Three weeks ago, I was asked by the Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC to come on-air and visually explain a “major political problem in America.” This would be a seven-minute live broadcast from the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller in New York. The live audience would be about 350,000 people around the world, the topic would be complex, and — oh, yes: the host is known for his rants. In other words, it would be the ultimate back of the napkin test. So, of course, I had to say yes.
I flew to New York the next day (reading every news source I could find during the 5-hour flight; thank heavens for inflight wireless) and waited in the hotel until Dylan’s producers called with the final topic. With less than 12 hours to prepare, I got the word: I would draw out the failure of the US Debt Super Committee. (Luckily, I’ve been following the debt debate in detail since summer, so this was a subject I know well.)
With an iPad in one hand, my PC on the hotel desk, the NYT and WSJ spread across the bed, and twelve sheets of poster board from the nearest Staples store propped against the wall, I got to work. Here is how I did it.
Although the pressure was higher than for most typical presentations, the visual approach I used in preparation and delivery of my message is guaranteed to help anyone who has a high-stakes presentation ahead. Let me take you step-by-step through the pictures I created. (In a second post, let’s walk through the strategies of extreme high-pressure presenting.)
To begin, I picked up my Sharpies, dug into the research, and used my own 6X6 Rule as the starting point.
If you’ve had a chance to read my book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures, you know that this simple, six-slice pie provides the visual guidelines to describe the essentials of any idea. I started at the top (who and what = a portrait) and made my way around, answering each question with a simple image.
When I was done, I added a title card to the beginning of the visual story. This would give me and Dylan something to look at as we chatted before diving into the meat of the discussion (Lesson: always include a title. You’d be amazed how much insightful conversation can be generated just from how we describe our approach.)
Next, I added a visual introductory graphic. I anticipated this slide would be a quick one, a visual diving board from which to say ‘Ready?’ before the leap into the details. In the video, you’ll see how I used this slide to actively engage Dylan in my pictures. After this slide, I knew his active participation in the presentation was assured — after all, this is where I gave him the pen and asked him to draw on the board! (Lesson: a quick visual kicker to jump-start your story is always a powerful way to draw in your audience; one last chance for everyone to take a breath before the dive.)
Then we get to the real pictures. Since anything that has to do with the debt is about big numbers, I decided to reorder my pictures so that we would start with the HOW MUCH charts. The first shows the total US Federal debt compared to the amount the Super Committee was supposed to shave off. As the first slide of substance, I made this one the simplest: a single idea (how much money do we owe) illustrated with the simplest possible, instantly-understandable graphic. (Lesson: get your audience engaged up-front with a single picture that makes a single point. We don’t want anyone getting distracted or confused in any way at this early point. We can save the elaboration for later…)
I followed that up with another HOW MUCH chart, this one showing WHEN (that means a timeline) the debt had accumulated over the last five presidential administrations. Since this was the second picture, I knew I could afford more elaboration; that’s why I chose this slide to introduce the concept of TIME.
Next I created a more detailed WHEN timeline illustrating the series of recent congressional crises that prompted the creation of the Super Committee in the first place, followed with the steps of what the Committee was supposed to do — and when they were supposed to do it. Since the Committee failed, this became the central picture. Where do we go now? Mandatory cuts, that’s where. (Lesson: when we want to engage our audience in a complex series of steps, nothing draws people in as well as a linear A-B-D-C progression. No looping back, no parallel paths; just a single path we walk along together.)
Thus far, my pictures showed HOW MUCH, WHEN, and HOW, but we hadn’t yet seen WHY. To show WHY, I felt it best to actually show WHO (a portrait) since it was the very composition of the Committee that assured its failure from day one. By literally drawing them out, I could show viscerally the Democrats who would not budge on cutting retirement and healthcare without some increase in taxes, and the Republicans who would not budge on any increase in taxes, period. (Lesson: make it personal. Show the real people and their motivations shift from the abstract to the real.)
The last picture shows why those two groups were doomed from the start: there is an election coming up next year — and in this polarized time, no one who wanted to keep their job would be caught dead “compromising.” So welcome 2013, the year of mandatory cuts. (Lesson: end with a summary ‘what next’ takeaway. Since we’ve kept the audience with us this long, we want to leave them with a bit of a cliff-hanger. That’s what will motivate them to go back and review everything one more time.)