Presentations – learning from modern art… #1

Art -modern in particular – often hangs on what’s not seen. What’s not shown is filled in by the viewer. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much true of even ‘traditional’ art, too. For example, my favourite work of art is Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Michelangelo's Pieta
The Pieta as my iPhone grabbed it the last time I visited it.

I’ve seen it twice now and both times I’ve stood in stunned awe at the astounding perfection and the pain of the characters… and yet what makes this piece feel alive for me is that it’s unfinished: if you look to the side and back you see the raw stone it was emerging from – and it’s the process of ’emergence’ that gives (for me!) the statue it’s personal nature. I imagine the characters growing out of the stone. It’s what sticks with me but it’s not actually part of the art.

Let’s take another example – I visited the Baltic this weekend and spent time looking at the work of Monica Bonvicini – some of which did nothing for me, I confess, but one work in particular (7:30 hrs for example) struck a chord. Why?  After all, it’s just piles of bricks that aren’t anything, and yet… and yet… with only a little bit of work in my head they become something. For example, they become the memory of barbecues in my garden with my children – and in particular the party we had for my wife and my’s 25the wedding anniversary. In other words, the art itself didn’t happen in isolation.

Monica Bonvicini's piles of bricksImportantly, I’m going to remember the art because of the work it kicked off inside my head.  Let’s call this work the audience does inside their heads, linking what your presentation says/shows with what they already know/wonder/feel. And lets admit that this work is more important than we think – it’s what enables your audience to ‘get’ what you’re saying and it is what creates an emotional investment in your presentation. And it’s that, in turn, that means people will

  • remember the content of your presentation
  • act on the content of your presentation
  • spread the word about the content of your presentation.

I’m not saying those things can’t happen without backstory, I’m just saying it’s easier with it. Presentations work better with backstory.

How to create backstory in your presentations

You hear a lot of presentation trainers urging their clients to “use stories”  – blindly use stories!  What they don’t understand is that the story itself is the means not the end: the end is creating backstory! That means you can do a lot more if the stories you use challenge people (but see the risks of offending them by challenging too much). Challenging stories (personal opinion alert!) need to be personal – or at least the person in your audience needs to be able to identify with the protagonists in some way. It doesn’t have to be the obvious way, though. For example, I sometimes use a story of teaching one of my children to fire-eat: it’s rare for audience members to be fire-eaters or even want to be fire-eaters, so that doesn’t work… but then I tell them what happened when my wife found me.  Lots of my audience members can relate to the fury of an angered wife who believes her husband has done something foolish!  (In retrospect she was probably right, but it’s not as daft as I’ve made it sound, honest!)

A snowdropOf course, if you can’t use stories that work with your audience, you might want to consider images. (We’re back to the art again!) To illustrate the point, consider that any image you use in your presentation is just a full-on story captured in a moment of time. For example, this image of a snowdrop I just took outside my front door didn’t magically and instantly appear, get photographed for my presentation and then vanish again. Nope, it has a whole story of its own, about planting, growing flowering and so on… and it also has a tremendous emotional attachment for many people as a harbinger of spring.

An image in your presentation isn’t an image in your presentation – it’s a shorthand story.

Music is a handy tool, too. It’s hard to pass on information using music, but it can certainly change the atmosphere of a room for you.

Of course, the easiest form of backstory is to simply ask a question. Even a simple yes/no question can be a great start, especially if you follow it up.  As the most simple example, you might as something like “By show of hand, who drove today?“. Immediately those who did start to think about the drive. Then you follow up with something like “Was it just me who couldn’t park then?“. At that point, anyone who had problems with the car parking (or lack of it) is moved towards being on your side. Of course, you need to be careful with the questions: there’s no point in asking about car parking at a conference on public transport! And there’s no point in the second question if only 5% of your audience drove to the presentation  😉

The risks of bad backstory in your presentations

Of course, just like The Force in Star Wars, anything that can be as powerful as backstory can also go horribly wrong. The first and most obvious way backstory can screw up your presentation is if you happen to push things a bit too far and you tip over the point to which people are prepared to listen. If your presentation is too challenging the chances are they’ll reject it completely, even if in their heart of hearts they know you’re right. Your job as a presenter is to find that ‘offence threshold’ and stay juuuuusssst under it. (You might want to consider this wisdom about how to triage your audience – after all, judging who you can afford to upset and who not is important.)

Over-personalising is a quick, risky way to do this, I find. By all means tell a challenging story but if the story involves a bad character with the same name, gender and job title as someone in your audience and you’re on a hiding to nothing!

Personally, I find music to have a particularly high level of risk. You might find the two minutes of background music you include as people come in totally inoffensive, but you don’t know it was the music they played only two weeks earlier at Uncle Jimmy’s service at the crematorium…

Oh, and bad photographs just annoy people.  Stock pictures they’ve seen before, for example, just show your audience that you’re not trying hard enough. (Frankly, so does my snowdrop pic – what I should do is spend ten minutes using Pixelmator (my image editor of choice but only for Macs) to do something with the small patch of bright something in the background in the top right hand corner but I’ve left it in to make a point here.)


  1. Pingback:Presentations learning from modern art… #2 – Better presentations

  2. Pingback:Presentations learning from modern art... #2 - Better Presentations change your world

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *