjects later, in his last sentence, probably recalling that the original question dealt with taxes, Governor Bush belatedly refers again to "tax relief in the proposals I just described," skimming over the fact that he never did describe any tax proposals.

I don't mean to pick on George W. Bush. Some of our most effective political leaders have been known to speak in a rambling fashion (Dwight D. Eisenhower for one). And, speaking crisply and logically is no guarantee of statesmanship or political wisdom. Depending on your own political views and personal tastes, you might find Bush's speaking style infuriating, comic, or refreshingly human.

My essential point is a more general one. An excerpt of spoken language, when transcribed and printed, will never read like well-crafted prose. As a personal example, I recently recorded myself during a program with my clients, delivering the same material I've delivered for nearly a decade and a half. When I read the transcription, I was most surprised to see how irregular my word patterns were. The reason: Spoken language is governed by the right brain. Rather than focusing on the rules of logic, grammar, syntax, and consistency, it flows freely, wherever the concepts lead.

By contrast, the production of written language tends to be governed by the left brain. When most people sit down to write a letter, memo, or report, their minds are front-loaded with left-brain functions: logic, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Rather than bouncing freely from one idea to the next, dragging in names, references, pronouns, and concepts that may or may not be clear, they move methodically through a sequence of points, meticulously self-correcting their syntax and logic as they go.

The result is a document that is technically correct. It doesn't contain fractured sentences like Governor Bush's "You'll be in a world in which—fits into my philosophy; you know, the harder work—the harder you work the more you can keep," or repetitions like his "Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is—is—is important."

But because the writer ruled by the left brain is concentrating on the rules of logic, grammar, and so on, the natural flow of concepts is often impeded. Almost inevitably, the writer omits ideas that are necessary or includes ideas that are unnecessary, overly detailed, or irrelevant.

You've probably written documents this way yourself: sitting down cold at your keyboard and banging out a memo or letter, "editing" it for style and content on-the-fly, as you write. If so, you may have had the experience of reading the memo or letter afterward and discovering that you'd completely forgotten to mention an important fact or idea, or you may have stuck in a completely irrelevant detail. This is a natural by-product of left-brain dominance.

Starting the work of developing a presentation with left-brain considerations such as logic, sequence, grammar, and word choice (or, for that matter, the color, style, and design of slides) is simply not effective. Crafting a presentation is a creative task; it must start with the kind of creative resources that are available only on the right side of your brain. Use the right tool for the right job.

Therefore, start the story development process by doing what your brain is going to do anyway: follow the stream of consciousness and capture the results during Brainstorming.

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