What IT leaders can learn from Hollywood

How bad are your presentations? Come on. Be honest. How bad are they? Are you violating all the “golden rules” of effective presentations? Are they too long, but you just can’t seem to get all the critical information communicated in less than 30 slides? Are you using those hokey graphics that come with PowerPoint?

Well, you’re not alone. In fact, my experience is that you are in very good company. The overwhelming majority of IT leaders give horrible, and I mean horrible, presentations, with lots of great information but presented in the worst possible way. And it’s not just IT folks who have a hard time with this; it’s a rampant problem across the corporate world.

For now, let’s forget the reasons why this is the case and instead focus on just one thing you can do right away to dramatically improve your presentations.

It’s not a presentation; it’s a story

To get you started on the road to becoming a presentation star, it’s important to realize that when you get up in front of a room of people you are no longer a corporate manager. Even when it’s a small meeting, as the presenter you are now “on stage.” Like it or not, you are cast in the role of entertainer/storyteller. And in that role of storyteller you need a story to tell.

It doesn’t matter if your presentation is about the ecommerce project, the IT reorganization, or the new HR information systems initiative. People still want to hear a story. They don’t want to look at a bunch of facts and figures and listen to you repeat them out loud. That’s boring. It seems obvious, but very few people really approach it this way. And here is the critical point: if you want to tell a story, you need a presentation that tells a story — not one that delivers facts.

What’s the story?

I have worked on hundreds of IT presentations over the years, covering every topic from the most esoteric tech visions to outsourcing contract proposals. For all of them, the first question we answer has always been: What’s the story? Because there is always a story. Sometimes, however, it can be hard to find the story line and that’s where Hollywood comes in.

So what’s Hollywood got to do with it?

We are so used to watching television and movies that we don’t realize what’s going on. But Hollywood uses a number of very interesting devices to tell us a story without boring us with long dialogue or taking up lots of viewing time. I’m a fan of “Boston Legal,” so I’ll use that popular show to demonstrate the point.

Frequently an episode begins like this: We see a couple of quick shots of the Boston skyline followed by one or two shots of a particular building then into the hallway showing the sign “Crane, Poole & Schmidt” and then into a conference room where Alan Shore is undressing a new client with his eyes.

All of this takes 15 seconds or less, but it has conveyed really important information to the viewer. It tells us that we are in the city of Boston, in an office building but not just any building, the offices of the main characters, and a meeting is taking place. The context is set. We are now ready to join the conversation.

Had the scene opened up with the conversation, loyalists like me may have known what was going on, but a new viewer would have been lost.

This storytelling didn’t happen by accident. There was deliberate thought and planning that went into setting up this context and delivering this information to the viewer. The director planned it this way exactly. And the way he planned it was using a technique called storyboarding.

What is storyboarding anyway?

Storyboards are used to develop the story. It’s a technique whereby the director (along with the director of photography) visually depicts the story’s development from the viewer’s perspective. It’s a sort of rough draft (drawn by hand) of the scenes that will make up the film.

No one can say for sure when storyboarding started, but we do know that Walt Disney made extensive use of storyboarding when making Steamboat Willie, the 1920’s classic cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse. Storyboarding was a low-cost way for Disney to “board” up his ideas to see if they worked before moving to expensive animation. He’d tack up the boards onto the wall, then he’d look at them and figure out what was working and what wasn’t. If something seemed out of place, Disney simply moved the boards around until everything made sense.

Storyboarding for IT leaders

You can probably guess where this is heading. I want to suggest that you approach your presentations much the same way as a Hollywood director approaches the planning of a film, i.e., using storyboards.

Instead of sitting down to PowerPoint and creating slides with bullet points, create a set of storyboards instead. Begin by asking yourself a few basic questions:

  • What is the central story I am about to tell?
  • Why am I telling this story now?
  • What do I hope my audience will get out of this story?
  • What should happen as a result of my audience hearing this story?

Once you have these main ideas in hand, you have a context for your story. You can now do a storyboard for the critical opening and closing slides. You know what you want to tell your audience and how you want to end your story.

From here you can turn your attention to the “meat” of the story. Here’s where you ask a different set of questions. They are:

  • What are the components of the story? (beginning, middle, and end)
  • What are the transitions from one part to the next?
  • How can I convert my words into pictures and images that speak for themselves and help me tell my story?
  • What will the viewer be thinking at every step of the process?

For each of the main components, create a storyboard with the key facts and ideas you want to communicate. Then build the transition storyboards. Finally, look for opportunities to convert words to images. (Note: that doesn’t mean adding graphics for graphics sake. It means thoughtfully substituting story-telling images for words on a page. Finally, and as a verification that you have really gotten the story out, answer the last question in a small box on the bottom of each storyboard.

There you have it: A storyboard version of your presentation. Going from this mock-up to PowerPoint will now be a breeze. More importantly, you will have a crisp and interesting story to share, not another boring PowerPoint presentation.

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