Presentations - Sales

The 80/20 Rule in Presentations

Most of what you say will be quickly forgotten.

Think of the last presentation you attended. How much of what the speaker said do you remember?

Chances are, it’s very little. One study found that, immediately after a 10 minute presentation, the audience had already forgotten 50% of what had just been said. That figure dropped to 25% by the next day and only 10% a week later.[1]

Looking at it another way, let’s consider the ubiquitous Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 rule. In a normal distribution, roughly 80% of the result comes from 20% of the inputs. I believe it also applies to the details you include in your presentations. Regardless of how interesting your topic, how many stories and examples you include, and how much of your own passion you put in, the stark fact is that most of your audience will immediately forget most of what you said. If they are going to discuss and then decide immediately after you stop speaking, this might not be so bad, but that’s not always the case.

If they’re going to make a decision later, the key question to you as a speaker is: Which 10% do you want them to remember? If you can ensure that the most critical information is that which hits home and sticks, you will have a successful presentation. If you structure your presentation and select your evidence with this thought in mind, you will have a successful presentation. If they are clear about your message a week later, you will have a successful presentation. Otherwise, you will probably end up in the forgettable 80%.

Here are the top three things you can do to make the memorable 20%:

Control the headline. If a reporter attended your talk and then wrote a headline about it, what would it say? You need to control the headline. Before slapping down a lot of stuff on paper (or into your Powerpoint) you must first determine exactly what you want to accomplish with your presentation, and why your listeners should do what you want them to do. If you can focus this down to one sentence, you have a clear theme that you can build the rest of your talk around.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. There are three steps to creating an effective headline. Suppose you want to get your audience from Point A to Point B. First, you have to be clear in your own mind what Point B is: what you want the audience to do as a result of your presentation. Second, you must know where your audience stands at the moment you begin your talk—what is Point A? For example, suppose your audience is neutral; are they neutral because they don’t know about the issue; because they know about it but don’t see why they should care; or know and care but are undecided about the best course of action? Finally, you have to know your audience’s needs and concerns well enough to know why they should do what you want them to do.

Practice Need to Know. In intelligence circles, Need to Know is one of the most fundamental principles. If you have a need to know something in order to do your job, you may be told; otherwise, no matter how high your clearance, you will not be given the information. You should be just as strict in the application of this principle as the most paranoid of spymasters—if they don’t have a need to know the information to make the decision you want them to make, don’t give it to them.

Get rid of the “nice-to-knows” and the cool and interesting details. Sure, they add interest to your talk, but they will be remembered when the decision must be made and will crowd out the critical few pieces they need. If you want to keep it interesting, make sure your stories and examples directly support the NTKs.

Focus on the Critical Few. In sales presentations, the standard seems to be a talking version of the corporate brochure, with engaging pictures and complete lists of features. It’s all good stuff, and of course you’re proud of it, but leave most of it in the brochure, which you can leave behind after your presentation. And it’s not just sales presentations. I’ve sat through plenty of internally-focused technical presentations in which the underlying theme seems to be to show how smart the presenter is rather than to drive effective action. If they want to know what time it is, don’t brag about the quality of your watch or how much you paid for it.

When you have a strong case with many benefits for the listeners, or a product with a lot of advantages, it’s tempting to pack them all into your presentation, or to throw as much as possible against the wall in the hope that some will stick. Resist the temptation: to many benefits my result in the weaker ones diluting the stronger ones. Less is definitely more. As Churchill said: “Facts are like cigars. Choose only the strongest and the finest.”

This is a fascinating topic to me, and there is so much more I could have told you about the psychology of what your listeners remember and why—but here’s the critical 20% you need: be clear about your message, practice Need to Know, and focus on the Critical Few. Your listeners will thank you for it, and your presentations will pack much more punch.


[1]Perceptive Listening, Florence I Wolff and Nadine C. Marsnick, p. 3

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