Adam Somlai-Fischer is the co-founder and principal artist of Prezi.
He is an architect by education, and is endlessly interested in exploring the cultural qualities of innovation by blending spaces, technologies and interactivity.
Social trends have taken the world by storm, delightfully blurring the lines between professional and personal behaviors. It’s no real surprise if you think about it—people have often found more value in talking to each other than in being talked at, and the number of collaboration tools deployed across the business space in recent years prove that neither the environment, nor the type of audience, make a difference.
Socializing vs. “Conversationalizing”
Several efforts have been made to adapt one-way communications to the behaviors of today’s not so one-way audiences. For example, marketing agencies regularly design campaigns for platforms like Facebook, opening them up for sharing, liking and comments from the masses, and TV networks have dabbled with broadcasting Twitter feeds alongside their programs. For businesses, however, simply socializing one-way communications in this way isn’t enough.
Take one of the most common, one-way events in the professional space: the conference. Imagine the speaker is on stage while a Twitter feed is projected in the background. While seeing the thoughts of your peers during the talk could be interesting and probably entertaining, these real-time musings could also take away from the speaker’s message, making it less effective. Often, the real value of a social approach during presentations surfaces when it’s structured like a conversation, encouraging guided questions, insights and debate.
Structuring a presentation like a conversation can sound a bit confusing, but it just requires tweaking the thought process at the creation stage. Instead of assigning your messaging points to a paginated timeline, think of plotting them across a single space and allowing the audience to explore your ideas in the order they choose. Just like Google Maps, they’ll see the big picture at the outset, and decide where they want to zoom in, and how closely they want to zoom in, next.
By displaying a large, branched narrative, a speaker invites the audience to participate in the presentation from the beginning. Live observations and feedback can guide the discussion in its most natural direction, as well as allow a speaker to move things around or add points of interest to their presentation before transitioning to a single path of thought.
If you could see inside your brain, that’s what’s going on anyway–things are firing in all different directions and trying to squeeze that into the margins of a linear presentation is a limiting translation. Whether B2B or B2C, a presentation that invites engagement around an idea while it’s being presented yields something that is meaningful for everyone: a visualization that displays spatially and proportionally how ideas interact with one another.
To be conversational is to be relevant
I’ve seen professionals adopt this approach for a variety of reasons, including how much it sets them apart from other presenters, how interesting they personally think it looks and, most notably, out of necessity. After all, a passive audience in an age when we have an interactive one for every opinion we share is an increasingly unrealistic expectation, particularly when attention spans have been shortened by so much immediate gratification.
A study from 1985 tested students on their ability to recall facts from a 20-minute presentation. While you might expect their memory of the end of the presentation would be best simply for being the most recent, in fact, it was the opposite. Students remembered far more of what they’d heard at the very beginning of the lecture. By the time it was halfway over, they’d mostly zoned out.
All of this is to say that our attention spans have always been temperamental, and so to inject interactivity throughout a one-way event is to command attention in a world where attention is so fundamentally hard-won. A presentation is therefore at its best when it’s built and displayed in a way that encourages conversation and can be modified accordingly in the moment. It’s informal, but effective, and there’s no risk in letting an idea evolve in public so long as we trust each other.
Creative pursuit is meaningful pursuit
I can say with total confidence that letting an idea develop in a conversational, collaborative setting — whether it’s part of an official presentation or not — is the best way to discover its full potential. There’s just nothing quite like comparing perspectives, combining them, and watching the whole grow into something bigger and more relevant than its parts.
My time as an innovator, a teacher, and now a business founder, has taught me that qualities like curiosity and creativity aren’t reserved for those with a particular disposition—they’re native to our existence. In calling on and nurturing them, we can see not only the full potential of our ideas, but the full potential of ourselves. I wholeheartedly believe the conversational approach helps to kickstart this process by creating room for imagination where it counts the most. Ultimately, it’s when we’re allowed to be creative that we enjoy the work we do, and the more we enjoy what we’re doing, the better we do it.
As our most creative generation yet, Gen Y is ahead of the game in terms of this transition. They’re just beginning to enter the workplace in full force, which I think means that in the next handful of years we’re going to see entire organizations switch very quickly to responsive workflows and technologies rather than reactive ones. Personally, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of a company that supports the cause.