Presentation Advice for the Underdogs

Today’s lesson about presentations comes from Big Bird. Well, not exactly Big Bird, but rather, from the battle between Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street. It’s a true David-and-Goliath type story. One for the underdogs. And it offers tips that can help us develop winning presentations even if we don’t have a huge budget or team behind us.

The story is told in best-selling author Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. On Monday I shared another story from his book on how one small change boosted a persuasive campaign by 25%. Check it out here if you missed it.

So what do two children’s shows have to do with presentation success? As it turns out, quite a lot. Children’s television shows invests millions of dollars into research. What they find has a lot to teach us about how to make information more effective, even if you’re the underdog.

The Background

The story begins like this. In the late 1960s, Joan Ganz Cooney set out to educate children via television, a medium which was traditionally more about entertainment than education. She amassed an army of educational experts and creative geniuses and eventually Sesame Street was born. But they weren’t creating in the dark. Sesame Street has been one of the most heavily researched shows to date. In the early years, Ed Palmer led the research efforts to measure whether Sesame Street was truly educating children. They brought in researchers from Harvard to track the eye movements of the children while they were watching the show. And Palmer and the producers weren’t happy unless the show held a child’s attention for an average of 85-90% of time. They used their research to create a highly successful television show. And Sesame Street was the leading children’s show for decades.

That was until Blue’s Clues came along. Gladwell says, “Within month of its debut in 1996, Blue’s Clues was trouncing Sesame Street in the ratings . . . it scored higher than its rival in capturing children’s attention.” This was a huge upset since it didn’t have nearly the backing or budget that Sesame Street had. It was an underdog. But the reasons it was so effective came down to two things: a narrow focus and an attention to narrative. Here’s how we can model the success of Blue’s Clues for our presentations.

Narrow Your Focus

Sesame Street ultimately lost in the ratings game because it was trying to be too many things to too many people. The producers wanted the show to be something parents would enjoy watching with their children. So they included puns only adults would get and celebrity cameos. But the advanced language tricks and celebrity status of guests was lost on the primary audience of the show: children. So all of that stuff just became noise. It distracted from the goal: to educate children. On the other hand, Blue’s Clues didn’t make any effort to appeal to parents because adults weren’t their audience.

So here’s the first lesson. If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up with a watered-down product or presentation. Keep your audience and your goal as simple and narrow as possible. If your boss asks you to deliver a presentation about a new product to your coworkers, it will be tempting to create some of the presentation with the goal of earning your boss’s approval. But don’t get sidetracked. Remember who your audience is. Remember what your goal is. And stay focused.

Invest in the Narrative

The second reason Blue’s Clues won over Sesame Street was that it followed a narrative design. Gladwell says, “Sesame Street was anti-narrative: it was, by design, an unconnected collection of sketches.” But research was proving that humans learn to think in narrative, not in short bursts of attention or disconnected information. So Blue’s Clues capitalized on this realization by creating a tight narrative thread for each episode. This led to the 30-minute, narrative-based underdog that upset an educational giant.

Here’s the second lesson we can learn. No amount of flashy design or gimmicky attempts to entertain can replace our innate human need for stories. When it comes to gaining attention and keeping it long enough for our message to sink in, story is what matters.

So when it comes to building a winning presentation, money and people power isn’t always what matters. We just have to be more Blue’s Clues than Sesame Street. Meaning this: we have to narrow our focus so that our purpose is not diluted. And we must invest in the narrative above all else.

Want more information on how to develop a winning presentation? We can help.

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