Write For Your Audience

There are many ways in which communication fails. Very often, this is because the writer (or speaker) forgets to take the audience into account. This is becoming increasingly clear in English 408A, the course on Media Writing that I'm taking this term. The current chapter we're discussing is Copywriting and Advertising. Batty and Cain have a lot to say about this, but the most important part of writing effective copy is to "always put the reader first" (p 159). I've attended lectures and presentations where the speaker is often from business management, speaking to technical developers, where much of the message is lost because they're using the specific jargon of the business environment. Those of us in the audience spend our time trying to figure out what euphemisms like business process excellence, and synergy really mean, rather than trying to follow the speaker's line of thought.

While Batty and Cain are talking about writing copy that sells products, the same theories apply to speeches where you want to influence others. I read a great blog post by John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, which suggests that great leadership has a strong storytelling component.

This is also one of the key points of Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen. With a great story narrative, a speaker can weave together the elements that would have been dropped into technical bullet points. They will be more memorable if related with a good story.

Keeping Your Audience Awake With Powerful Presentations

While I have great respect for the written word, there are places where they are inappropriate. One great example is in presentation slides. I've seen some horrible presentations in the past. Thankfully, I haven't inflicted many on others. The presentations I'm referring to are the ones where several paragraphs of text are on the screen, allowing those attending the presentation to quickly scan ahead before the presenter gets around to reading them verbatim. I wish I was exaggerating. I wish this would come as a shock to others. I've been a fan of Presentation Zen for some time, where the emphasis is not on presenting data or text, but to engage with the material in a much more immediate way.

In presenting as little text as possible on the slides, with a focus on images and simple graphs, a natural narrative emerges, so the presenter can narrate a much more interesting presentation. Think about Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. While Gore's status and the controversial subject matter helped win audiences, this film would not have been made, nor would it have won an Academy Award were it not for Gore's style of presentation.

When I enrolled in English 320 "The History and Theory of Media - 2", one of the assignments was a class presentation that engaged with the theories. I took some of the ideas of Presentation Zen, and Nancy Duarte's book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations to heart. My presentation was media-intensive. It included numerous photographs, and embedded videos from news reports. What information I did present on the slides, I revealed point by point, as I expanded upon the bare essentials.

I think the presentation worked quite well, there was certainly some good discussion in the class afterwards. I can't claim to have fully engaged with the style of presentation that Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate. This style of presentation is a great deal more effort than dumping a document into presentation software, but I felt more engaged with the subject matter. As I wasn't regurgitating long textual quotes, I feel that the other students in the room weren't as likely to drift off.

If you try to pass off documents as presentations, or have in the past, how effective do you think they really are? I challenge you to try something different next time. Your audience will thank you.