Find the opposition

Imagine that you are driving along a dark highway. You are all alone in the car and the road is deserted. You have another 400 miles to go. On a straight stretch of road, with no twists or curves ahead of you. No distraction within sight. And you doze

Something very similar occurs during presentations. There you are in the audience. Not a distraction within sight and up in the distance you hear the presentor rambling on. Everything he says you already know or is of no interest to you.

No obstacles. No twists or curves. And you doze off. But then the presentor says something that catches your attention. You are jolted awake. And you’re back on track.

Do the unexpected

Remember to shake your audience awake from time to time. A very efficient way of doing this, is to go against their expectations. Ask yourself what your audience would expect you to say, and then do something completely opposite.

Here’s an example of an engineer who attended one of our workshops. You’ll find his slide on the left, his story on the right.

“Imagine that you are preparing a sandwich with some curried chicken salad for breakfast. While spreading on a nice thick layer, the scent of the curry reaches your nostrils and sends you on a journey to India. You taste the chicken, savor its rich texture. And you think: this chicken must have led a good life. And then… crunch. A piece of plastic in your mouth.”

“In a single instant, people’s minds shoot from dreamy images of India, to dirty factories. This is why we simply cannot afford any flaws in our production process. And why we need excellent craftsmanship.”  (After which the engineer tells a story of craftsmanship and how to get there.)

The opposition between these two images has its effect: While dreaming away to beautiful India we suddenly find ourselves catapulted to a factory. That is sure to keep you awake.

The engineer does this once more in his presentation:

“Only in 0.4 to 0.9 % of the products does something go wrong. That does not seem like much.”

“But this is every single day!”

And again he grabs our attention. 0.4 % does not seem like a large number, but it is when it’s on a daily basis. Exactly because this goes against our expectations, we are quickly reeled back in.t.

Impossible, but not really

Andy Gijbels -

Oppositions work. Also Andy Gijbels, winner of the Flemish PhDCup, made use of one for his winning 3-minute pitch.

During his talk he went on to describe a challenging eye operation. (These are just a couple of quotes. Please make sure to watch the videovideo only in Dutch)

“Without shaking, the surgeon must pierce a needle into an eye vein. This vein is no wider than a strand of hair. An intricate matter, as the force needed to pierce through this vein wall is less than is perceptible by human sense. Once the needle is inside the vein, the surgeon must hold the needle perfectly still for as long as 10 minutes. An impossible task…

For a human, but not for a robot. You see, during my doctorate I developed a robot …”

Did you see what he did there? By raising the expectation that this was an impossible act, he knowingly put us on the wrong track.

So, how do you create an opposition?

You too can weave oppositions into your presentation. Play around with expectations.

  • Good versus bad. Describe a situation, to then give it a negative twist. The curried chicken salad story did just that by first describing all that was good, and then turning our attention to a factory.
  • Low versus high. Just as in the story of the number of errors in the product line. 0.4% is not much. Oh yes it is!
  • Possible versus impossible. Remember the robot story. Whereas things first seem impossible, a new point of view will quickly flip that around.

Find an opposition that will illustrate your research and play around with people’s expectations. Cheap versus expensive? (a new type of medication, for example) Stable versus unstable? (your new material is much more stable than what people expect it to be)

Like a flashing light

Playing around with expectations is sure to keep your audience awake. It’s a signal for them to continue paying attention during your presentation so they will be able to follow along.

Just like a flashing light along that dark stretch of highway. A surefire way to jolt you awake!