Think about the last time you put together a large group presentation.  Think about what the topic was, who was in the audience, and how you approached it.  What was your thought process or methodology as you put together the deck?   Go ahead, I’ll wait as you think it out.

If you’re like the rest of us, you probably worked through a process more or less like this:

  • Identify your audience and their interests – Why should they care?
  • Identify your key messages – What do you want them to take away?
  • Outline the main points you need to make in order to coherently communicate your messages
  • Flesh out the deck with supporting data, quotes, anecdotes, etc.

While your own approach may differ in various ways, I’d say this is a pretty good example of how most people approach presentation-creation.

The problem with this?… It’s all about “ME”!!

“What do I want to communicate?”  “What do I want them to take away?”  “What evidence do I need to get MY point across?”

Clearly, influencing an audience – impacting their opinions or behavior – is a primary reason for presenting in the first place, so there is a natural tendency for presentations to be me-centered.

However, behavorial sciences tell us that influence is not a monolithic craft. It’s not simply about putting forward indisputable arguments that are supported by a barrage of facts and anecdotes.  In fact, it doesn’t matter how good your case is if you don’t present it in a way that is accessible and meaningful.

There is nothing new in this idea, but a colleague of mine recently shared with me a technique that sheds a whole new light on the concept of putting the audience (or user, as we’ll see) first.

As you put together your next deck, imagine that at the beginning of the presentation each audience member has an “attention” account with 100 pennies inside (if they’re at a conference and this is their Nth session of the day, you might want to assume 40 or 50 pennies; if it’s a VC, they may only have 10).

Each slide, bullet point, piece of data, and key message that you put in front of them requires a withdrawal of some of those pennies.  Now, if the data and messages are relevant and clearly presented, the withdrawals may be small (a few cents).  If your message makes them want to jump out of their chair in excitement, you may even manage to make a desposit.  But if the material doesn’t resonate, is too detailed, or is presented in a confusing manner, there is a multiplication factor that makes each withdrawal huge (10, 30, 50 cents). Before you know it you have people’s minds and bodies wandering out the door.

What I love about this idea is that it forces the speaker to stop asking, “am I getting my point across effectively” and start wondering, “how large of a withdrawal does this additional slide or chart represent.”  Suddenly, the presentation-creation process becomes less about sounding smart and more about keeping it simple and concise in order to keep people’s attention.  Which do you think is more influential?

I would argue that you could apply the exact same approach to product or service design, and see similarly striking results.  Engineers, like presenters in our example above, have a tendency to over-do it.  They love complexity because it makes them feel smart.  They add fancy features and functions to products in order make them more “robust.”

But what if engineers and designers began to think of customers’ interactions with their products as requiring these same sort of behavioral “withdrawals.”  Pressing a button costs a penny. If you have to search among a sea of buttons before you can press it, that’s 10 or 15 pennies.

You get the idea. The result of applying it, I imagine, would be akin to desiging “appropriate technology.”  Engineers and designers would suddenly have built-in incentives to start aligning the form and function of products and services with the learned habits, behaviors, capabilities, and the social and environmental circumstances of their users.  More of that, I think, would be awesome.

After all, who would want to pay a quarter for something when they can get it for a penny?

(For lots of great bad design examples, go here)