What Temple Grandin (and Steve Jobs) can teach us about presenting – more from Presentation Magic at Macworld 2010

Did you catch the TED talk given last month, and posted just recently, by Temple Grandin, left?

I first came across her life and work several years ago in a documentary, and since then have listened to her being interviewed several times whenever she has published a new book.

In her TED talk, Temple pleads for her audience present, and those of us watching via the TED site, to consider the many different learning styles students bring to the learning environment. She invokes her own Autism Spectrum Disorder, which was once referred to as “Infantile Schizophrenia” and hopeless to treat, requiring institutional care, as the exemplar.

If you haven’t see her TED talk, here it is, below. Either watch it first, and come back, or continue with this blog entry, and view the 20 min video in your own time.

There are two principle points I want to make about this video, and Temple’s work.

Firstly, Temple in eventually acknowledging her being “different”, found a place in the world by focussing on how to make those differences work for her, and make a difference in the world. To that extent, she reminds me of Apple’s Steve Jobs, whose self-professed desires for technologies his company brings to the marketplace is that they make a difference, rather than “we have to be in this market because our competitors are”, implying a company’s value is dependent on having high market share. Instead, he wants to leave a legacy of changing how people use technologies, from listening to music and watching video, to interacting with the printed word, to enriching our knowledge through interacting with the web and creating our own media.

For Temple, if you read her work, you will see her animal activism acknowledges that humans consume animal meat and make animals work for us, but her desire is that it be done respectfully and without pain and suffering, even when an animal is to be slaughtered for its meat. To do that, she has attempted over several decades to adopt an animal-centric view of the world when it comes to animal management and husbandry. For her this comes easy, as her TED talk tells us, because she thinks in pictures, not language, a function of her autism.

To that end, it’s her belief she is much more empathic towards animal’s views of the world than she is to human’s, as if her brain’s “empathy centre” was diminished, but her visual pattern detection systems grew as a compensation.

Her ability to see the world, in particular cattle yards and slaughterhouses, through cattle eyes has seen her take very important roles in US meat production through better design of these areas, reducing the stress the animals experience, and this improving the quality of the meat while reducing cattle loss through accidents and injury in crowded pens.

So something in the chutes the animals would move through to be vaccinated for instance might be overlooked by human eyes as a perfectly normal thing, such as a waving flag nearby, or a shadow cast across the floor, but to a cow it could cause fear to be experienced, thus releasing adrenaline and cortisol, affecting the meat.

Screenshot from TED talk, illustrating the animal's viewpoint

For presenters, it’s a way to remind us all that we need to take an audience-centric view when we construct our presentations. That when we sit down in front of our computers and construct our slides,  there is an audience to whom they will eventually be shown, and it is their engagement we seek, not our time at the microphone.

The second point Temple states directly, is that there are different learning styles and these need to be acknowledged. For some, the big picture is what they wish to hear described, for others, it’s the small details and the story we build up using these details before we get to the bigger picture. For Temple, these are natural differences, accentuated by clinical conditions such as autism. For a presenter, it’s important to acknowledge that disengagement comes not because our stories are uninteresting, but because we overuse one method of story telling, and leave out others.

An example would be a 30 minute scientific presentation featuring text-only slides, now commonly referred to as Death by Powerpoint. But just showing movie after movie in say Apple’s Keynote would also be disengaging in some contexts, unless the presenter pauses between, makes the point, and then uses the next video to further embellish the story or highlight some subtle but important elements.

The task of the presenter is to keep their audience engaged by means now well understood but too often ignored about the brain’s attentional systems. We need variety, we need to ascertain difference as much as sameness, we need surprise amidst predictability. This goes for our voice as much as it does our slide construction. With more and more books and websites devoting themselves to better slide construction to do away with Death by Powerpoint, the final frontier will in fact be the first frontier – the telling of stories using our voices to help audiences modulate their arousal and engagement.

My prediction is that 2010 will be the year we hear lots more about Attention and Engagement, and it’s been one of the themes in my Presentation Magic workshops and talks these past three years. If the previous Ages we lived in could be described by the tools we used – The Stone Age, the Brass Age, The Industrial Age, The Knowledge economy – the age in which we now find ourselves could be described as the Age of Attention and Connectivity. These are the tools of the internet, where websites compete for our attention, their underlying technologies helping connect us to like minded people and groups we ordinarily would not meet face to face.

And yet because of the advantages these technologies bring, we are left with a missing element, and that is who do we trust to give us the information we crave. Basic Trust is the first of the generational needs psychologists talk about, and it is a theme that stays with us throughout our lives. Clinical psychologists like me often meet patients whose lives have never possessed basic trust, or where trust has been shattered through life events, whether they be earthquakes or war or being fired after twenty years loyal employment.

I take my presentation giving, training and receiving very seriously because I take the issues of trust and authority seriously. I want those who come to a presentation to have faith that the trust they have given me by their attendance has been reciprocated by my efforts to keep them engaged by my storytelling, both narrative and visual. I take pride in my ability to take complex ideas and transform them into understandable and actionable slides and stories to help make a difference. This is the same reason we go to see movies with known film “stars” who we trust to align themselves with entertaining products, but on whom we can round if they turn in too many stinkers, so called box-office “poison” (Think Nicole Kidman and Kevin Costner).

When you go about thinking about your next presentation, think about the difference you wish to make for your audience. Think like Temple Grandin or Steve Jobs about each presentation being a time capsule, a legacy of your thinking, that makes a difference for someone. If you’re a scientist, engineer or medico, don’t just get up at a conference and put into bullet points a summary of your latest publication complete with mandatory graphs, as is if that’s all that’s expected of you. Take the opportunity offered by the conference organisers to reciprocate the faith placed in you to keep their audience engaged by doing just that: transform your printed article into something special, using slides and graphs if you want to, or simply using the oral tradition to create a “theatre of the mind” to help audiences understand the importance of your work for them, their patients or clients or subjects, or for the institutes for whom they work. Don’t just treat it as another entry on your CV – sooner or later, that kind of thinking in the years to come, will come back to bite you, hard.

Finally, if you get a chance to locate the biopic of Temple Grandin she refers to in her TED talk, shown in February on HBO, do so. You will be thinking about its effects on you for days afterwards, and will want to share its story with friends and family.

Screenshot from Temple's TED talk, for her HBO movie biopic

In my next post, I’ll focus on how the educational system is failing our students by relying on outdated and traditional teaching methods, far removed from how young people seek information for themselves. And how presentation skills can make a world of difference.

One response to “What Temple Grandin (and Steve Jobs) can teach us about presenting – more from Presentation Magic at Macworld 2010

  1. Temple’s presentation was wonderful. Wow!

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