Think as Laterally as a Child

Kids are creative, we all know that. And we lose this mental flexibility and curiosity as we age, but what you may not have noticed is a specific type of micro-ageing that takes place as you go from school or college to the workplace, one that can greatly affect your presentations.

What really brought home to me was a week where I had to give two training courses, one in Chester in the north of England and the second in Grenoble in the south of France. The first course was with PhD students working in the area of environmental sustainability, and initially I found it to be hard work as the participants were reluctant to engage or ask questions. They seemed to be listening but they weren’t speaking, which can be demanding. Later, though, I set them working in groups to put together short presentations and they really took to the task. The energy levels in the room shot up and the final presentations were really creative and engaging. Funny, too, in many cases.

Two days later I traveled to France where the audience was very different. These people all worked for start-up companies and unlike with the students in England, in the early part of the day there was much discussion, even debate, as everyone had opinions and concerns they wished to voice. I felt things were going really well before we did a final exercise on visual aids. For this, I got groups to select and then talk around engaging images and graphics that would explain what they do. The results, though, were not as captivating as the student presentations earlier in the week. There were a few fairly lame google-searched images and not much more. In one instance, a Twitter logo filled the screen and I thought it was a provocative subversion of the normally tiny icon. But when I asked the group about this, they said, no, they just didn’t know how to re-scale it in PowerPoint. So there was not much creativity in the presentations despite the vibrant discussion beforehand.

Many work presentations are just going through the motions and lack any creativity whatsoever.

This set me thinking about other instances where the presentations I’d seen in companies had been far less imaginative and diverse than presentations given by students on the courses I teach. The strange thing is that many of the people in the companies were only a few years out of college, themselves. In other words they hadn’t aged very much. And experience is supposed to make you better, not worse; it gives you confidence, knowledge, stories to tell and practice at giving presentations. When I looked closely at the content of these presentations, though, I could see that the one thing that was lacking was creativity, and creativity is a crucial element in communication.

Communication is a creative process and you have to think of different ways of making connections. You are not speaking to a room full of you. Everyone in the audience has different needs, personalities, learning styles and life experiences, so you must always seek novel ways of making connections. One size does not fit all. And the creativity you need to make a presentation is not Leonardo da Vinci creativity, it is simply a process of generating many different ideas and selecting the best ones.

It struck me that students are still learning and seem more adept at forming novel connections and thinking divergently. They entertain a broader range of methods for explaining things to others because they are still explaining them to themselves. They use pictures, videos, demonstrations, stories, examples and analogies more liberally than their more experienced contemporaries.

People working in a company for a few years, however, with stable processes and surrounded by others who understand the same things and speak the same language, have a narrower mindset in this regard. The nature of experience and expertise – which obviously is to be treasured – is to refine your thinking – ‘cut to the chase’, ‘get to the point’, ‘see the wood for the trees’ – but this increased precision and efficiency in thinking can lead to a stifling of creativity. Which can damage your communications, presentations in particular. There is nothing worse than an apathetic, complacent presenter droning through a stack of dull slides. This person is really just talking to himself. You need to think beyond this.

The good news, though, is that this loss in creativity is not permanent; the scarring is reversible. You can be creative in your communications if you allow yourself to be, it’s as simple as that. For each key concept you wish to explain, ask is there a picture that will help you to do this, or a video, or a graph, or a practical demonstration, or a story, or an analogy, or a real world example. Talking with a friend – not a work colleague – is a great way to generate these ideas. Listen to their questions and build your content around them.

I guess you have to find your ‘inner child’ by asking yourself, as kids do, a tonne of questions. Complacency is the enemy.


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