Press briefings: Cut the waffle to untangle the concept

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Press briefings: Cut the waffle to untangle the concept

In a guest blog, journalist Nick Booth suggests that by keeping things simple you’ll leave them wanting more.

Yes, the speaker treated me like a simpleton – but at least I remembered what she said.

Each spoken presentation should have three parts, a lecturer told me once, in what I thought was a rather patronising lesson. In Part 1, you tell people what you’re going to say in your speech. In Part 2, the main body of the speech, you say it. (Whatever it may be). Then, in Part 3 - the finale - you tell people what you just said.

As if I wasn’t able to take in that information, she then summarised it for me. Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve just said.

OK, OK, I get it, I thought. Single message. Repeat three times. Could she be any more simplistic? Surely people can take in far more complex information than this? Where’s this woman’s ambition? With people like this about, it’s no wonder humanity only uses a tiny fraction of its intellectual capacity.

Instead of using only ten per cent of our mental abilities, we should be like the agent that Scarlett Johansson plays in Lucy, Hollywood’s latest science fiction blockbuster. After some kind of unspecified chemical accident, Lucy gains super human powers, by being able to us the entire range of her intellect. In the story that follows, she efficiently goes about her work, destroying enemies and putting the world to rights, through brainpower.

That’s what we are all capable of doing. Everyone in the IT industry – in fact everyone who has ever given a presentation in the history of Powerpoint – has harboured the same ambitions. Pack as much information in as possible. Use every available moment to load your audience’s brains with information. Never give them a moment’s peace or time to let their mind wander, or even think about what you’ve just said. If they look like they’re about to ponder your last statement, hit them with another chapter of information. And another.

That seems to be the order of the day in most briefings I’ve had, when people meet me in the guise of ‘the media’.

I come away with my mind a jumble of thoughts, none of which I can untangle from the other concepts they rapidly stuffed into my brain willy-nilly. Usually, this massive workload is treated like every other daunting project that’s handed to anyone. It gets put aside for when we have more time.

Now I think of it, I’m not sure I’m up to being Scarlett Johannson. Looking back on all the briefings I’ve endured, rather than enjoyed, I think I’d rather be addressed as a simpleton. Give me one straightforward fact and let me deal with that.

Less is definitely more when you’re being briefed on a new concept. Most of us only take away one idea from a briefing anyway. So if you only present one idea, you’re pretty much guaranteed that is the one that your audience will absorb. For a bit of variety, you can change the way you present the information by saying it slightly differently each time. But be consistent.

Another advantage is that if you give people a small amount of information, you force them to make up the difference themselves, by mentally filling in the blanks. So you are stimulating their imagination and galvanising their brains into action. Whereas too much information makes people switch off.

One of the cruelest ironies of the digital age is that people who drone on about ‘engaging content’ are invariably the most boring, repetitive speakers who leave nothing to the imagination. They seek to explain everything.

By keeping it simple, you leave the audience wanting more, as my lecturer said. The audience will use that time they have to engage their brains and fill in all the blanks.

She didn’t actually say that. I had to work that bit out for myself.

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