If you have seen any number of TED talks, you might be struck at how some are just informative. On the other hand, others are amazingly entertaining and educational. Considering that we live in a world where it is said people’s attention span is shorter than a “goldfish” (actually it’s not) we need to be more entertaining just to be heard.
However, this can be a rather tough hurdle for some people. That is why I like to break informative type of speeches into three stages. If you can do well in the first stage then you can move on the next one.
- Three major stages of informative presentations
- The artful explanation
- AREA and PREP
- The three point framework
- PREP + the three point framework
- Why / What / How framework
- It is not one or the other
- The epiphany maker
- The explanative story
Three major stages of informative presentations
When you think of the great informative speeches you may be thinking of someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who wrote “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” He is really good at making complicated seeming cosmological phenomena and bringing them down to Earth. Or perhaps if you are an NPR fan you may know of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame. They do a great job of weaving explanations and storytelling.
Whoever you are a fan of you can break down any good explanation into three stages:
Three types of information presentations:
- The artful explanation
- The epiphany maker
- The explanative story
The artful explanation
The purpose of the artful explanation is simply to make a topic clear and comprehensible to the audience. Suppose that you came across some mushrooms in the forest and wondered what it was. So, you did a quick search on the Internet.
You found an explainer video on that mushroom. Before the video, you had a vague idea of what the mushroom was before. After the video, you have a better understanding of what a mushroom is and you feel you could probably explain it to another person. That is the whole point of an artful explanation. It is to add clarity and understanding to a subject.
Now, how do you go about that? That depends on what you are trying to do and in what setting you are in.
AREA and PREP
AREA and PREP are essentially the same thing, but with different words. AREA is more common in the world of debate. On the other hand, PREP is used slightly more often in the area of public speaking, especially if you are in Toastmasters.
An assertion is simply a point you want to make. For example, if you are Sir Ken Robinson then your assertion might be: “Traditional schools kill creativity.”
In both AREA and PREP this is repeated. It follows the old advice of “Tell them what you will tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” Thus, you don’t have to get creative in changing the words of the assertion or point at the end. You can keep it mostly the same.
The next part is the reason. The reason is your why. Why would you think that? If we use the above assertion, a reason could be: “Traditional schools teach that there is one ‘right’ answer, thus limiting the students creativity in coming up with multiple ‘right’ answers.”
The difference between an example and evidence
At this point then you need to start backing up your assertion and reason. This is where PREP and AREA diverge. In the case of PREP all you need is an example. You could say something like this:
“In traditional mathematics class, the approach is for people to solve problems like 2 + 2 = 4 or 3 x 4 = 12. But this limits the student’s focus. But, if you turn the problem around into x + y = 4. It would quite possible to think of multiple solutions to the problem, not just 2 + 2, but 1 + 3 or 4 + 0, etc. But schools do not do this and thus shut out the possibility that there could even be creativity in math.”
You might look at this and think that is good enough evidence. The problem here is that it is a general statement. Which “traditional” schools do this now? How do we know? That is the difference between evidence and example.
Evidence is tied to facts and data. Examples can include data and facts. But it is just as likely that they clarify and add detail to the assertion and reasoning.
For example you could say:
In a survey of all K-12 schools across the nation, we found that 98% of all public schools teach their students that 2 + 2 = 4. They do not introduce x + y =4 and encourage students to guess the possible correct answers. A further study by Clover Institute of Higher Learning showed too much focus on finding the right answer stunts student’s creative ability later in adult life.
Despite the fact that this is totally made up, you can see this later paragraph attempts to bring more evidence to the assertion than to simply give you an example. In the E part, we see that survey data shows how many schools teach math the traditional way. We also see that an independent organization’s research connects focus on the right answer to a decrease in creativity. So, AREA is more rigorous than PREP.
The Sir Ken Robinson PREP example
Putting this all together you get something like this:
Point: “Traditional schools kill creativity.”
Reason: “Traditional schools teach that there is one ‘right’ answer, thus limiting the students creativity in coming up with multiple ‘right’ answers.”
Example: “In traditional mathematics class, the approach is for people to solve problems like 2 + 2 = 4 or 3 x 4 = 12. But this limits the student’s focus. But, if you turn the problem around into x + y = 4. It would quite possible to think of multiple solutions to the problem, not just 2 + 2, but 1 + 3 or 4 + 0, etc. But schools do not do this and thus shut out the possibility that there could even be creativity in math.”
Point: “Thus, traditional schools kill creativity.
If you want to see what Sir Ken Robinson really said, it is just below. Be warned he takes his time. I would jump towards the middle if you want to hear his main point first.
PREP or AREA is a good way to clearly organize your thoughts. It makes it easy to follow and understand. Just mention your point, the reason for it, a good example to back that up, and then finish with your point.
The three point framework
The next is the three point frame work. The odd thing about the three point framework is if you put almost three of anything together it looks like it fits well. People are pattern recognizing machines. Maybe not good ones, but we will see patterns in almost anything.
Essential the three point frame work is like this:
For example you could do it like this:
That one seems very straight forward. How about this one?
Now you might argue over the points listed here, especially if you are a PowerPoint user :). But, these points seem to cling together in some way. If you are actually delivering a talk using this, most people will not notice that you glossed over or left out some other “essential” things. There just isn’t enough time in the day to go over everything that every audience member would deem “essential.”
What if you can’t think of three points?
The three point system seems fairly straightforward, but what if you can only come up with two or four? What do you do then? Do you still try to come up with three?
I would say that you should try. There is no presentation commandment that says “Thou shalt use the point of three. No more. No less.” I myself will use four or five sometimes, but that is because it sometimes looks good visually that way. For example something like this:
or I may organize my points like this:
But you can often put things into three like this:
or like this:
or even like this:
The last one was just taking the typical structure of a movie or play and building that into my workshop/presentation. I`ll go into more about that towards the end of this article.
Going from two to three points
Now let’s look at the typical example where you wonder how to make three from two or four
In this case, you have two options (not three 😉 ). You can either add something else or you can split a category into two. If you are a stickler for three there is always the do nothing option.
Looking at this you can see that “personal productivity” is a rather vague term. You could turn this into two specific strategies. Now you might be thinking, but what if I got four or five different personal productivity tips? I would say, just pick the top two. It will be worth much more to the audience if you do a deep dive on two points than if you give the highlights on five.
The other possibility is to add one more choice. You may have to think about the topic a little bit more, but I’m sure you can come up with something. Let’s take a look at what is possible.
As you can see you can go either way. Either of these talks would be very interesting. Considering that productivity is also important for a busy presenter and communicator, I will cover that topic at a different time.
Going from four to three points
Now let`s suppose that you the other problem. You have four points. The points are like this:
If you have a short 5 to 7 minute speech, 4 items can sometimes be too many if you don’t have an overarching framework. So, we need to get down to three. Again it is the same when we had two points, only backward. You either eliminate one or combine two. It would look like this:
PREP + the three point framework
To add meat to your informative presentation you can just combine the AREA/PREP with the three point framework. So that the outline looks a bit like this:
- Point 1
- Reason 1
- Example 1
- Point 1 again
- Point 2
- Reason 2
- Example 2
- Point 2 again
- Point 3
- Reason 3
- Example 3
- Point 3 again
- Point 1
Now if you were to create a draft using the three point framework you could do something like this:
- Introduction: On a typical workday how many zoom calls do you have? 2, 5, 10? Would you believe that some people have so many that they hardly have time to take a bathroom break? …
- Point 1: We should train people using the personal Kaban system.
- Reason 1: Many people are not good at tracking their own tasks. The kanban system will help that.
- Example 1: A survey by the National Association of Professional Organizers showed that 27% of people actually admitted to being disorganized. …
- Point 1: Therefore we should train people using the Kaban system.
- Point 2: We should put 4-hour quotas on meeting time per person
- Reason 2: If there is no limit on Zoom calls people will spend more on overtime costing the company money.
- Example 2: As shown by our internal data, we already have 10% of the workforce who have at least one solid day of Zoom calls. These are the same people who have the most overtime.
- Point 2: Thus we should put 4-hour daily quotas on meetings.
- Point 3: We should have weekly office hours for our SMEs.
- Reason 3: Our SMEs do the most important deep work, but now are constantly called to Zoom meetings reducing their productivity.
- Example 3: One of our SME on the blockchain, Sally, has had a 300% increase in Zoom calls since the last March. Typically she only needs to answer a few questions and be done. But this …
- Point 3: So we need weekly office hours for our SMEs.
- Conclusion: While having Zoom calls has been very convenient we have seen a drop off in productivity and an increase in overtime. With these three improvements we can …
While not perfect, you can see how the two working together can organize your thoughts and clearly make your point.
At this point, you might be wondering about what would be the optimal order, the best phrasing for your key points, etc. That is something that I will cover in another article when I do another deep dive on the three point system.
Why / What / How framework
Another way you can organize your information is you the Why / What / How framework. The whole idea of this framework came from watching the famous Simon Sinek TEDx talk.
Especially if you are doing training sessions, you need to convince people why they should care about what you are going to say and why they should listen to you. Then you can go into the details of what you are going to talk about and how you could do the thing or implement that.
You will of course notice that I reversed the two compared to Simon Sinek’s speech, that is because the objectives and the terms are slightly different. In his case, he is focusing on people who are inspired to buy a product or an idea. In this section, we are just worried about people just paying attention to the information. Starting with why is important, but the rest is details.
The three “whys”
To give you an example, let`s suppose we are talking about video conferencing (again.)
The why part does not need to be too long. You just need to cover the basic objections the attendee would have to listening to the material in the first place. Those basic questions are often the first three: Why this?, Why now?, Why you?
Almost in any informative presentation, somewhere in the presentation, you will need to answer the three whys.
- Why this?
- Why now?
- Why you?
First why: Why this?
The first why, “Why this?” you need to justify the importance of the topic. For some of the listeners, they may not be aware that it is import enough to pay attention too. After all, we all have a lot of things to worry about. Why should this thing take priority over something else.
Answering this questions is especially crucial nowadays. In the past people had to physically attend trainings or seminars. If they later found out it was not so important for them, it was hard to just leave. They could tune out, but even that has its limits.
However, these days many are taking training or seminars online. If the training doesn’t justify itself early, people will just switch screens to something else. They will either go to the next work related task or to SNS. When it comes to capturing attention it is a cutthroat world out there.
Second why: Why now?
The next why is “Why now?” Here the listener is aware that the topic is important, but not important right now. Here you have to focus on why time is of the essence. For example, you could say, “If you don’t pay attention you will lose out. Others will get ahead of you” or “Your problems will get much harder to solve”, etc.
Third why: Why you?
The last why is “Why you?” Here you need to establish your authority. There are a lot of people claiming to be experts or “thought leaders,” but not everyone is the real deal. If you don’t come across confident and competent they will not listen to you and will not trust you. To start that off you need to mention or show why you are the one that should be talking about this subject.
Be warned however that when you establishing your authority, do not go too long. This is not supposed to be a brag festival. Take too much time saying how great you are will cause people to tune out quicker than not making any comment at all.
What: The roadmap and the road
After that people will be interested in what you have to say. At that point, you then outline the major points of what you are going to talk about. Then you could go into more detail about each point. This would be the “what” of your presentation. How in-depth you go will depend on your objectives and the time you have.
How: Doing the work
After people know why they should care and what you will talk about, the next thing will be the how. The how can be broken into two categories. One is how will you, the instructor, deliver this material. The second one is how will they, the listener, be able to apply this.
In many cases how you will deliver the material will be obvious. It is going to be in a series of lectures or blog articles, etc. If you are going to use activities, etc., it is generally a good idea to tell them in advance instead of just suddenly springing them on the listener.
The next and more important thing is you can give them instructions on how to implement the material. There are several ways you can go about this. The first way is to just give them direct examples. You first mention the basic concept and then you paint the picture of various scenarios where it could be used.
Another way is to get the listener to think about how they would apply it in their situation. Instead of listing as many scenarios as you could think of, you guide the listeners through a series of questions. The questions are there to make the listener think seriously about how they would apply that information.
A third way is to have a group discussion. Sometimes, people have a hard time coming up with ideas on their own. But, by discussing it with others they can come to a better understanding. So, what you could do is set up a short group brainstorming session and then have each member say out loud how the material could be used.
It is not one or the other
I have just shown that you could use PREP/AREA or you could use three point frame or you could even use the Why/What/How. You can use these separately or in some combination. It just a matter of what makes the most sense given what you are trying to accomplish.
PREP is good for getting your logic across when you make an assertion. The three point is good for general organization of any information you want to get across. The Why/What/How is good for getting people to listen and later use your material.
The epiphany maker
As I mentioned above, the first level artful explanation is all about organizing information and making it clear. You want it to be in a package that is useful and can be easily consumed. I recommend working on that before you try your hand at the epiphany maker.
The epiphany maker’s objective is not only to be clear and comprehensible but to make you realize something new that you did not notice before. There should be an “Ah-ha!” moment.
A typical artful explanation usually doesn’t have that. It goes through a process making the unclear clear. The epiphany maker’s job is to make the hidden more visible.
Connecting the dots
It can also provide greater context so you better understand how the concept connects to things in ways that you did not understand before. Connecting the dots, so to speak.
In other words in an artful explanation, you gave a good idea of how many dots there are and where all the dots. You probably could reproduce the dots on a piece of paper on your own. But the epiphany maker takes all dots and shows you something that you have never seen before. A good example of what I am talking about is the nine-dot problem.
As you can see on the left, the nine-dot problem is simply a set of 3 by 3 dots lined to form a square. That is pretty straightforward. But, if you take one line and draw it like so, you see a triangle or an umbrella on its side. By simply building connections of existing information you reveal something that people did not notice before. That is what an epiphany maker does.
So, how would you go about doing this? The trick here is that you need to understand people’s state of mind before you draw the line, while you are drawing the line, and after you have drawn the line. What makes it so hard is what is called the “curse of knowledge.”
The epiphany bridge
I first ran into the epiphany bridge concept was when Russel Brunson mentioned it. He was talking about people messing up in pitching a product that induced Ketosis. Then most of their problem was they were so excited about the concept, they were so into the gory details, the lingo, etc. that they scared normal people away.
The problem was the aforementioned “Curse of Knowlege.” The average person doesn’t know all the gory details they know. The average person does not know nor even care about the word Ketosis. So, how are you going to explain this topic?
The idea is that you need to go back in time and imagine how you felt before you had that flash of brilliance and noticed how great Ketosis was. What was the thing that made you understand that concept? You may have the think very hard about this.
Some of you don’t even remember that moment. The brain is funny that way. It can be hard to imagine what life was like before you know X or noticed Y. But as a presenter, it can be very useful to see and feel from the listener’s perspective.
If you keep a regular diary (like I do) then it is a little bit easier to go back and see what you were thinking of before you had the epiphany. I strongly recommend writing a journal anyway because, it helps with self-reflection, task management, and blog ideas ;).
But, if you have not done that and you are not sure how you got to that epiphany it is just better to start at the end and work backward. Then keep going back until you reach where your prospective audience is. That seems to be very easy to say, but not so easy to do so let`s look at some examples.
It`s like …
If I were to bring up the topic of the blockchain, what would be the first thing that comes to mind? I expect that the first thing average people think of is bitcoin. But could you explain what the blockchain is without using bitcoin and cryptocurrency jargon?
That is an important point here. Because no matter how organized and logical your presentation is if it contains words and concepts that are unfamiliar to people you are not going to get understanding.
So, if I said the blockchain is a giant database that uses cryptographic blocks to store records and use special algorithms like PoW, PoS, etc. to keep changes accurate and up to date, I would lose about 100% of the non techie people. That`s not good.
So, you need to consider the concept in its simplest form. You could say that the blockchain is like an Excel sheet where you can’t go back and erase data in the cells. Everyone is familiar with Excel. By using that example, people will keep listening to you.
What can be hard for some people is to decide:
- what is the appropriate amount of simplicity
- what metaphor to choose
The answer to that is it depends. It depends on your audience. It depends on the concept. It depends on how much time you have, etc. There is no right answer. So, you will just have to keep trying out your “It`s like …” and see how it works out.
If you use the metaphor on few people and one of them doesn’t get it, then you might want to try something else. You may flounder around with several metaphors until you get one that works. But, once you find the right one, it will do wonders.
Ask them, don’t tell them
There is a common presentation saying that you should show and not tell. Just telling people what the facts are can be boring. People will tune out. You need to get people to visualize to keep them engaged.
I would say that when it comes to informative and also persuasive presentations asking questions can be just as powerful as painting pictures.
The thing is if you just dole out information, a certain percentage will just tune out. You need to start out with a mystery and give them a series of question to consider as you work your way to the conclusion.
For example, in a Radiolab episode, we started with a mystery. Which was if someone took out a birch and then the nearby oak died. The question is why? We find out that part of the cause was trees are sharing food. But then how do they do that? It seems to involve fungus, but what is the fungus’s role? The fungus transported nutrients from tree to tree in a large “Wood Wide Web.” But, why would they do that? What is in it for them?
Instead of just bulldozing through with an explanation of how fungus and trees work together in a hidden network underground, you can spoon out questions. You can shed light out here and there until the whole thing comes together.
It is like you are the blind man touching different parts of an elephant thinking that they are different things. Then with one great explanation you see what seemed to be three different beasts to be what it truly is. It is an elephant.
In a business situation, I would not go overboard with these types of techniques as you generally don’t need them for a simple explanation.
If you are trying to build a persuasive argument you might want to spend some time on this. People coming to their own conclusions (but it really is yours) is more effective than just spelling out your argument. However, it takes time and a good deal of thought to create an effective series of questions.
The epiphany maker is a presentation that creates an “Ah-ha!” moment in the listener. You may need to use metaphors, similes, anecdotes, etc. to connect the essence of a new concept to what people already know. Also, asking questions to get people to think deeper about a topic can be more effective than just laying out the facts.
The explanative story
The next level is the explanative story. This is not about creating some marketing explainer video. This is about weaving a story that not only is good at explaining a concept, putting it in the proper context, and creating “Ah-ha” moments. If you are really good, you can go even beyond that and get people to transcend and transform their initial understanding with good storytelling.
People tend to best remember stories. People from the time they were little love stories. However, complex business concepts or obscure science concepts are not easily made into stories. It can take a lot of thought and work.
One great example of that is often the episodes of Radiolab. If you checkout “From Tree to Shining Tree” you hear a kind of storytelling that draws you in. It lays down the facts one at a time that slowly illuminate each part. Then boom, the entire picture is revealed at the end to be more than just the sum of its parts. It taking the epiphany maker and turning into an art form.
This can be a masterful way to impart information. The way to get good at that is to also get good at storytelling. There is no space here to go into a deep dive about storytelling, but you may wonder about the “what are the basic elements of storytelling?”
Information in three acts
The classic format is creating a three acts. (There is that pesky three again.) This is:
- Act 1: Setting
- Act 2: Conflict
- Act 3: Resolution
Act 1 is where you introduce the main characters, the location, the problem, etc. There is the hero and there is the villain. People will need to at least care somewhat about the hero and the problem otherwise their minds will wander off.
In the case of an informative presentation, there may not be a clear-cut villain, just a problem that refuses to be solved. You may need to speed a fair amount of time considering who the hero and the villain should be in the story. It not always easy, and there is no right answer.
Act 2 is where the conflict starts to get going. The hero runs into roadblocks, meets new characters, and generally has a hard time.
In many stories, Act 2 is the longest part. Even in informative stories there can be long drawn out battles with a disease, intractable mathematical riddles (ex. Fermat`s Last Theorem), dueling scientists, etc.
Act 3 is where the conflict is resolved in some manner. The problem is solved, the disease is vanquished, the “good” scientist wins out. Or maybe not. However, it ends there is some sort of resolution.
Now you might be wondering just how you would take an idea and idea and turn it into a story?
Procrastination in three acts
When you want to make a story, you need to look at who the charters are and where the conflict is. First, let’s take something simple, like procrastination. This is something that we all struggle with.
Now you might wonder, just how could you turn this into a story? Procrastination is an internal problem. It is something that many of us struggle against. But it seems invisible.
So, let’s look at how Tim Urban did it.
At about 3:30 into the video, Tim does a good job of introducing the problem and the cast of characters. We have the rational decision-maker and the instant gratification monkey. The conflict is that the rational decision-maker wants to do something productive and the instant gratification monkey wants to do something fun. The monkey seems to win, quite a lot in fact.
Then Tim introduces another character. This character is the panic monster. This is the reason that even some derelict procrastinators get things done. The deadline gets close. The panic monster shows up. The instant gratification monkey is scared away. Problem solved.
The nice thing about this story is that it also serves as a neat explanation of why some people suffer from procrastination in some areas but can get work done in others. For example, starting a business, learning a new hobby etc. can be areas of chronic procrastination.
In those cases, the deadline doesn’t exist and the panic monster doesn’t show up. Because the panic monster doesn’t show up, you have this conflict between the rational decision-maker and the instant gratification monkey that doesn’t end. Unfortunately for some people, the instant gratification monkey wins a lot.
Creating Your Informative Story
Now that you have seen how Tim Urban did it, consider how you could turn some piece of information into a story. This may seems to be a difficult thing. Especially if you are starting out. What I suggest is to try the following.
- Pick a topic
- Find the conflict
- Find the characters in the topic
- Find or create the resolution
- Outline the story
This is something you could do on a normal basis if you wanted to.
For example, suppose that you want to do an article explaining the five steps to delivering a presentation. Just where is the story in that? It`s an explanation of a framework.
You could consider the story of coming up with the framework. Then consider the struggle of implementing the framework. You could even go over the tale of two speakers one who used it and what who did not. There are a number of scenarios you could come up with.
That being said, the basic outline could look like this.
- Topic: Presentation 5 step framework
- Conflict: Wants to deliver a good presentation, but doesn’t know how!
- Characters: the Nervous Presenter, the Tough Boss, the Helpful Colleague
- Resolution: The Nervous Presenter wows the senior executives.
- Outline: The Helpful Colleague introduces the 5 step frame to the Nervous Colleague who struggles to implements it. After a few embarrassing failures some scathing feedback from the Tough Boss, the Nervous Presenter delivers a presentation that wins the heart of the senior executives.
As you can see this a just a way to get your started. By doing this you will be able to figure out how to turn any bit of information into some kind of story. All you need to do is to get more practice.
Any kind of information can be turn into a story. You just need to know who the characters are, what the conflict is, and how you are going to resolve it. People love and remember stories so it is always a good idea to pepper even a mundane topic with small stories.
So as you see there are several levels of delivering informative stories. In the beginning, it is better to focus on being clear and organized rather than being entertaining. You can look at using PREP/AREA, three point and Why/What/How frameworks as a way of organizing your thoughts.
Once you get good at organizing your thoughts in logical manner you then can start to shift how you go about getting your information across. Think of what the audience knows already what kind of metaphors and examples can you use to simply express your concepts.
Also consider, instead of just spoon feeding the audience, get them to think. Ask them questions all along the way. Do not force your conclusion on them. Lead them to area where your conclusions just seems natural.
Once you have gotten more confident in doing something like that, then try to start weaving in stories. Not all explanations will need a story, but adding one can be helpful. It doesn’t have to be an epic Hero’s Journey. All you need are characters, a conflict, and a resolution.
Whatever the case, please spend time practicing these frameworks and ideas. Being good at presentation is more about doing the work than simple intellectual understanding. If you need help with practice or have questions please leave a question or comment here. I would be glad to help.