14 March 2012

The Zen of Presentations, Part 52: Big finish

Two people go in for a rather invasive and somewhat painful surgical procedure. The nature of the procedure means that the can’t be anesthetized. To keep track of their pain, the physicians ask the patients to rate the level of pain they’re experiencing at regular intervals, from one to ten. Imagine this is charted below.

When the red line hits “0”, it’s because the procedure was done.

Some months later, on a follow-up, the patients are asked to describe their overall experience.

You would expect the patient whose responses that are plotted in blue in the chart above would report the experience being much worse. If you add all the numbers, this person’s average pain was higher, and they were in pain for much longer.

The patient whose responses are in red usually reports the experience being much worse than the patient whose responses are in blue, even though this person’s procedure was shorter, and they were in less pain overall. Why?

Endings matter.

The entire experience is profoundly influenced by that last memory. The patient in red ends in almost excruciating pain; the patient in blue ends with mild discomfort. And that last experience tends to be one that sticks.

This might explain why twist endings in movies and television and other stories are so divisive. They can be spectacularly successful or agonizingly bad. Sometimes a great ending saves an movie or episode and turns the run-of-the-mill into something quite amazing (e.g., The Sixth Sense). How many times have you been going alone, carried along with a story... and the ending ruins it, and you leave with a sour taste in your mouth? (E.g., Jacob’s Ladder.)

This talk - the most popular Ignite! talk to date - could be significantly improved:

This talk is popular because it is so useful. But the ending... a recap? What do you need a recap in a five minute talk for? Peoples’ memories aren’t that bad.

Nancy Duarte nailed what an ending should be in her book Resonate: a vision for a better tomorrow. She calls it, “the new bliss.” The new bliss sets out what could be, if the audience takes the story you have told them and acts on it.

Here’s a great example of an ending that lays out a new bliss. It’s Hans Rosling talking about the magic of washing machines:

A world with washing machines is not just a world with clean laundry. A world with washing machines is a world where machines have freed up time for parents to read books to their children.

In a scientific talk, the new bliss can be something as simple as a more complete understanding of some fine theoretic point that people in your field will appreciate. It could be ruling out an hypothesis. Or it could be a shifted paradigm. Or maybe there are big potential practical spin-offs that could come out of the work.

Put a lot of work into your endings.

Note: I heard the patient story on an online video somewhere; I thought it was on the TED website, but can’t find it gain. If anyone recognizes this and can point me to it, I would be most grateful!

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