In Praise of Examples

Harvard Business School (HBS) established the gold standard for learning with its case study method. In that curriculum, students learn how to deal with real business situations in participatory exercises. As Nitin Nohria, the Dean of HBS, explains, “Cases expose students to real business dilemmas and decisions. Cases teach students to size up business problems quickly while considering the broader organizational, industry, and societal context.”

In doing so, HBS is following the precepts coined by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who wrote:

I hear and I forget

I see and I remember

I do and I understand

This is not to recommend that presenters do more—they are already busy “doing” every minute of every business day of their lives—but that they illustrate their stories with the narrative equivalent of the HBS case study method, by adding examples to their presentations. Professional writers have long followed the principle, “Show don’t tell” to illuminate their narratives.

Unfortunately, presenters, in their rushed lives, often take a short cut and deliver “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

There is a very good reason to go beyond the “the facts.” A New York Times article reported on scientific research that demonstrated the value of case studies and examples. 

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. 

Another study done at York University in Canada, found that:

[T]here was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals. Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies.

You can illustrate the value of your business with examples of satisfied customers who bought your products or services, of partners with whom you developed win-win relationships, or of investors who profited from funding your company.

And when you do, put those examples into human terms; use their names. People like to hear about people.

This is particularly applicable in Life Sciences. Many of Suasive’s clients in that sector are eager to share their exciting new drug, device, or procedure with potential investors, partners, or customers, and so they load up their presentations with chapter and verse about their drug, device, or procedure. At that point, we stop them and ask them to include a case study about a patient who benefited from the solution. As soon as their audiences hear a human aspect, they empathize and relate positively. 

The Wall Street Journal has a daily human interest story on its otherwise “just the facts” front page. They call the feature “A-hed,” which they describe as “more than a news feature. Ideas rise out of our personalities, our curiosities and our passions.”

Activate neural activity in your audiences by including examples in your presentations.

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.