It might seem presumptuous to say that four words can elevate your presentation content, but I believe they can. These four words make up a simple question: “Where are the people?” Why does this one question work so well? It highlights two common mistakes concerning the scope and balance of presentation content. In other words, it reminds you to keep your presentation relatable. You should always be able to point to specific stories and examples that show how your information impacts human lives. If you don’t make this connection, if you forget where the people are, your presentation will likely fall flat.
Scope is the amount and extent of information a speaker covers. Often speakers try to cover too much in a presentation. When teaching public speaking to college freshman, I frequently have to remind them that main point 1 doesn’t have to be history. You don’t always have to go back to the very beginning of the topic to catch your audience up. In fact, the farther away you move in time or distance from the moment and place you are speaking, the harder you’ll have to work to connect your information to your audience. Keep editing out all superfluous and expendable information until you are left with what is essential.
Another issue with scope arises when a speaker tries to cover the subject from too far away. You feel the need to give the audience the big picture or what is sometimes referred to as the 30,000-foot view. That zoomed-out perspective can be helpful, but only at certain times and then, only briefly. You can’t stay there. Why? Because you can’t see the people from 30,000 feet up. A distant view creates a distant audience. You have to move in and get closer to your topic. If there is anyone qualified to talk about crafting impactful content, it’s Chris Anderson, the Curator of TED. In an article in Harvard Business Review, he discusses this issue with scope.
“The biggest problem I see in first drafts of presentations is that they try to cover too much ground. . . . So limit the scope of your talk to that which can be explained, and brought to life with examples, in the available time. Much of the early feedback we give aims to correct the impulse to sweep too broadly. Instead, go deeper. Give more detail.”
Humans are both feeling and thinking creatures. That means your presentation needs a balance of both emotional and rational content. But at some point, we came to believe that “professional” presentations must consist primarily of statistics and logical data. The goal here isn’t to get rid of data. Rather, it’s to restore balance to your content. You will need to address data and logical information, but you have to keep returning to where the people are. An organization is made up of people. A new idea or product comes from a team of people. A crisis harms people. A solution affects people. A triumph against all odds inspires people. Listen again to Chris Anderson of TED, “As a general rule, people are not very interested in talks about organizations or institutions (unless they’re members of them). Ideas and stories fascinate us; organizations bore us—they’re much harder to relate to.” Your audience simply doesn’t care about statistics the same way they care about stories.
If you want to truly connect your information to your audience, you might find Uri Hasson’s research interesting. Hasson is a Princeton University neuroscientist who has been studying the communal nature of the brain. In one particular study, Hasson and his team asked a speaker to tell a story to listeners while they were all undergoing functional MRI scans. “The results showed that not only did all of the listeners show similar brain activity during the story, the speaker and the listeners had very similar brain activity despite the fact that one person was producing language and the others were comprehending it.” The speaker was literally able to connect with her audience through the power of narrative.
If you want to elevate your presentation content, keep asking yourself, “Where are the people?” If your scope is too broad, you need to move in closer and narrow your focus. If your presentation is full of data that doesn’t appeal to the emotional nature of people, your content balance is off and needs to be corrected.
For more ways to elevate your content and master the art of presenting, check out our results-driven, online presentation skills course.