In this conversation, Alexei discusses Presentation Secrets, his new book.
Geetesh: Tell us more about yourself, your online presentation that had a million views, and your new Presentation Secrets book.
Alexei: In late 2003, I was working for a consulting company as an analyst. The firm specialized in policy advising. Our clients were Russian ministries, senators, regulators, and formerly state-run, now privatized, companies. My job was to write reports to support decision-making processes. I had almost no contact with the clients, and frankly, I didn’t suffer much because of that. I was quite happy just writing. But then came “the day”. One of the firm’s partners (to whom I am now very grateful) decided that it was time for me to see the big world. I had to present one of my recent reports before the firm’s client.
￼￼I spoke for about 30 minutes and it all went very well, or at least I thought so. Unfortunately, it turned out that the client didn’t quite share my view. He didn’t understand why the report was prepared, what the findings were, and why we wasted so much time and money. My bosses had to improvise another presentation on the spot, one which, happily, did the job. The client calmed down but asked that they never delegate any presentations to me again. I was so frustrated that I promised myself to master the skill in the next few months.
This is how it all started. Two years later, the client (albeit a different one) asked for me to present whenever possible. Four years later, I’d read Jim Collins’s book Good to Great and decided to do for a living what I found I could do best — give presentations. Next year, I published a presentation called Death by PowerPoint, which to my utter surprise went viral, having been viewed by more that one million people as of now. It was the greatest reassurance that the path that I’ve chosen is the right one. I’m currently teaching presentations at one of Russia’s best business schools, doing corporate workshops, practicing as a consultant, and occasionally working with Mercator, Russia’s leading producer of corporate films, business presentations, and infographics.
Geetesh: What do you believe that a reader can expect to take away from your book?
Alexei: The book consists of three major parts. Part I is about story structure, Part II is about slides, and Part III is about delivery. Also, I have three broad principles that I use in my work: Focus, Contrast, and Unity. In each part there are three chapters and each chapter will follow one broad topic, thus producing a nice three-by-three matrix.
Contrast is about presenting things only in relations to other things. As the old saying goes, “who has never tasted bitter, knows not what is sweet.” The problem with most business presentations is that they consist of facts and only facts. The facts don’t have any inherent meaning of their own. They only make sense in relation to other facts. You need to compare things. Your audience needs to understand the proportions. They need to see the background. They need to see change. They need to see opposition. If you saw Jurassic Park, you might remember that a T-Rex can only see things when they move. In a way, we are all like this: We pay attention only when we see things changing and becoming different.
The principle of Unity is the most difficult principle to explain. It states that once properly aligned, conflicting parts create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In a story, there are certain parts that produce a psychologically satisfying experience. If you lead your audience through the right points, they feel like they got something that goes beyond the journey itself, something transcendent, something transformative. The path that great presentations travel looks like the S-curve, which seems to be a universal model of change.
Those principles are very important, but in essence the book is not about the principles. It is mostly about illustrations, examples, cases. I believe that by studying examples you learn to apply those principles creatively — and this is the secret of great presentations.