Great books and movies often rely on a villain and a hero. An applause-worthy presentation should do the same. In a movie the villain, or antagonist, is the bad guy who's up to no good. Enter the hero, the protagonist, to make the world safe again. In a presentation, the role of the antagonist can be played by either a direct competitor or a problem in need of a solution. Your brand, product, company, or solution can play the protagonist.
The key difference between a book or movie and a presentation is when the villain's identity is revealed. The other night I watched The Bone Collector, with Denzel Washington. It would have been far less suspenseful and ultimately unsatisfactory for the villain to be revealed at the beginning of the movie rather than in the final 10 minutes, when his identity became known. This is formulaic, but it works. In presentations, your audiences need to understand the extent of the problem before the heroes make their appearance.
In the past few weeks, I've met with several groups of managers from industries that range from defense to pharmaceuticals. In each case, they asked for help to communicate their messages more effectively. Their messages had nothing in common, except that in each case the organization could identify a problem in need of a solution—their solution.
For example, I met with a group of nuclear scientists at a well-known national lab. A successful presentation could mean the difference between receiving millions of dollars in funding or leaving empty-handed. I learned that in addition to building new weapons, these labs are involved in creating technology to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. It's a substantial and important part of their research. The villain in this case is a problem: The U.S. has substantial amounts of coal, but extracting it causes significant environmental damage. The hero is the lab's technology, which allows coal to be removed in a way that reduces harmful effects to the environment.
Presenting a three-part drama
By structuring the presentation as problem/solution, we were able to develop a three-part structure that the scientists could use for their funding presentations:
Part One. The problem: extracting coal from under the ground.
Part Two. The solution: the lab's technology, which minimizes the harmful effects of extracting coal.
Part Three. The explanation: why this particular lab is best-positioned to offer the solution.
I also spent time with a group of oncology medical professionals attending a conference sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company that was promoting new oral chemotherapy medicines to medical providers. Before revealing the benefits of oral chemo, the trainers spent a few minutes introducing the villain: the problem patients encounter as they take their medicine orally. The presentation started with a strong claim that grabbed the attention of the audience—89% of patients prefer to take their medicine orally when available. The next sequence of slides outlined the three problems: side effects, safety, and compliance. Once the problem (the villain) was introduced, the conversation easily flowed into the next series of slides, which described the drug company's new therapies and how those therapies provide a solution to each of the three problems that were introduced earlier.
Once you have created the villain-hero scenario, you must decide how much time you'll take to set up the narrative. I've seen masterful presentations where the speaker discussed the problem in two to five minutes. So as a general guideline, for a 20-minute presentation, spend no more than five minutes (one quarter of the time) introducing the antagonist. Remember, the majority of your presentation should be devoted to introducing the hero and selling the benefit behind the hero's power: solutions. Don't forget to conclude the presentation with an image of how the world will look once the villain is vanquished.