Quit Passing Dead Cats Around

Miki Reilly-Howe

As part of my work in communicating change inside large organizations, I write and design executive presentations. Typically, I’ll get an outline or draft deck riddled with charts, graphs, acronyms and business jargon. I have to admit the content isn’t very motivating. Sometimes, it’s downright depressing. 

I read a relevant quote recently from the author Don Watson that made me laugh out loud. On business jargon, he said, “It’s language you can’t think in. It simulates thought. It sounds like it’s thoughtful, but it’s not. It’s like passing dead cats around.”

When you’re motivating people to embrace new behaviors, your approach matters. Whether your company is in the middle of a huge transformation or you’re simply launching a new initiative, dramatic content and “real” language will help people engage and take action faster.

Here are 3 simple tricks that can help:

1. The Three-Word-Sentence

This is a twist on a writing exercise from Abigail Thomas, an amazing and gifted author of memoir. Sit down and write out your entire presentation script without stopping. Use only three-word sentences. Not two words. Not four. Three words. This leaves you with the skeleton of the presentation, minus all the jargon. 

Use this to help you decide the flow of the presentation. How should it begin? Where should it end? This exercise is surprisingly helpful when determining the flow of your presentation.

2. Kill the Charts

When you are looking at a set of slides and over 25% of them are charts or graphs, it’s time to start over. (I’m including those 2- and 3-column lists here, too.) 

Most charts are a motivation-killer in a presentation. Start by getting rid of every single chart or graph. What would you say on this slide or that slide without the mind-numbing trend graph with 11-point type? Good, say that instead. Use a picture, large number or phrase in place of the chart. Finally, select the 2-3 charts you simply can’t live without and add those back in. These select few will stand out more because there are fewer charts overall.

3. Start at the End

Many presentations open with a little background, work their way toward a relevant issue using lots of data as rationale and then….many, many slides later…ask people to do something new, like use a new process or change a deeply entrenched behavior. Try reversing the order. Ask for the change upfront, then concentrate on convincing the audience this change is in their best interest.

No matter what, the best thing you can do to motivate people is ditch the jargon. People respond to people – not evasive language. Get to the point. The more human and clear you are in communicating, the more likely your pitch will succeed.