Don’t let your cup “runneth over”

In the previous blog you read about how presentations that go on too long bore audiences; but presentations that go too deep have an even worse effect: audiences forget the content.

In a book called Zen in the Martial Arts, author Joe Hyams tells the story of a university professor who visited a Japanese Zen Master to learn about Zen:

It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested that they have tea. The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept pouring.

The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. “The cup is overfull, no more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

James Collins, author of the novel Beginner’s Greek, addressed the phenomenon in a New York Times Book Review essay titled “The Plot Escapes Me.” Mr. Collins described how much he likes to read books, but that once he finishes, “I remember nothing about the book’s actual contents…all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two.” He went on to note that he is not alone, “most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.”

Curious about the phenomenon, Mr. Collins discussed it with Maryanne Wolf who, at the time, was a professor at Tufts University and Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. Wolf validated the experience, saying, “There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory.”

If readers forget content they’ve read, imagine how much more challenging it is for audiences who have only listened to a presentation.

So why would any presenter give any audience too much information?

The reason is that most presenters labor under the misconception that, in order for their audiences to understand anything, they have to be told everything.

I was guilty of that misconception when I was just 24 years old. Fresh out of Stanford, I returned to New York and landed a job working with radio personality Jean Shepherd. Shep, who later created the classic holiday film A Christmas Story, was the host of a late-night talk show on New York’s WOR radio. His rambling, free-form monologues earned him a cult following. 

One day, Shep turned to me and, apropos of nothing, said, “If Hollywood decided to do the Jerry Weissman story, do you think they could do it justice?”

My immediate reaction was to scoff and say, “No way, there’s far too much to tell!”

That’s precisely how it is for presenters who spend most of their waking hours immersed in their company’s business.

The solution: set a cap. Use the same rule as you would to avoid Death by PowerPoint: Less is More.

Think of your presentation as a series of major themes or buckets, and set the limit at six. But use six only for very technical subjects. Better to stay with three to five.any information you include clearly relates to those themes. Then, as you present, keep referencing the themes and tying the details back to them. Your audience will get the big themes and the main point of your story. 

Otherwise your, and their, cup will overflow. 

Or your audience might think of you, as Sir Winston Churchill did after hearing a Member of Parliament go too deep:

I can well understand the Honourable Member’s wishing to speak on. He needs the practice badly.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.