Setting your presentation in concrete

Jul 03, 2018
While presentations are often about giving a high-level overview, presenters would do better concentrating on the concrete language used, as one would in a conversation.

By Barry Brophy

I recently interviewed former Entrepreneur of the Year, Edmond Harty, whose business Dairymaster brings digital technology to farming, for a magazine. Edmond uses simple analogies to describe what he does. 

“Innovation is like baking a cake,” he said to me, “It’s about putting different ingredients together – some from the mechanical side, some from the electronic side, some from software, some from farming – to make something nice. The mechanical side is a big element of what we do whereas the software and electronics are a bit like the icing, but that’s actually what makes it attractive to your customer.” This concrete analogy, although simple, was effective and memorable.

In another interview, I spoke to politician Stephen Donnelly, who is often lauded for his ability to demystify financial jargon. 

“One of the nice bits of feedback I get from people,” he told me, “is they say, ‘We love the way you explain complicated stuff without patronising us. There’s nothing missing from your explanation.”

Stephen exemplifies the idea of speaking literally and simply more than most politicians and acknowledges that it has contributed greatly to his success. “When I was studying economics at Harvard, I was working with really smart graduates and they’d say things like, “You can increase the money supply”. And I’d say, “That doesn’t mean anything to me. What do you mean increase  the money supply?” And they’d say, “Well, the Fed would do this…” and I’d say: “No, that doesn’t mean anything, either. Take me through what that means. Literally. Does someone go to a computer? Do they print out money? Is it physical cash that goes to the banks?” I try to understand stuff in a very visceral way.”

Good presenters always explain things in concrete terms. Speaking in concrete, with examples, analogies, demonstrations, stories and images is the default mode for communication. For example, you would never say to a friend, “I was very ill; it interrupted my life severely; it was unprecedented by my normal standards,” but rather, “I was white as a sheet, lost eight pounds, didn’t eat for four days and didn’t work for a fortnight.”

Making it concrete

In conversation, people communicate with concrete language and you need to remind yourself to do the same thing in your presentations. For every point you make, ask yourself: can I explain this better with an example, analogy, story, demonstration, image, video, etc.? Can I relate it to something that the audience already knows?

Through my experience of helping people create presentations, I have noticed that presenters tend to speak in the general, not the particular. They tend to make high-level, broad statements in favour of citing concrete examples. They say, ‘We operate in this marketplace and offer these services,’ instead of, ‘Here’s one of our customers; this is what we did for them.’ People cannot relate to general truths without specific examples to bear them out. Luckily, you already include these examples all the time in conversation.

So, in your next presentation, don’t just cite sales figures, compare them to numbers from previous years or from comparable companies. Don’t just tell the audience about your software, show them screenshots or give them a handout. Don’t just mention the type of clients you serve, tell them about the job you did for, say, an SME in west Clare, and even show a photograph. Don’t just say ‘we have several sales streams’, tell the audience what you make and include pictures and demonstrations if possible. 

Simply put: speak in the concrete, not in the abstract, and people will engage with, understand and remember what you say.