“The Adversary”: A powerful presentation technique

In every classic story, the hero fights the villain

by Peter Watts

In a key section of his book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”, Carmine Gallo invokes the plot-line of every childhood story we grew up with, in order to reveal a powerful device for mobilizing an audience: the Adversary.

A clear presentation tells a story. It should be stirring, clear, and memorable. It should contain qualities that stand out in clear black and white rather than in obscuring shades of grey.

This binary arrangement requires two fundamental roles to be to the fore. There is firstly the Hero, who appeals to all the best qualities of the audience, and in order for that character to stand out clearly, there must also be the Adversary, representing the opposing force that the audience are being asked to stand against.

Gallo reminds us of how Jobs himself used this arrangement in the 1984 Super Bowl advert that launched the Apple Macintosh. Inspired by George Orwell’s fiction masterwork, this stunning advert portrays Apple as the brave and feisty insurgent rebelling against the tyranny of IBM, symbolized by the tyrannical “Big Brother”.

In almost every presentation, it is likewise possible to identify your binary opposite, and use that opposite to stir the emotions of an audience.

This approach has many times been used to sow division in the world. We have only to listen to talk-radio shock-jocks or watch partisan news networks in order to see the technique in action as one group, frequently a minority, is pilloried in order to boost ratings amongst the network’s core demographic. Such realities might make us justifiably queasy with so tabloid a technique. It’s important therefore to use the approach responsibly. The Adversary should be targeted against ideas, not individuals.

In the corporate world, there are countless examples of where this can be legitimately done. For example, we already have Steve Jobs’ approach, targeting an over-mighty competitor.

For myself, I can think of no stronger use than in the charity sector. Hunger becomes the adversary in famine fund-raising. Pollution becomes the adversary in environmental awareness. Ignorance becomes the adversary in Civil Rights.

A cook will tell you that when creating a sweet dish, the modest introduction of a bitter flavor can actually bring-forward and enhance the sweetness. Too much however, and the sweet quality is not enhanced, it is overwhelmed, and the sweet gives way completely to the bitter.

The same concept applies to the presentation usage of the Adversary. Without an adversary for juxtaposition, the heroic qualities you seek to bring forward in your audience will remain two-dimensional. Add in that little touch of the bitter, and the Hero stands out in clear relief. Add in too much however, and your presentation topples over into a shrill tabloid rant. As with so many techniques of public speaking, subtlety always trumps hyperbole.

This blog, looking at the role of the Adversary, completes my series reviewing Carmine Gallo’s “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”. By focussing on a modern master, the book brings forward powerful and rarely discussed techniques, such as this week’s concept of the Adversary.. I can happily recommend this book to all Steve Jobs fans, to all Apple fans, and of course, to all who want to develop skills in the world of public speaking!

Always ask “Why should my audience care?”

by Peter Watts

“Why should my listener care about this idea?” is a challenge that Carmine Gallo asks us to consider in his new book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”.

All audiences, even the most apparently attentive, will observe a presenter and silently puzzle “What does this message have to do with me?” The more rapidly we answer that question as presenters, the more rapidly we seize the attention of the audience.

Gallo demonstrates how Steve Jobs consistently sells his products in terms of benefits. For example:

“Just one year after launching the iPhone, we’re launching the new iPhone 3G. It’s twice as fast at half the price.”

Audiences are like horses. If they are at all unsure of the person holding the reins, they become skittish and restless, refusing to settle into attentive compliance. By clearly stating audience benefits, we not only exercise that firm hand of control, but slip the horse a favor winning sugar-cube in the process.

The secret lies in identifying the utility of your message. It is a trap we fall into as presenters that we formulate an excellent presentation, with a clear benefit statement, and then repeatedly trot that same statement out time after time. Not every audience is the same, and therefore the same benefit statements won’t work for every audience.

Always ask yourself what the gain is going to be for this unique group of people. The more specific you are, the more compelling your presentation will be.

Gallo goes on to make the point that we must constantly hammer that benefit home, reminding listeners of it throughout the presentation.

A piece of advise that I often give to presenters is “Never under-estimate the ability of an audience to completely miss the point!”, and for that reason, repetition of the benefit statement will help those listening to maintain focus. To us as the presenter, it can sometimes even feel like we are excessively laboring the point, but this is the only sure-fire way to make sure your key message comes across cleanly and precisely. It’s also another reason why we should always strive to keep our presentations short. The more information we pack into them, the greater the chance of our key message becoming buried beneath the excess.

A successful, Steve Jobs-style presentation will directly impress on the audience exactly why it is that your idea is right for them. Next week, we’ll look at the next stage of Carmine Gallo’s advice: “Create Twitter-style headlines”.

Presentation horrors: Technology

by Peter Watts

In the spirit of the Halloween season, this week’s blog invokes a dark horror that is lurking to ensnare even the most practiced presenter.


Presentations are both boosted and blighted by the marvels of technology. Nothing else puts so much power at the disposal of so many presenters, and yet nothing else also has the power to so lethally silence quite so many presenters.

I once attended the opening of a resort hotel at a major theme park. Without mentioning brand names I could say that it’s principal star is a mouse whose girlfriend’s name rhymes with “Vinnie”. The hotel wanted to enthuse staff and customers with a vision of all the theme park was going to offer. First to speak were executives of the hotel group, all of whom delivered compelling visions of the property’s future. Next came executives from the theme park operator themselves, a corporation famous for being the masters of all things visual.

The executives mounted the rostrum, plugged in their laptop, and then looked puzzled. There was a hurried conversation. The words “sound jack” and “where?” drifted down from the platform. Oops! Their presentation had been promised as a visionary sound and light show, except that all the sound had just been silenced by the lack of a $5 cable!

It turned out the executives would actually have to speak and for this they were completely unprepared. They had fallen into the trap of becoming reliant on the technology. Take away that technology, and they had no idea what to do. The trap had sprung shut!

If you are planning to make a presentation that in any way involves technology, here’s how to avoid the same thing from happening to you:

Check the hardware early

Check early with the organizer what technology will be available to you at the venue. Assume nothing! If you require sound, will there be speakers? If presenting from your laptop, will there be a projector? Even go so far as to check what type of projector; Data projector? Overhead projector? Slide projector? Assume nothing! Just because you are technologically in the 21st century doesn’t necessarily mean the customer or venue are.

Check the presentation software, and the version

If you will be required to share a common laptop with other presenters, find out what presentation software it is running. Also be sure to check which version they have and if necessary “save-down” your presentation to the standards of that earlier product.

If your presentation requires products such as Adobe Flash, then check the availability and versions of these as well.

Arrive early, load-up early

Never walk up to the rostrum with your presentation on a data-key and expect it to simply load. Even at best, there will be an awkward delay and a mess of icons to deal with while the audience mutter amongst themselves.

Arrive early so that you can see your presentation successfully loaded before the audience sits down. Take this opportunity to also make sure you know how to use any other tools such as remote mice or touch-pads to advance your slides.

Know how your video settings work

The commonest issues usually come with video settings. Your presentation looked just fine at the previous venue, but all of a sudden you plug into a strange projector and everything distorts all over the screen. If there is no one available to help, and you can’t fix it yourself, then this will indeed will be one of those moments when no-one can hear you scream!

Be prepared to invest in your own tech

The most fool-proof way to make sure everything works is to carry it all yourself. In the past the size and cost of projectors were prohibitive, but today projectors have become small enough and cheap enough to fit the budget and travel bags of frequent presenters.

These are just a few of the measures that can be taken to avoid the horror of techno-failure. There is one more however that we should consider; the true way to put a stake through the heart of technology:

Leave the technology resting silently in it’s coffin!

The most compelling and powerful presentations are made without any technology at all, save for the possible necessity of a radio microphone in front of the biggest audiences.

Look at some of the greatest presenters such as Steve Jobs. Here we have a man whose very fame is based on the technology sector, and yet when presenting he uses the barest minimum. Jobs understands the foundation skills of public speaking; having a clear message, a clear path through that message, and techniques such as metaphor and simile that bring light and depth to that message.

He is a technology guru who when given his choice, uses as little technology as possible; a case of the high-tech keeping low-tech!

Great speakers like Steve Jobs know that the best way to avoid the horror of being trapped by technology is to avoid being overly reliant on technology in the first place.

Happy Halloween!!!!

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