I was working with a rising star within a huge international company recently, helping her prepare for a conference presentation to senior management. The topic was the cost-cutting project she had been working on - potentially a bit of a ‘short straw’ in terms of engaging the people on whom her career advancement depended!
Happily, though, part of the brief was to think differently/outside the box/the unthinkable, even. So this became one of the three main strands of the presentation and I suspected it would probably be the source of a memorable moment on which to conclude.
We started by presenting the findings of the cost-cutting project, relying on some extraordinary data that was compelling and even engaging.
Then I asked if she had already implemented any cost-cutting herself. “Yes”, she replied, “we did it with our travel expenses and we achieved it by taking a completely different approach.” This was great news as it ticked two of our boxes. At the end of the day, however, although the idea was breaking new ground, it was actually just very good common sense. It was not memorable enough for my client to make a lasting mark.
I asked what else the team had done differently. “Well…..”, she said rather tentatively, “there was a situation whereby our project was running at the same time as the end of the financial year, so we were finding it impossible to get a response from the finance director, without whose input the project would have been doomed. In desperation one of our team tried the different approach of sending a request attached to a picture of a cute cat. He received an instant response and lines of communication flowed freely thereafter.” She went on to explain that the cat became a mascot for the project, to the extent that they had badges made up and they built these into their final presentation.
“Right”, I said, “we need to build up to a big finish with the cat. That is what everyone is going to remember you for and it will help to trigger memories of plenty of serious points about your project.” I feared she was not entirely sold on the idea, but we progressed with plans to build up to the cat story, reveal that she was wearing the cat badge and then finish with a picture of the FD happily wearing the badge as well.
When my client arrived at the conference venue, however, the first thing she said was: “I’ve cut out the stuff about the cat.” My heart sank. Clearly she was concerned that she needed to maintain a completely serious tone about her serious subject matter on what was a seriously career-defining occasion. I said nothing immediately, as time was on our side – she was not speaking until Day 2. During the morning session, though, I made a careful note of where the applause moments and laughter came during the opening speeches. Invariably it was ‘cat-like’ references that triggered them and at lunchtime I was able to start a conversation with: “Do you see why we need the cat?”
She could indeed see why she needed the cat and the audience loved her cat when she shared it with them the following day. Best of all, the Chief Executive followed her spot, congratulated her and said: “Can I borrow the slide changer for a moment. I want to go back to that cat of yours.”
You usually have to be a little bit brave to make your presentation memorable.