An expert in presentations shares the 3 things he's learned about effective communication

Peter Halacsy, CTO of Prezi. Photo: Supplied.

When my co-founders and I got together to start Prezi back in 2009, we had just one goal: help people everywhere communicate their ideas more effectively. We set out to build a tool that would do this. I, and every other engineer I’ve ever hired, like to build products that people actually use. So my colleagues and I have spent the last seven years testing different ideas, running experiments, and analysing data—all in the name of understanding how people can communicate and collaborate more effectively.

We’ve gone digging through academic papers by psychologists and neuroscientists, we’ve tested different product features, and we’ve even tried out different management tactics in an effort to optimise our internal communication. Some of our experiments have been wildly successful, and others have been terrific failures—but all of them have helped us understand how people share ideas and information with each other. Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

If you want somebody to understand you, show them a picture

The saying, “a picture is worth 1,000 words,” is more than just an overused turn-of-phrase—it’s actually a very accurate description of reality. Researchers have found that people are better at processing visual information than they are at processing text. For instance, it takes only ¼ of a second for us to process and attach meaning to a symbol, while it takes us an average of 6 seconds for us to read and process 20-25 words.1

So, when it comes to communicating ideas quickly, taking a visual approach is much more effective than, say, writing a bullet-pointed list. Take, for example, the speedometer in a car. Speedometers are never set up to deliver information like this:

  • Your speed is: 63mph
  • The speed limit where you are driving is: 60mph
  • You are driving over the speed limit by: 3mph

Even the newest Teslas use a very old, very visual method of communicating speed: a circular bar that grows and shrinks depending on how fast you are going. During my engineering studies, I learned that when efficiency of information consumption really matters—as it does when you’re in a speeding car, or when you are monitoring critical software systems—it is much better to use a visual dashboard than an alphanumeric one.

At Prezi, we put this knowledge to work by visualising our critical data whenever and wherever possible. Instead of looking through tables and raw data in order to understand the health of our software, we have clear charts and visualisations that allow us to see how Prezi is performing. Everyone appreciates being able to see, at a quick glance, what the status of the system is at any given time. The kind of transparency and understanding that visualisation provides is key to being able to act on information quickly and efficiently.

More stories less data

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia.

Don’t get me wrong, I love data — and I think that everything is better when backed up by solid quantitative research. But there is solid, quantitative research that shows that stories are actually a much more powerful tool when it comes to communicating ideas in a persuasive, engaging, and memorable way.

Take, for example, a study conducted by a marketing professor at Wharton Business School, that tested two different brochures designed to drive donations to the Save the Children Fund. The first brochure told the story of Rokia, a seven-year-old girl from Mali whose “life would be changed” by a donation to the NGO. The second brochure listed facts and figures related to the plight of starving children across Africa—like the fact that “more than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.”

The team from Wharton found that the brochure that contained the story of Rokia drove significantly more donations than the statistics-filled one. This may seem counterintuitive—aren’t we supposed to make data-driven decisions? This study reveals that in many cases, emotions are actually what people use to make decisions.

We collect a lot of data at Prezi, but we’ve come to understand that the only way to make this data truly meaningful, especially to people who weren’t involved in the process of collecting that data, is tell stories that provide context. This is why everything we do must be connected to a “user story”—a brief description of the experience that we want people to have when they interact with whatever it is we’re working on. These user stories make it easy for our teams to understand each other’s projects without having to get into all of the technical details—and, in turn, make business decisions based on this information.

Conversation fosters better ideas

The top-down method of leadership, centered around command and control, doesn’t work anymore in the modern workplace. Today, CEOs are listing “creativity” as the most important leadership characteristic, ahead of integrity and intelligence. If management wants to empower its employees to be creative—and to take the risks and make the mistakes that creativity entails—they need to take a different approach to managing. The role of a modern-day leader within a company is not to dole out tasks but rather to foster conversation and encourage critical thinking. At Prezi, we have a saying—we should be obsessed with the problems of our customers, not the specific ways to solve them. As a leader in the organisation, it is my role to foster a conversation with my engineering team about these problems while leaving them with the room and the power to explore whatever solutions they think will work best.

Similarly, great salespeople foster dynamic conversations with their customers rather than delivering one-way, static pitches. In fact, a recent study by RAIN Group, a sales training organisation, found that the second most important behavior exhibited by successful salespeople was “collaboration”—working together with their audience in order to reach a real, sustainable solution. Great salespeople don’t give pitches; they have conversations.

The reason why conversation is such a powerful persuasive tool—whether you’re getting your team to build a new product feature or working with a client to close the deal—is that it builds trust. When you get input from your audience and adapt your message based on that input, you get your audience to buy into what you’re saying.

Peter Halacsy is the CTO and co-founder of Prezi, the cloud-based presentation platform that helps you connect more powerfully with your audience.

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