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Improve Your Presentation by Giving Specific, Personal Examples


I spent this past weekend with my friends at the National Speakers Association’s winter workshop.   On Saturday night over dinner another colleague and I were talking to our friend Wendy Kinney (http://wendykinney.com).   For those of you who don’t know Wendy, she is a very wise woman.  Wendy was trying to explain a concept to us and it was clear that neither I nor the colleague were understanding Wendy’s point so we asked for an example.  Wendy gave us a generic example, and we still just weren’t getting it.  Since we both understood Wendy’s business, we asked her to tell us how she says it for her business.   Finally, after she was very specific with an example from her business, we got it.

The Power of Examples

There’s something about the human brain that we intuitively understand.  When we’re being taught a new concept, it helps if we can relate the new information to what we already know.  I’ll never forget the example one of my colleagues shared from my days in software development.

I was still new in the software development world and one of our clients was asking the question, “Why does it took so long to develop the software when that’s all you do?  Why it wasn’t like an assembly line for cars?”  Tim, one of the brilliant guys I worked with, asked me to imagine that I was given the opportunity to build a new car from scratch.  (This example seemed to work since our software was highly customized for the client.)  He said imagine having to design all the different parts.  What do you know you need?  Four wheels, doors, steering wheel, etc.  Then imagine we’ve got it all together for you and you realize, “Oh yeah, backup lights would be helpful.”  Imagine us having to pull apart the chassis to put in the wiring and systems for the backup lights.  That’s what it’s like in software development.  You’ll often get all the components together, then the client will say, “Oh, yeah, I guess it would be helpful if we do this” and the “this” is as important as backup lights to a car– you have to have them.  Well, metaphorically speaking, the chassis of the code has to be pulled apart so the new pieces can be put in.

While I’ve never build a car, I certainly know enough about the pieces and complexity of a car that Tim’s example made sense.  When we speak and we’re talking about concept that’s new to our audience, it’s very helpful to ask ourselves, “What’s this like?”  If we can find an example from real life or an analogy such as Tim’s, we can help our audience understand the new concept by relating it to something they already understand.

When Generic Examples Don’t Work

That night with Wendy, Wendy was trying to tell us how we could rephrase how we spoke about our businesses based on some new research.  The idea was we needed to talk about our business from the perspective of the client’s outcomes not what we do.  We’d heard this before and understood and agreed with the concept but based on something Wendy said, we didn’t get exactly the point because we thought we were already doing that.   Wendy tried to use an example from the colleague’s business, but we didn’t grasp it.  She tried to reword the example from the colleague’s business… nothing.  Now if it had been someone else, if I had been listening to a speaker I didn’t know, I would have smiled politely and tried to find a way to leave the conversation.  But because I know Wendy is brilliant, I didn’t want to give up.  I thought what she was trying to explain would be very helpful.

As speakers, we need to remember that sometimes, a generic example just won’t work.  Have you ever tried to make up an example on the fly with an audience and you could tell by the non-verbal cues that the example didn’t work.  It happens.  But with an audience, the danger is that, unlike the situation with Wendy, they may not know, love and respect you enough to stick around and work as hard to understand.  You could lose your audience at a point when you know you can really help them.  That’s when you know for sure you need to bring out a specific, personal example.

Specific Examples

We finally asked Wendy, “How does this sound when you say it for your business?”  Wendy had the answer to this question and gave the example.  I pulled out my audio recorder and made her say it a second time.  Here’s what she said:

In certain fields, people take the job thinking that the only responsibility is to do the work.  But in professional services firms like accounting, inherent in the job is the ability to bring in new work.  I work with CPA firms who just celebrated their 25th anniversary and bought out their first partner.  They hire me because they realize they lost a rainmaker and that unless the new associates learn how to bring in new clients, they won’t be able to buy out the next four partners.

In 30 seconds  (literally 30 seconds, remember, I recorded it, I can show you it was exactly 30 seconds) Wendy explained her concept with a personal example that we could grasp.

When I asked Wendy if she would mind me blogging about this example, she shared that she had resisted telling us her example because she didn’t want it to be all about her.  She’s a very giving person and she wanted to help our colleague.  But by giving a specific personal example, she helped us more than she was able to in more than 5 minutes of trying to create a generic example.

The Results

Because Wendy gave us that specific example, I was able to share the same concept with a man by the name of Jeffry Tobin whom I sat next to at a session the next day.  He was telling me about his business, and I reworded what it was he does using Wendy’s example.  Here’s what he had to say after I reworded how he describes his business.

OK, maybe Jeffrey is exaggerating – it’s not like I gave him a kidney or something!  But because Wendy gave me a specific example, I was able to turn around and apply it to Jeffrey’s situation.  But now the important part.

Now Jeffrey is going to be able to help more people because he can present information in a way that is going to connect better with their need.  His good work will help other people and businesses thrive.  It takes paying it forward to a whole new level.  And it’s all because Wendy gave a very specific, personal example.

Your Turn

As you do your presentations, think about how a specific example from your realm can help your audiences grasp a concept.  Be willing to share the specific example so they can learn too.  Make the examples tight and compact like Wendy’s and watch the body language shift as your audience “gets it.”

Share your examples in the comments section below!