why journalism has no place in presentations

This one has been nagging at the back of my head for a long time and I might piss a few slick, professional presenters off. I’m braced… but it needs to be said for the sake of audiences and presenters.

Here’s the big message – there’s a bit difference between what I’m going to call journalism-presentations and proof-presentations.

What’s a journalism-presentation?

It’s got nothing to do with how good the presentation is or whether it’s given by a journalist. Journalism-presentation is a philosophy and it works like this:

  • find/gain/have a belief/vision/mantra/whatever
  • illustrate it by using examples and case studies etc
  • convince audiences that your vision is true because of that evidence
  • set back to bask in their applause. (Also, take money and/or become famous.)

I’ve seen it done over and over and over. I’m not saying the original vision etc is automatically wrong, just that it’s what drives the presentation.

Why do I call them journalism-presentations?

Because it’s how a lot of journalism works. I’m subscribed to a couple of lists that email me daily looking for people who’ll talk to journalists that are working on a story such as X-relates-to-Y. X is typically anything as sensible as Corona Virus has a mortality rate of such-and-such a percent in demographic group so-and-so. It can also be something as bonkers as “5G masts are what causes Covid-19, not the Corona Virus”. The thing is, it’s not hard to find evidence of both of those. In fact, at risk of doing a journalism-presentation-style-blog myself, I’d say it’s easier to find apparently definitive information about the 5G masts stuff.

If you’ve got a limited time on stage (or in your newspaper story) and you provide three case studies all saying “I didn’t have Covid-19 then they turned on the 5G mast and within two days I was showing symptoms of the illness” then your audience will obviously infer a link – and a causal link at that.

Is there a single cause of this kind of presentation?

No, I don’t think so. My experience is that it’s probably related in various degrees to:

  • hubris and a need to be seen to have answers
  • the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see here but basically the less you know the more confident you are in stuff)
  • and Confirmation Bias (see here but basically we notice stuff that confirms our current position on things).

but by definition, I could be wrong! 🙂

So what’s the problem with journalism-presentations?

They’re often tosh, that’s what. Just because you can find evidence that matches your assertion doesn’t make it true.

In the example above, it could just be co-incidence that the symptoms appeared and the poor person with Covid-19 would have got the illness whether or not the 5G mast was turned on. Obvious, right? From a scientific point of view, something not really proven unless and until all the other options are ruled out.

Common problems with this kind of thing (setting aside that conspiracy theorists sometimes just make stuff up) are that:

  • a third ‘thing’ could be causing both of the things you observed. For example, invisible aliens could be spreading Covid-19 and building 5G masts
  • cause-and-effect might be in the ‘wrong’ direction. For example, people starting to exhibit Covid-19 symptoms in an area might cause house prices to fall which in turn means land is cheaper which in turn leads to a mobile phone operator being able to afford to build a 5G mast in that location rather than somewhere else
  • there could also be a lot of contra-indicating evidence. For example, there are also be lots of other 5G masts that have been build where there were no Covid-19 cases and locations of Covid-19 without any 5G masts.

By not exploring all those options in a presentation, it’s just journalism. Many of the popular science books I’ve read have been like that, I’m sorry to say.

Can you give me a specific example of a journalism-presentation, Simon?

Of course, and I’m glad you asked! I’ll change some of the details to protect the presenter I’m thinking of, because they’re a well-regarded professional speaker, a good person, and doing a lot of good in the world. They might even be right in their assertions, it’s just that they can’t prove it.

Here’s the central thrust …

“I’ve spoken to <insert-big-number-here> of successful people” says the presenter, “and they all have a habit of standing on their head while reciting nursery rhymes backwards before breakfast”. The presenter goes on: “What that means is that if you want to be successful too, you should also recite nursery rhymes backwards before breakfast”.

The thing is, when I put it like that, it’s pretty clearly nonsense. But put well, in a classy journalism-presentation it might make more sense. Try these options…
“I’ve spoken to <insert-big-number-here> of successful people and they:”

  • journal daily
  • meditate for 45 minutes three times a week
  • wear the same colour of clothes every day
  • are Christian or believe in some other form of higher power of some kind
  • have three hobbies or more
  • never work on Fridays

Some of those sound pretty silly, I agree, but I’ve heard all of them spouted in journalism-presentations. (Can I just shorten that to JP for now? Thanks!) Remember that I’m not saying these things are wrong, necessarily. I’m just urging caution.

The main risk of JPs is that if they’re done well enough, the audience is given utter tosh, but tosh that it buys into.

So what’s to be done about JPs?

The idea of the solution is easy but the application is more tricky. Let’s take the first point above to work with (journaling). Why the first one? Because I think there’s probably something in it, so it’s safe for me to talk about it without fear of being accused of being mean 😉

The thing is, to shift from a JP to a proof-presentation, the presenter would also have to explore (at least):

  • those successful people who didn’t journal
  • unsuccessful people who did journal

As things stand in a JP, it’s about as sensible saying Liverpool one the England’s football premiership and they wear read, therefore successful teams need to wear red. Oh really? So what about all those other teams who also wear read who – by definition – didn’t win the premiership because Liverpool did? What about those years when a team not wearing red won it?

I can only fantasise about the time when a team wearing black and white stripes win it 😉

It’s only a proof-presentation when it rules out the things that aren’t the original idea.

But wouldn’t that make the presentations long and boring?

Not if I’ve worked on them with you, no 😉 I must admit it’s certainly a risk and it’s something I face all the time when I work with scientists and other experts… but that’s a different problem for a different blog. Don’t use it as an excuse.

For now, I’m just looking at the idea that we shouldn’t just accept something presented in a JP because there’s supporting evidence.

I recently attended a fantastic (online) conference (shout out to Andrew & Pete’s Atomicon) where there were literally dozens of presentations but one stood out, to judge by the online reaction in the few days afterwards. It was:

  • fantastically entertaining
  • slickly delivered
  • persuasive
  • evidences with case studies to back up the key assertion
  • trusted
  • probably true
  • flawed 😉

That last point is because it was “just” a JP. The examples were fantastic, the delivery really entertaining, the message was one that I should probably take on board myself. So I’m not saying it was wrong…

smiley face

… just urging audience to be cautious about JPs… and I’m urging presenters not to do them except under very specific circumstances, just in case they’re wrong.

How do I know if I’m delivering a journalism-presentation? And what can I do about it?

Tricky! But at least by asking the question we’re on the way. I think it comes down to at what point in the process you decided on the The Big Point of your presentation. In reality it’s a messy continuum and only you can judge where you are on it, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say:

If you came to The Big Point early in the creation process it’s more likely to be a journalism-presentation

The problem is for those of us who are (or fancy ourselves to be) experts. It’s all too easy for us to slip into thinking something is a fact when in reality it’s just our opinion. Just because it’s expert opinion doesn’t mean it’s not an opinion.

Too harsh?

With my tongue a little bit in my cheek, here are a few tools I’ve used myself to see if I’m making a turn in to making a journalism-presentation.

  • I consciously check out if I’m looking for second or third order impact in my presentation – sometimes it doesn’t matter too much
  • A use my own presentation design pack system to create the content and that challenges everything I’m going to put into the presentation: is it a fact or an opinion
  • I ask myself how long I’ve “known” this: is it an overnight eureka or something that’s been brewing for years?
  • When I’m thinking of the questions I might get for a presentation there’s always the one where someone asks for your references and evidence – if you can’t rattle that off without thinking about it, you’ve probably stepped over the line into opinion
  • (bonus pro tip) When you can cite your references, have you also checked that your references aren’t just opinion too? 🙂
  • I imagine what I’m saying being said by different people. Does it sound like something Donald Trump would say? Can I imagine him saying it? Does that mean I need to re-think if it’s a verify-able fact?
  • I float it past some trusted critics. I have a team – they tell me I’m talking rubbish and I pay them to do exactly that. Importantly, we try and deal with one ‘fact’ at a time.

As a side note: It’s something I noticed a lot as I was developing the Presentation Design Pack. The ‘content cards’ have a box to tick about whether that content is fact or opinion. In early versions of the pack that was a tiny question and when I looked at the draft presentations people made I noticed almost everyone thought they were dealing with just facts. I beefed up the size of the question to encourage people to consider it more consciously and things changed quite a bit.

Sometimes, of course, you’re being asked to make a presentation precisely because you’re going to go beyond the facts. I get that. At that point you’re into ‘guru’ status. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you do two things:

  • make it screamingly obvious to your audience that you’re making a JP
  • remember that old story that important Romans had a slave (an Auriga) whose job it was to constantly whisper in his ear “Memento Mori” (“remember you are mortal”)

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