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Architecture, Constructors, Facilities Management, Presentation Tips, Winning New Business

Presentation tips from TV

Everyone at Grist has worked in telly. Mrs Grist was a journalist on most of the BBC News programmes as well as Newsnight, Newsround, and quite a number of Science documentaries, and I was a documentary maker. When we look for people to work with us we have always ended up with ex-TV people. Our latest is Julie Griffiths who has just left BBC Sport, and the first job we did? Media training for Wasps young star players. Handy.

So why do we think TV skills help in presentations?

As Mrs Grist always says, “In television you put words and pictures together to tell a compelling story. But, the first thing you do is consider the audience.”

Lindsay worked on all the BBC1 news programmes, The World Service, and Newsround among others. She also piloted the ‘blipvert’ style news you get on BBC3. In each case the same news story would be told in a quite different way. For her the most challenging and fun was Newsround where you could make no assumptions. Kids might have no idea of what the Soviet Union was, or Apartheid or Global Warming. You try explaining those in one sentence and you will gain new respect for those who communicate with kids for a living.

So seeing a story from the audience perspective is vital. In modern TV there is nowhere to hide. All television is slave to the numbers. You can watch the audiences come and go on programmes in real time. Watch people desert your lovingly crafted show when you get to the boring-bit-that-you-thought-was-really-important and it hurts. And before anyone goes down a purest line here, TV is a mass medium, TV shows are very expensive, and numbers indicate that the audience were interested in what you were saying. As Gus Grissolm says in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

So TV teaches you to think of the audience first, and most presentations would be 100 times better if the audience had what is known in Grist Towers as “the squirty box”. Imagine if they could, with a casual thumb press, replace you with the team from CompetitorCo?

I bet your presentation would be more fun.

The second thing that TV teaches is that structure really matters. Even a short news item has a structure, and an 60 minute show is always heavily structured. I watched a recent Horizon made by old friend Michael Mosely, and sorry Michael, I though it would have been better if the two opening scenes were swapped.

As a viewer you probably don’t consider structure very much, but structuring all shows is a key part of designing them.

Top Gear anyone?

Titles with joke 3-part tease “Tonight I wear a hat. James looks bored and Richard doesn’t”

Studio intro. First film. Big Film Part 1. News. Jeremy driving a car we can’t afford. Star in a reasonably… Big film part 2. Studio out.

I’m not sure I’ve got that quite right, but it is from memory and I bet it’s close. It’s called a format and it exists because it works. (As an aside, TG is the Apple of BBC TV. Sold to a 100 countries and getting 5-6m in a slot that should get 2m.)

Structure helps people understand things, and helps them enjoy it. Some of it is mechanistic – to understand that you first need to know this. But go too far down that track and you end up with one of those presentations where it feels like the speaker will pass out a test paper at the end to see if you were paying attention.

In TV you get good at telling people the least amount that allows them to follow what is going on. It’s a good trick. Most presentations have too much exposition, and that gets boring. Most speeches or talks or presentations would be much better if they were edited down. Less really is more.

The third thing that TV teaches is, preparation is everything. 

We have often been told, “I don’t want to rehearse too much, I’ll get stale.”

You go into a live TV studio and tell that to the people there. They, if they are polite, will laugh.  While some parts of TV are genuinely on-the-hoof, wherever possible everything is rehearsed as much as possible. Top Gear was piloted twice before a show was transmitted. They made 2 whole shows which were never transmitted before they got it right.

Another thing that TV teaches is that everything is fish and chip paper. I made programmes watched by millions of people. Most of them will have no memory of ever watching them.

Consider a common situation. Three teams speak and interact with a client for 90 minutes each. There is a document of hundreds of pages that supports each team.

How much will the audience retain? And more important, what will they retain?

Of the words you say, I would work on the basis that they might remember one line. Scary thought? One line? After all that work?

So, you’d better make sure it’s the right line.

So if they don’t retain the words what do they retain?

They will retain the answers to the questions they came in with. Do these people have a coherent plan? Have they got the skills to do the job? Are their ideas bold or run-of-the-mill? or put it another way, they will retain stuff that fits their own agenda.

So the obvious conclusion of that is to spend a lot of time asking yourself the question, “What do they really want to know?”

And finally they retain a “feeling”.

As humans we have a feeling about everything. We can’t stop ourselves. Ask a human about anything and they’ll give you an answer. This font? Do you like bold? Italic?

So when you speak to people you will always leave behind a feeling.  It must be a good feeling, and good feeling comes primarily from giving them what they want.

Finally, TV teaches us words do matter. Over to the great orator. Watch just a minute and a bit.

Barack won the biggest job on the planet using words.

“Change we can believe in.”


“Yes We Can!”

The best slogan ever? Quite possibly.

“Yes” the most positive of positive words.

“We” Join the team. Get on board the bus.

“Can” America is the can-do country.


The Obama campaign was simply the best ever. He had some great lines and it left Americans with a feeling. A wonderful positive feeling. Yes We Can.


About gristpresent

Presentation, Q&A and Engagement Coach. We help you win more business. Also BAFTA-winning film maker. See our new site www.grist.co.uk


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