24 January 2014

The Art of Storytelling: Interview with Cristiano Carriero

Hundreds, thousands of years ago, when people didn’t know how to write, they used to pass on their knowledge between generations by telling stories. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Cristiano Carriero, Content Manager at Apra and Editor at Bloglive so I thought I’d get him to share some of his insights into storytelling. Cristiano is a storyteller. He lives to write and writes to live. He helps companies sell their products through stories. It might not sound romantic, but even Dante Alighieri used to write for commission. Cristiano is a modern copywriter, ranging from claims to tales andwhen he has time (he says we always have time as long as we know how to find it)writes novels. The last one is Domani no.
First of all, congratulations for your recent presentation at the Master Fiordirisorse. I very much liked it both content-wise and design-wise. Do you follow any particular guidelines? Are you supported by a graphic design expert?
Yes, I am. I believe in collaboration. I come up with words, stories and an idea of what my presentation should look like, but then I cooperate with Graziano Giacani. Our aim is to find a visual identity which would distinguish myself. We look for elements which are a good fit with my personality, look and tone. An example is the bear I used in my slides. You know Andrea, it’s a pity you were not among the audience,  otherwise you would have realised my presentation was tailor-made to my speech. That’s why I started with a game and, at a certain point, took off my jumper which was having too much attention. Nothing is left to chance.
You talked about a topic which every presenter (and not only) should be aware of: storytelling. What is storytelling?
Much has already been said on storytelling. To me storytelling is the art of making people stick with a story, of forcing them not to leave it in order to find out how it ends. As counterintuitive as this may seem, you can also use storytelling to sell products and services. Of course it all depends on how good you are at telling stories. However, the good news is storytelling is not an innate skill. In fact, today you can practise every day on the web.
One of the pieces of advice you gave is to “find out who your readers are and why they read what you write”. When it comes to presentations, how do you find out who your audience is and why they care about your ideas?
Let me start with a metaphor: if I am a referee I need to know the teams I am going to referee. I need to understand how they play, whether one team is stronger than the other, which kind of game I should expect. This is not because you want to be biased; rather, you want to understand as much as possible what to expect from the match. The same holds with a presentation. Before starting to prepare it, you should have an idea of which kind of audience is going to listen to you. Will they understand your points? Are they curious? Are they students or managers? Do they know anything about what you will be talking about?
Another tip you gave is the use of examples and concepts familiar to the reader. Giving examples is also important during a presentation. Could you tell us why they are so powerful?
Using examples is essential in any context. Children need examples, our life is a continuous search for examples. The metaphorwhich is a poetically attractive elementis the highest form of example.

You talked about reader engagement. How do you engage your audience?
To engage the reader means to write with the reader in mind. If you write for yourself, nobody will appreciate and share you work. You need to challenge people’s ideas, ask questions and make people angry if necessary. This is true not only when you write, but when you present as well. Never look at the same group of people in your audience! This is one of the keys to making a successful presentation. By looking at peoples’ eyes you can easily understand whether your audience is engaged or not.
Are there any secrets to make an average story a great one?
There is no secret to telling a great story. However, there are writing techniques: a nice intro, an ero, a bad character, a fall and a comeback, a memorable conclusion. These techniques are also used (or should be used) by companies telling the story behind their brands or products. For instance, if you are writing a post about social media within companies, the bad character could be a manager preventing employees from using social media tools, the fall could be a Social Media Manager suffering from dissatisfaction before going back up. There is always a story to tell.
Why do you think people should use visual elements and be original when searching for images?
Images are getting more and more trivial on the web. Everybody knows how to look for an image on Google Images. Those who are more proactive go to places like Pinterest to steal photos posted from others. But think about how creative a presentation with an ad hoc and Google index-linked infographic can be. There are tools which allow you to create visually compelling infographics, such as Visual.ly, Google Chart o Infogr.am. Although my advice is to ask an expert for support, especially for presentations or posts for which the stakes are high.
"Sometimes it takes longer to find the right title than writing an entire post”. Do you think we should also spend time to find a great title for our presentations?
The title is 70% of your work. And yes, this holds for presentations too, especially today when presentations are being searched for on Slideshare to be downloaded and shared. In general, the title is always fundamental. Think of a film, a song, or a book. How many times have you been attracted by a book because of its title? How important is the title for a film? It's so important that it gets translated into different languages in order to accommodate different tastes and habits. In a world dominated by social media, a title is memorable when it becomes a hashtag in Twitter.
“Every text, be it an sms, an email, a presentation, should include a golden coin for the reader”. What do you mean?
The golden coin is a memorable sentence. That sentence that used to force you to dirty a book by underlining it. That sentence which must be tweeted or shared on Facebook together with the post you wrote. That sentence which pushes your audience to make a photo of your slide. That sentence which helps make your work memorable. I call it golden coin because today we read much faster than yesterday, so we more than ever need a precious ingredient. An ingredient which once would have been looked after, today it would be shared.

11 January 2014

Slides or Documents? How to Avoid Slideuments

A few weeks ago I showed a friend of mine a presentation I recently made for a company. The objective of this presentation was to show two of their potential customers what that company was able to do in a particular business. This guy looked at the deck and told me: “Your presentation is vey beautiful, as always. However, since it is supposed to be addressed to a customer, you need to fill in the slides with more content”. This answer is the reason why I decided to write a new post.

I agree, content is king. However, as the guys at Big Fish Presentations would say, design is its queen. You don't have to include every single detail in your slides. In fact, slides should be as visual as possible to complement your talk.

I see a huge problem in today’s presentation design: people confuse slides with documents. However, slides and documents are not the same thing. What happens is that in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, people shoot for the middle and create slides which are nothing but text documents. The result is what Garr Reynolds call slideumentsIn her book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Nancy Duarte define a slideument as “a slide that’s really a text document created as a slide”.

I think there are 3 main causes leading to the creation of slideuments.

  • A corporate reason. Inside organisations of any kindcompanies, universities, conferencesrules against good presentation design flourish. From employees being asked to print slides for later use to conference managers asking speakers to hand in their presentation in advance. Even professors often warn students from creating visual slides for their dissertation speech. Those are all bad habits which need to be challenged because they go against what many pieces of research have proven to be effective in visual communication.
  • A cultural reason. People are so used to Death by PowerPoint that consider certain habits to be acceptable. In his book Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace, entrepreneur Ricardo Semler wrote about dress codes this way: “people want to feel secure and one way to accomplish this is to dress like anybody else”. I think that Semler’s view on the uselessness of dress codes applies to presentation design too. People want to feel secure and one way to accomplish this is to present like anybody else.    
  • A practical reason. As a Brain Slides article pointed out back in 2011, a presentation is meant to be an oral delivery of information. A document, instead, is useful to provide textual information. Therefore, “documents are meant to be information dense, while slides are not”. It’s that simple, it does not make sense to use PowerPoint to create documents (when I say PowerPoint I mean any presentation tool, like Keynote, Prezi, etc.).
Truth is, you don’t have to use slides, but if you do, make them visual. Steve Jobsone of the best presenters of corporate products eversaid that “people who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint”. Slides are not meant to stand alone. You are the presentation. Slides must only support your talk by helping you make your point clearer to your audience.

Sometimes though, more details are needed. You may want to explain a graph better, or give more information about your products or services. What you can do is to print out a document as a handout in which you can include as many details as you like. A handout is a written document which allows you to show the details of your topic without compromising the effectiveness of your visuals. Anything which is impossible to show in the visual presentationbut still important for the audience to knowshould be presented in the form of a handout. This document can be given after the presentation so that those who are interested in knowing more about your topic or your company have something to use as a reference. Alternatively, you can hand it in during your talk and refer to it if you need to show more details. Say for example you want your potential customer to know all the specifications of a product you would like to offer to them. Instead of including all the details in a bullet point-style slide, why not show a high quality photo of your product, explain your potential customer how they can benefit from it and invite them to look at the handout for the specs? This is also a way to build breaks, change the path of your presentation and make the attention span longer.  

The solution is not to avoid details, as many people think. The solution is to use both visual slides that complement your talk and a handout in which you can include as many details as you need.

You may be thinking, “but this takes time!”. Yes, it does. Then, find the time! I am not suggesting something faster, I am suggesting something better. But think about it, what are the stakes? Making an effective presentation might help you get funded by an investor, or gain a new customer, or get a project approved by your boss. It is not (only) about creating something which is well-designed, sometimes the stakes are so high that it is worth spending time to stand out from the crowd and gain your audience’s trust.


Garr Reynolds - Slideuments and the catch-22 for conference speakers

Martin Fowler - Slideument
Oliver Adria - Slideuments and how to avoid them
Presentation Impact - Turning ‘slideuments’ into visual aids
Phil Waknell - Do Investors Like Slideuments?
Brain Slides - A Solution to Slideuments