Thesis: the audience

1. The Westin
2. The Savannah Board of Tourism
The three members of my thesis committee (all of which I have to consider individually)
3. George Head
4. Mike Devine
5. Ruth Hutson
6. The rest of my graduating class
7. family, friends and other students who come to a special thesis presentation the Thursday before graduation

In a previous post I identified these seven audience member types as crucial to developing my thesis presentation. Essentially I will be giving multiple presentations at once to multiple audiences, making delivering this thesis particularly difficult.

I need to get to know my audience a bit better in order to sort out how best to communicate with them, but I need to do this without explicitly speaking with them about what they expect. I could simply ask everyone what I should do, but that would totally defeat the purpose of learning how to craft a message based on limited information leading to perceived insight. Each audience type has a different way that they view the world, and each will have different expectations from me, and I need to do my best to anticipate this on my own. Once I fully understand their needs to the best of my abilities, I can craft my assets and deliverables to meet those needs.

Firstly, I will need to pitch the broad concept to both the Westin Hotel as well as the Savannah board of tourism. While these two groups will not actually be at my presentation, I still need to consider them my primary audience. Beyond that, I will have to draw a broader ring around that proposal, having to pitch the idea of pitching the idea to my professors on my thesis committee. They are the ones who have the knowledge and expertise to know if the proposal (and entire concept underlying my thesis) is viable. Then, to add another layer of complexity, I will have to draw a greater ring around that, presenting to the other students graduating with me, as well as the students and families who come out to a special open house.

I think that’s everyone. I hope…

I will need strong visual communication to deliver pertinent information, and I will need to devise a couple “wow” factors, but this also is tricky, seeing as how the same thing that will wow the Westin or the Savannah Board of Tourism is not necessarily the same thing that will wow students and faculty. Each message I deliver will need to be somewhat different from one another.

I would like to look at each audience individually. It makes the most sense to me to go backwards through my list, so I will begin with:

7. Family, friends and other students who come to a special thesis presentation the Thursday before graduation — On the Thursday night before graduation, the graduating class is putting together a special open house presentation for our families and friends, as well as any other students who wish to attend. The purpose of this is to give those of us who choose to present a chance to shine, but more than this, it is a chance for students who will begin working on their own thesis in the coming months to see what is involved.

Except for a few people, this group is entirely unfamiliar with my thesis, and will only be there to see the show. My presentation, if I choose to participate, will be one of several and will likely be a very truncated version of anything that I present to my thesis committee. I don’t need to persuade them of anything, I just need to give them a punchy show, and then get out of the way so that the next presenter can show off what he or she has done.

6. The rest of my graduating class — This group is very similar to the first, with a couple notable exceptions. Some of them may attend my actual thesis presentation, but likely all of them will be there for the Thursday night open house since many of them will be participating.

They are similar to family and friends in that I don’t need to persuade them of anything. One big difference between this audience type and the previous group, however, is that they will know exactly what my thesis is all about. At this point, everyone in my graduating class has heard me talk about my project endlessly, wrestling with it and desperately trying to come to terms with how to proceed, so they will already be coming in with a somewhat solid grounding in the material. I would like to impress this group, but that is easier said than done. They are all tremendously talented designers and storytellers, so they will not be fooled by goofy tricks or by something they have already seen me do in the past. I will need to hit them with something a little different.

Another big difference between this group and the last, one that works very much in my favor, is that they will all be exhausted. Everyone in my graduating class has been working on their own thesis projects, so they are likely to be as brain dead as I will be. If I can throw in one or two particularly memorable moments, they will be left with that as their primary takeaway.

Now I move on to the three professors on my thesis committee. Not to discount the previous audience types, but this group is much more important as these are the people who need to officially sign off on my paper and project so that I can graduate. I have actively avoided talking with this group about the specifics of my project, instead just seeking general advice, as a way of trying to train my brain to anticipate their expectations. First on the list is:

5. Ruth Hutson — Ruth is my projections professor and a no nonsense (well, maybe some nonsense) lighting designer who lives and breathes theater. She is a person who knows how to get the job done, even when dealing with the most wildly unpredictable variable of them all — theater people.

Since the focus of my thesis has shifted to be more of a rumination on presentation than a projections show, I have not had the opportunity to make use of her lighting expertise in the way I had anticipated. However, just having the opportunity to work in the projections lab and to watch her working in her element has really added some solid grounding to my thesis as a whole.

She will want to see that I have at least thought through the logistics of the projection show on a base level. She won’t be looking for lighting schematics, but she will want to see that I have considered projector placement, coverage possibilities, and that I have design thinking that demonstrates a core competency when it comes to the possibilities and limitations of both the software and hardware.

4. Mike Devine — Mike is a veteran illustrator and concept artist who spent time working in theater and film, as well as working for Walt Disney Imagineering. Most notably, he worked on Tokyo Disney Sea, the theme park that many consider to be the greatest in the world. He has an extraordinary eye for visual storytelling, and can spot plot holes instantly. What makes him so special is the fact that he can fill those holes just as quickly with such an obvious simplicity that you are always left thinking, “why in the world didn’t I think of that?!?!”

For Mike, I will need to make sure that my visuals communicate my intent effectively, and that they are correct for the phase of the project. I also need to make sure my storyline is as tight as I can make it, since I don’t want to make an early mistake and lose him to distraction for the rest of the presentation.

3. George Head — George is an Imagineering veteran and the chair of the Themed Entertainment Design program. He spent his career working in many departments, often ones that he created. He formed the show quality standards department to help maintain design integrity over the passage of time, as original intent can get lost as the parks change. Another of George’s job functions saw him occupying the space in between Imagineering and park operations, trying to convince one side to make better stuff while trying to convince the other side to take better care of the stuff they had. This drove him to push for sustainable products (particularly the water-based ride vehicles, or, as they are often called, “boats”), a practical solution that would lead to better quality products while at the same time call for far less maintenance.

All of this experience makes George uniquely qualified to judge the logistics of a project without losing sight of the real reason why we build these things in the first place. He will want to see that I have thought through entry and exit points, as well as how people will move through the space, and that people are moving to the correct space. Above all else, he will want to see that having a show in this location, in this format, and at specific times of the year makes sense.

Finally I come around to the last two audience member types, the ones that I would actually be talking to if I was looking to get buyin on the project. I know the least about these audiences, but based on context clues and a little deductive reasoning, I can take an educated guess as to what their mindset might be.

2. The Savannah Board of Tourism — As I have said before, Savannah is very protective of itself, being the city that was too beautiful to burn. The city has a firm grip on everything that happens, exerting control, both reasonably and, to many, unreasonably, over projects that alter it in any way. The board of tourism has a strong hand in this, and must walk that fine line between actively working to attract new tourists and leaving things just so. If it is going to tip one way or the other, it will always fall forcefully towards preservation over innovation.

If I were to stand up in front of the board and start talking about pixel mapping, they would be utterly confused. I must present them with the broad concept, and in order to even peak their interest, the board of tourism will need to have a few of their questions answered: Does a show like this honor this history of Savannah? Is it in line with what Savannah is all about? Have other cities (besides the big, fancy ones) done anything like this? Does this show bring in new tourists? Does it keep them here for a little longer? Does it bring them back again?

Without going too much further into it, this all leads straight into:

1. The Westin — The Westin Hotel is quite similar to Savannah in that it is looking out for its best interests. Its interests, one would imagine, are far less complex than Savannah’s. It doesn’t need to maintain the history of this or that, it just needs to bring in customers. And so it will have a similar set of questions that need answering: Does this show bring in new customers? Does it keep them here for a little longer? Does it bring them back again?

If I can answer these questions, or rather, if I can present them with the correct information that they can answer these questions for themselves (Andrew Stanton’s theory of 2+2), then I can bring them right along with me, involving them, making them the hero of this story. If that happens, maybe, just maybe, they will become so enamored with the idea that they will forget to ask the most obvious question there is — how much will this cost.

Thesis: storytelling is joke telling



A week or two into grad school our professor showed us this, Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL•E, talking about storytelling. He warned us that there was some bad language, and asked that we not tell our parents that he showed us this (Sorry professor, my mom is an avid reader of my blog! And sorry mom! There is some bad language, but it’s alright because my professor said it was ok!).

In this video, Stanton opens with a joke, and it is absolutely brilliant, both in content but also in structure. You know that person who ruins a magic trick by explaining how it works? Or that person who spoils the illusion at the Haunted Mansion ride by telling you how the ghosts fly around? Or that person who totally kills a good joke by over-analyzing it? Anyway, we know that this is probably going to be a joke by the way he begins, setting the stage — tourist in a Scottish pub, just him, the bartender and an old man. Basically, guy walks into a bar. Then he begins the narrative, establishing the rules for what we are going to hear — old man suddenly launches into a rant, saying he built the bar, elaborating on the care and craftsmanship that went into building it, but with disdain says, “do they call me McGregor the bar builder? No!” Stanton repeats this same concept twice, listing other accomplishments the man feels are worthy of note — “McGregor the stone wall builder? No! McGregor the pier builder? No!” Each time he delivers these lines, Stanton puts slightly less emphasis on the craft and adds more emphasis to the “McGregor the [noun][noun modifier]” construct. This is what he wants us to remember. Then, after a brief pause, he delivers the punchline. “But you [have sexual relations with] one goat…”

And the crowd goes wild. Immediate laughter, steady laughter, delayed laughter. It is funny at first, it is funny at second and it is funny as it rounds third on its way into home.

Stanton continues:

Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline. Your ending. Knowing that everything you are saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal. And ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.

Stanton’s joke is carefully crafted. All of the details he gives, even the minor ones, are important to the punchline, either directly (“old man nursing a beer” lets us understand the old man’s emotional state that led to his sudden outburst) or indirectly (“tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland” explains why the man is alone, establishing mood and setting). Nothing distracts. Nothing detracts. He brings his story to a close, and even if the audience members don’t know where he is going, they can feel it.

“Stories,” Stanton says later on, “are inevitable if they are good, but they are not predictable.”

A presentation, as Nancy Duarte contends, is a story that follows a structure, and if storytelling is joke telling, then delivering a presentation is just like delivering a joke. It is a carefully constructed narrative, establishing the rules, incorporating only the details we need, stripping details away to emphasize the points that we need to remember, and finally delivering the punchline.

On a blog for a business called Crew, the author points out his own findings on the similarities between storytelling and joke telling:

The root of a good joke is the surprise — the punchline.

A comedian may be talking about a common experience like driving to work, which you’d probably consider to be an uneventful thing. But a great comedian will finish off the story with an unexpected twist, making you laugh.

The beautiful thing about surprise is it helps make things more interesting and sticky in your brain.

This ‘stickiness’ happens because your laughter triggers the release of the pleasure chemical, dopamine, which causes you to have natural, drug-like, happy feelings and helps you remember what was said.

John Medina, a biologist and author of the book Brain Rules, noted,

“The brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things. When the brain detects an emotionally-charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Dopamine aids memory and information processing. It’s like a mental post-it note that tells your brain, remember this.”

Humor helps encode memories because it evokes an emotion, but a knee-slapping joke isn’t the only way to trigger the effects of surprise.

The surprise factor is clearly what makes a great joke hit home, and it is surprise that can lead to a presentation that sticks with an audience long after it has finished.

The genius of Stanton’s joke, however, comes at the very end. Obviously that is where the punchline lives, but it’s not just what he says that has so much impact, it’s what he doesn’t say. He stops short. He has given us “McGregor the [noun][noun modifier]” three times already, then gives us a new an unexpected scenario. He lets us fill in the rest of the story and discover the real punchline for ourselves (Haha! “You [have sexual relations with] one goat!” Ooohh wait! I bet they call him “McGregor the goat [sexual relations with haver]!!!”).

This is so vital to great, persuasive storytelling. It’s what Stanton calls “the unifying theory of 2+2,” an attempt to create a lasting impact by letting the audience put the pieces together themselves. “Don’t give them 4,” he says, “give them 2+2.” It is another application of the old saying, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve and I understand.” There is no better way to involve a person than by giving them a problem to solve. And notice he hasn’t given the audience a difficult problem to solve, they have what they need, they just have to put forth a tiny little bit of effort, but the payoff is enormous.

I’m going to give the audience the pieces — I talk about the emotional impact close proximity to live animals can have, also there is a big freaking tiger in this room — but the real change comes when I leave space for the audience to come to the conclusion — we must have live animals in our new theme park.

Finally, at about 15:20 in the video, Stanton says:

When I was 5 I was introduced to possibly the most major ingredient that I feel a story should have, but is rarely invoked.

He shows a clip from the film Bambi, the classic scene where Bambi plays on the ice for the first time. He continues:

I walked out of there wide-eyed with wonder. And that’s what I think the magic ingredient is. The secret sauce. Can you invoke wonder? Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent, it can’t be artificially evoked, for me there is no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling. To hold them still just for a brief moment in their day, and have them surrender to wonder.

This is the holy grail. The thing that binds everything together. I am building the structure, the what is vs. what could be, the heroes and villains, the rising and falling action, the message tailored to the specific audience, the surprises that defy expectations, the careful use of details that matter and the deletion of those that don’t, the theater and the visual literacy. If I can make my audience feel like Bambi experiencing the world for the first time, then I will have created something worthy of true wonder.

Or at least a B+.

Thesis: know your audience

Phil Hettema does a lot of presenting. I spoke with him briefly about the focus of my thesis and the shift away from the design of a projection show and onto the design of the presentation aspect of it. I asked if, during one of his many presentations, he had ever done anything way over the top and theatrical. “Oh sure,” he said.

He told me that many years before Harry Potter was anywhere near the cultural phenomenon it is now, the big theme park brands were all taking a stab at nailing down this hot property, with both Disney and Universal leading the charge. He was working for Universal at the time and put together the very first pitch to Warner Brothers. Phil and his team dressed an entire soundstage to suggest a magical world brought to life, hauled in the special effects guys to cast a few spells of their own, and even had an owl fly in from the back of the room.

Phil Hettema knew his audience. It’s the first of Mickey’s 10 Commandments for creating themed environments, and should be the first step when crafting a presentation. He knew that he needed to show Warner Brothers that Universal could handle this special story with the necessary magic and spectacle. Warner Brothers didn’t sign on the dotted line after that show, as J.K. Rowling still wanted to see what other companies had to offer, but Universal wound up winning the big prize in the end.

At the end of my previous post (if you made it that far…these things are long), I mentioned that I consider myself to have seven clients. Seven you say?? (even if you don’t, this is the audience participation part of the post and you don’t want to look bad in front of the other readers so go ahead and say it) Yes seven, but I don’t need to think of them all as “clients” but more as “audience character types.” For my thesis, it all comes down to knowing all seven of these types and trying to make each one of them the main character of my story. Each one needs to be the hero. If I haven’t fully thought through who I am talking to, how they see the world, what kind of information they are looking for, how they expect to be communicated with and how I can change those expectations, then my presentation is little more than a crap shoot.

Two great Disney presentations that I have looked at — the Disney Springs model presentation for prospective retail partners and the Joe Rohde tiger presentation for the Disney executives — are excellent examples of presenting from the standpoint of knowing your audience.

For Disney Springs, the model is designed to create a familiar setting for the audience, retail executives who are used to looking at white models (by the way, during the real presentation they don’t make the joke about “running out of paint” as Tom Staggs does in the video). This puts them at ease, but just when they get settled in, the model is bathed in vibrant color and the straight laced retail executives become little kids again, scooting around to get a closer look. They want to be a part of this magic.

The Joe Rohde tiger presentation follows a similar pattern, using a small conference room as the setting, which is quite familiar to Disney executives. Just when the audience members get shoulder to shoulder in their seats, a huge tiger stalks into the room, brushing up against everyone as it passes around the table, causing the executives to experience a very personal, emotional reaction that they then translated outward into the design for an entire theme park.

The two presentations are very much alike — both are persuasive, both use familiar settings to establish a sense of comfort but then both use the unexpected to create an unfamiliar setting to achieve the desired result. From the outside, both presentations seem to be based on the gimmick (amazing model or big terrifying tiger), but are really designed to make each audience member go back inside of themselves and have a very singular experience.

The difference, however, lies in the way the message is crafted specifically for each audience. The Disney Springs presentation is designed to make button up executives loosen their ties and feel like little kids again. Try doing that to Disney executives and you are likely to get a massive eye roll and a, “Yeah yeah yeah…we know…little kid uh huh.” While not everyone at Imagineering is in touch with their inner child, they have heard that story way too many times for it to be effective. The Joe Rohde tiger presentation, on the other hand, is designed to shock executives into not seeing (because they think they have already seen everything), not imagining, but feeling on a gut level. If you were to try and run a live tiger a few inches from potential clients you are trying to woo into a business relationship, not only would you send them running for cover, you may wind up with a lawsuit on your hands.

These presentations are perfectly crafted for their intended audiences. I know this because I received a different presentation of the Disney Springs model than the media did in the video, which I know is far different from the one presented to actual clients. Media looking for cool video and punchy copy, clients looking for business opportunities and students looking to do a little good old fashioned learnin’ all have very different ways that they see the world, and to tell each of them the same story in the same way would miss the opportunity for greatest impact.

And so I come back around to my audience, the seven people that I want to impress. I need to understand each of them so that I can craft my message properly.

They are:
1. The Westin
2. The Savannah Board of Tourism
The three members of my thesis committee (all of which I have to consider individually)
3. George Head
4. Mike Devine
5. Ruth Hutson
6. The rest of my graduating class
And lastly
7. Family, friends and other students who come to a special thesis presentation the Thursday before graduation

We are going to have to get a little better acquainted with these folks. But first…how about a joke?

Thesis: there is a time and place for boxes

“At Disney, you can’t just create a PowerPoint presentation and say, ‘Hey, give me $10 million to build this,’ ” jokes Andy Schwalb. “It goes back to Walt himself,” explains a former top NGE manager. “The story carries the day.” Often, sources say, the “theater” of selling an idea is more important than the idea itself. [from the Fast Company article The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness]

This is a video of the Disney springs model, a highly detailed look at the newly renovated Downtown Disney, giving you a glimpse of what Disney shows to prospective clients when trying to convince them to open up shop in the new retail, dining and entertainment district. When giving an actual business partnership proposal, Disney brings representatives of a certain company into this room, shows them the white model, talks with them about their potential place in Disney Springs, and then turns on the magic with color bursting out of the center, letting them know that this is shopping with a Disney twist.

In the last post I talked about Steve Jobs metaphorically taking his audience on a journey, but in the themed entertainment industry, presenters must literally take their audience to an entirely new place. I had the opportunity to see the Disney Springs model and a similar presentation in person, and the video above does it no justice whatsoever. For one thing, the video doesn’t show the rest of the room, a very intimate setting tastefully adorned with elements that suggest the mood and materiality of Disney Springs, putting clients in the proper mindset before the presentation even begins. There are also vignettes around the room showing artist renderings of what the area will look like when it is complete. But it’s the model that is the main attraction. By itself it is fantastic, but when the music starts and the show begins, you are absolutely transported. Truthfully, I knew what was coming. I knew that the model was going to suddenly come to life, and it was still one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

This is a wonderful way to deliver a presentation. Disney could have put together a simple slideshow with one slide after the other with blocks of text and numbers meant to illustrate the presenter’s point, but that’s not very Disney.
In this article from Forbes, the author suggests that for a presentation to be its most effective, you should think beyond the slides.

…think of your visual aids as a way to evoke emotion. You’ve written the lyrics, now write the tune. Just as music quickly creates emotional states in listeners, so can pictures incite emotional responses to your material. Give us pictures of people in the situations you’re talking about. We’ll respond to their faces; we’re human. We can’t help it.

But beyond slides, think about demonstrations, music, video, props, co-presenters, and audience interaction. Each of these can be a far more engaging way to move your audience than the all-too-familiar slide deck. How can you change the dynamic of your presentation so that it’s not just you talking for 20 or 45 or 60 minutes?

You can ask an audience to tell their own stories, to brainstorm with you, to play games, to report to the group, to teach each other, to design responses, or to initiate a path forward. You can get them to perform, to testify, to compete, to daydream — don’t be limited by talking and slides.

The industry is full of stories about people delivering unique presentations, challenging their audience’s expectations and crafting a memorable experience that leaves the audience changed in some way. For the Disney Springs presentation, Disney knows that retailers and developers are used to seeing white models of potential retail locations. It is what they expect. What they don’t expect, however, is for that model to spring to life with vibrant colors, happy music, waving trees and gently flowing water. And they certainly don’t expect the sun to set, leaving the model in a beautiful nighttime mode with new music and lights twinkling in every window.

In the past I have designed a few presentations that attempted to break a bit from the norm, each with varying degrees of success. For one project called The Chicago Grandé Casino, the entirety of my presentation was simply me walking to the front of the room, hitting play on a video and walking back to my desk. It worked because a video with music and animated concept art was entirely unexpected and broke up the pattern of one slide presentation after the other. For another project in which I designed a queue line for a fictitious ride based on the film The Incredibles, I built a presentation in Keynote made to look and function like the computer interface of the film’s villain Syndrome. This was a simple slideshow, but because I used the method of delivery as part of the theme itself, it made the experience much richer.

As I said, my presentations have had varying degrees of success. For one class in which we built full-sized restaurant elements for a client, we wanted the tone of the presentation to be more conversational, and that, due to the nature of what we had produced, should encourage a dialogue. To achieve this, I decided that I would approach our clients — a group of about five or six — outside of the room where we were presenting, strike up a conversation and gradually transition into the presentation without them realizing it. If we started the presentation in conversation, perhaps we could continue that way, encouraging them to brainstorm with us on how these ideas could be taken further. We also had many pieces of paper around the room with individual concepts and ideas on them. As they passed by our mock ups, we would hand them the papers as though we were giving them menu items, with the thought that they could use these to mix and match ideas, creating their ideal restaurant. These were smart people and we felt they would enjoy an atmosphere where they could brainstorm on the spot.

It was a bust. Before the actual presentation, we did an official run through with a few people unfamiliar with the project and they were utterly confused. Instead of the soft start format being a change of pace, it was an annoyance that left them distracted. One participant, a professor who I didn’t know at the time but who I have really come to enjoy, actually stopped me and asked with an annoyed look on his face, “I’m sorry…is this the presentation, or…?” (I wanted to say, “Yes. Why? You got somewhere you gotta be, buddy?” Instead, I said, “Yes.”) There were other problems. I had set up a reveal moment where I threw open the doors to reveal our life-sized mock ups. Unfortunately it fell flat, with one professor saying, “If you are going to have a reveal, you need to have something more to reveal.” The papers, our little mix-and-match menu items, didn’t work either. Instead of being an idea generator, they were a cumbersome distraction as no one could seem to hold on to them.

I tried to defend the format, explaining my feeling that this was a client that needed permission to “interrupt” and have an active dialogue with us throughout, and if we wanted them to brainstorm with us at the end, we needed to grant that permission as early and as seamlessly as possible. The audience and, frankly, my entire group were against it. Even though I was sure it could work, I knew I had to give up the fight. The concept, like those goofy pieces of paper, fluttered to the floor.

Fortunately this was just a run through, so we had time to make adjustments, but it was still a great lesson learned. In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have worked. The same reasoning that lead me to structure the presentation in the way that I had should have also instantly lead me to abandon it. Because our audience needed “permission” to be active participants in our presentation, the unconventional format would have been disorienting and would have had the opposite effect.

So how can I use this knowledge? How can I create something unique that will transport my audience to a new place, but not a place so foreign that they can’t get their bearings? I need to know my audience, who I need to see as my client. It is time to reexamine my client. All seven of them.

Thesis: a closer look

So this should look familiar…

There it is. Steve Jobs and his iPhone. Again.

Posting this video from my previous post is what is known as repetition, a very effective presentation device. Writing that last sentence is what is known as lying, also a very effective presentation device.

Truthfully, I wanted to take a closer look at what makes this original iPhone presentation so successful and why so many people consider Jobs one of the greatest communicators we’ve ever seen. Certainly unpacking his method can help with my thesis presentation, if not directly then at least it can guide me in some abstracted form. This is what we in the thesis writin’ biz like to call “supporting research” or “pages 5-8.” If you don’t want to watch the video (which you should, because a presentation kinda works best when it is presented) I will sum it up.

Steve Jobs takes the stage and, after a long pause, speaks to the audience with a kind of reverence, telling them that Apple is unveiling three revolutionary products in the same class as the original Macintosh and the iPod, both of which permanently changed our lives. He tells them what the products are — a touchscreen iPod, a phone, and an Internet communications device — and then proceeds to knock the crowd over by saying it is, in fact, just one device that does all of these revolutionary things. The product is called iPhone.


(side note: you know someone is good at presenting when they tell you they are going to show you three things, then only show you one and you cheer for it)

The crowd goes crazy. He then proceeds to tell the audience why they need a new phone, pointing out the flaws of the current crop of smart phones and then showing how the iPhone is better. In the full version of this presentation, Steve Jobs gives a hands on demo of the phone, but this shortened version is enough to give you an idea.

From start to finish, the audience eats it up. But why? Granted, Jobs was presenting the coolest thing anyone had ever seen, but in 2007, the iPhone’s relative awesomeness was not a foregone conclusion. (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously laughed at the preposterousness of the iPhone). Carmine Gallo, author of the book The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, said, “People who witness a Steve Jobs presentation for the first time describe it as an extraordinary experience.” Much of this energy and excitement undoubtedly came from overhyped expectation, but surely there was more to it than that. Why is it that when this man held up his new product and said, “isn’t this cool?” everyone always said yes?

Many people have tried to figure out what is going on here. A presentation site called PowToon wades in, saying, “Jobs’ style is magical, it’s about leading the crowd to see what he will unveil next, what is the next big exciting toy that we can become obsessed with, what magical features will he discuss that are revolutionary and cutting edge. We wait to see what he will uncover. We wait with baited breath.”

Wow! Thanks! That’s not helpful at all!

The site does note that he “explains one idea at a time without using boring bullet points,” and that he “uses a strong visual to sum up his three key points,” but by calling his style “magical,” a word Jobs used frequently during his many presentations over the years, it becomes clear that the site lost track of trying to decode Jobs and got sucked up into his famous “reality distortion field.”

Other sites obviously do a much better job. This article from the previously mentioned Carmine Gallo writing for Forbes, approaches deconstructing Jobs’ presentations with a bit more seriousness. It reminds presenters to be passionate and pithy, as well as to be clear and communicate with visual literacy. Gallo is actually all over the place on the subject, with his many articles and books elaborating upon the tiniest details of presenting. He points out common sense concepts that are obvious, yet at the same time so very easy to forget when putting together a presentation. Still, it’s not terribly eye opening.

One of the more interesting takes I have found, however, on Steve Jobs and on presentations in general comes from persuasive presentation expert Nancy Duarte.

In the above TED talk in which Duarte gives a presentation about presentations (is your mind blown too???), she proposes two interesting ideas: that the audience is the main character, and that every great presentation can be visually mapped out using a specific shape.

First, the shape. Duarte suggests that presentations are stories, and since stories have a basic structure or shape, such as the basic three act structure or the five act pyramid, all great persuasive presentations must have their own unique shape as well. With this as her starting point, Duarte created this:


This simple line is a graph of an entire presentation and represents a very simple concept. The line along the bottom indicates when the speaker is talking about what is, while the line along the top indicates when the speaker is talking about what could be. That’s it. So when Steve Jobs says, “smart phones are really bad,” the line stays at the bottom, describing the past and present, or what is. When he says, “iPhone is way better,” the line jumps up to the top, describing the future or what could be. To Duarte, the greater the jump, the more you differentiate your new concept from the status quo, and the more frequently you vacillate between the two, the greater the momentum your presentation gains.

The other idea, that the audience is the main character in the story of your presentation, is far more interesting to me. Going back to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a way of describing the classic hero tale step-by-step (think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars), Duarte says that it is easy for the presenter to mistakenly think that he or she is the hero, and that the audience is going along for the ride much like when they watch a movie. Alternatively, a presenter might be tempted to think that the concept they are presenting is the hero. From her point of view, however, it is the audience that is the hero of this story, with the concept they are presenting being that special treasure or elixir that the hero has worked so hard to attain, and it is the presenter that brings the two together, acting as that crucial mentor.

Talking about the role of the presenter, Duarte says, “You’re not Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda. You’re the one who actually helps the audience move from one thing and into your new special idea.”

That’s the power of a great speaker. That’s the power of what Steve Jobs did so well and, for the sake of my thesis (and my grade), what I need to do. Again, Carmine Gallo said that Jobs “transformed the typical, dull, technical, plodding slideshow into a theatrical event complete with heroes, villains, a supporting cast, and stunning backdrops.” He didn’t just stand on stage with a new gadget, he took his audience on a journey, an adventure into the unknown.

For my thesis presentation and for all my presentations that I give throughout my career, I need to be the link between my audience and my new concept. I can’t simply give them the idea and expect them to get it. I have to help guide them towards the idea so that they can get it themselves. And when they come back from their journey and I say, “isn’t this cool?” the answer will be a resounding “YES.” Followed, hopefully, by an immediate, “Take our money. All of it.”

Thesis: mastering the pitch

This is Steve Jobs presenting the very first iPhone. The full version is much longer, but this gives you the highlights. Back then (waaaaayyyy back in 20 aught 7), no one had any idea what Apple would be showing at its events. There would be rumors and speculation, but it wasn’t until after Jobs said, “Isn’t this cool?” that we knew for sure what the future would look like, and this one was a jaw dropper.

Jobs was widely considered the master of the pitch, and everything that made him so special on stage is on display here. He had the difficult task of pointing out a problem that no one knew they had, presenting a product no one had ever heard of and then convincing everyone that they simply could not live without it. It is a performance that many consider to be one of the greatest ever, spawning countless presentations, books and blogs attempting to analyze his method and what makes this presentation so successful.

Now that my thesis is all about the design proposal, it is important to look at other presenters as well as various methods of presenting, and try to understand what works, what doesn’t and how different strategies can be adapted for various formats. How do you get buy in from management? How do you get a client to leave a design proposal feeling better than they did before they came in, yet having agreed to pay an exorbitant amount of money in the process? Understanding the crucial role presentation plays is vital to the success of the design, the project, and to the company as a whole.

When I first started grad school, I had the chance to talk with Phil Hettema, one of the giants in the industry (both figuratively and literally — seriously, the guy’s like 8 feet tall) and founder of the Hettema Group, a design firm in the themed entertainment industry. I asked him about presenting and how important it is for his job. He spent his career as a designer and creative lead, but he told me that now he spends almost all his time presenting and does very little design. He said, though, that it isn’t just the guy on stage pitching the design or product.

“You are always presenting,” he told me. “Even when you are just sitting at your desk showing your work to your art director, you are still presenting.”

I had heard Tony Baxter, a very prominent Imagineer, make similar comments in various interviews. He said that, unfortunately, you have to be part designer and part car salesman. This made me a little sad to hear. If the work is good, then it is good. I shouldn’t have to stand up and put on a show. I have always said that I want my work to speak for itself, that I want it to be about the design and not about me. But I have come to realize that a well conceived presentation isn’t about me, it is about setting the stage so the work can shine.

A good idea presented well will almost always beat out a great idea presented poorly. This is true for the presenter standing on stage, but it is true at every stage of a project, even the non-verbal ones. For example, here are a couple drawings of mine:



Good enough, but here they are again with a little thought put into how they are presented:



Same drawings — same core idea — but you can see what a difference the presentation makes.



Feng Zhu, a prominent concept artist and head of the Feng Zhu School of Design, always stresses the importance of presentation. As a designer, you can spend so much time making the drawings look pretty that you forget to back up and make the page look pretty as well. This is not an attempt to do something cool as if to say, “Look at me! Look at how clever I am!” This is not tricking the art director into looking at your drawing versus someone else’s. This is presentation. This is setting the stage for the work, telling the viewer what is important, and, most importantly, telling a story.

This — telling a great story — is the heart of the matter. Human beings love stories, and every presentation is a story.

One of my professors at SCAD, Dan Brown (this Dan Brown, not that Dan Brown), frequently emphasizes the importance of presentation. When working on a project, people will often draw, design and build right up until the last minute, but then throw the presentation together almost as an afterthought. They create the presentation around the design pieces that they have rather than creating design pieces to support the story that they want to tell.

Professor Brown will conduct presentation rehearsals, as well as rehearsals for those rehearsals, and rehearsals for those rehearsals, often coming in late at night or on weekends to make sure students get it right. This can be utterly maddening. “We have things we need to work on! The real presentation is a week away! We don’t have time for this!” Of course there is a method to his madness. Yes, this forces students to rehearse what they are going to say, but it is also a clever bit of editing. By deciding early on what it is that you want to say — what story you want to tell — you may discover that a drawing or elevation or site plan that you thought you needed to do really isn’t necessary, and that maybe your time would be better spent on other things.

Essentially, it is better to write the story before you illustrate it rather than the other way around, which is what most designers, including myself, do when creating a presentation.

So, back to the drawing board…err…writing table.

Every dog has his day

A little dog walking down the center of a road with crowds on either side

Every dog has his day, and this little dog is having a great day.

This is just a quick little break from thesis posts. I pulled this image a while ago, and from what I remember, apparently the Pope had just gone through. But don’t tell this little dog that. As far as he knows, these people turned out to see him.

Thesis: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

My thesis continues to evolve.

I have been hard at work on my nighttime projection show for the Westin in downtown Savannah, but I am having a difficult time getting my head around what my professors are looking for. Every time I think I understand how I want to tell my story, I run into a curve in the road. For my professors, they continue to steer me in the direction of the project being less and less of a singular show, and in fact less of a design itself. When I talk about doing animation, my professors say I don’t really need to worry about that. How about storyboards? I can have some, I guess, but there is no need to map out every detail. How about a business proposal, or an analysis of the viewing area, or maybe of the site itself? Nope.

So what in the world do I need to do?! For them, my thesis is all about the proposal.

In a recent article in Fast Company, called “The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness: Inside Disney’s radical plan to modernize its cherished theme parks,” the author talks about the exhaustive steps the NextGen team (called NGE) took to try and sell the idea of MyMagic+ and the Magic Band technology.
[full article]

At this point, the project took on a new layer of complexity, as the NGE team felt the need to consistently dazzle the Disney brass. A key part of this was regularly showing off a complex prototype of the MyMagic+ experience. The team had outgrown its original home at Epcot and had moved to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, inside a 12,000-square-foot soundstage. That’s where the NGE team built out its advanced R&D lab, or what Franklin calls a “living blueprint” that would “sell the vision.”

With typical Disney flair, the soundstage became a storyboard brought to life, with a full-scale living room, including an iMac, which is where the archetypal family would book their Disney vacation via what’s now known as My Disney Experience, the website and mobile app for MyMagic+. The family’s set of MagicBands would then arrive by mail, in beautiful packaging designed by Frog. Next came the flight-arrival stage of the set, which simulated the experience at Orlando International, with actual seats that the NGE team had purchased from the airport. There, family members would first touch their MagicBands to a digital access point, before proceeding to a replica Magical Express bus. Then came the hotel set, with actual front-desk counters and bedroom furniture from Disney’s Contemporary Resort, to reflect the new MyMagic+ check-in process. There were also mock-ups of the in-park experience, including a main entrance; a mini version of the Haunted Mansion ride to demonstrate how attractions could be personalized with consumer data; a small version of the Be Our Guest restaurant concept; merchandising and retail shops; and even a stage exhibiting how MyMagic+ could influence Disney’s cruise line. “At Disney, you can’t just create a PowerPoint presentation and say, ‘Hey, give me $10 million to build this,’ ” jokes Andy Schwalb.

“It goes back to Walt himself,” explains a former top NGE manager. “The story carries the day.” Often, sources say, the “theater” of selling an idea is more important than the idea itself.

The themed entertainment industry is all about about creating experiences, diving deep into a person to connect with them on a core level. It is this emotional connection that takes a theme park experience from simply “a thing that is there” to “memories for generations to come.” But my professors know that before you can ever put a guest in that magical place, you have to find a way to get the executives to hand over that magical money.

You might wonder, “Isn’t this your thesis? If you want to produce a full animation with a musical score, why not do it? Why does it matter what your professors want?” First off, they are the ones who decide if I graduate. So there’s that. But secondly, they tend to know what they are talking about. Understanding how to deliver a proposal is among the most important aspects of bringing a concept to life. Seeing as how I will be working in the concept phase of the industry — that is, the very early stages where the dream is just finding its way out of your head — it is perhaps most important that I learn to craft my proposals in unique and convincing ways.

I am not creating a design proposal, I am creating theater. One very famous example of this involves Imagineer Joe Rohde and his clever way of getting the Disney executives to go along with his idea for having live animals in Animal Kingdom. Fearing that live animals wouldn’t be dramatic enough, Michael Eisner thought the park should be filled with audio animatronic animals. To counter this, Rohde led Eisner and the rest of the executives into a small, cramped boardroom, where he proceeded to have a live Bengal tiger brought into the room. As the 400-lbs animal made its way around the captive audience, Joe Rohde emphasized the emotional impact real, live animals could have. When the tiger was finally led out, there was no more conversation. The animals were in.

To get a concept off the ground, I need to transport my audience to a place, maybe not physically like Disney was able to do with their “living blueprint” in the Fast Company article, but emotionally. They need to feel what it would be like to be on River Street, either standing along the water, taking a seat in one of the elevated restaurants, or just wandering out of one of the shops, looking across the river and being fully engrossed in a show that couldn’t possibly exist anywhere else.

Certainly I still need to create a product. I need to have something of substance to show, but all the art in the world can’t substitute for the emotional impact created by understanding what it feels like to be there. If a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe a feeling is worth a thousand pictures.

Then again…I could always just present nothing.

Hmm. I think I could stretch that. Maybe 15 minutes and 35 pages of nothing? That might actually be more difficult than having 15 minutes and 35 pages of well reasoned, thoroughly thought out something. You never know though. It might make my thesis WAY more interesting.