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Giving presentations on the future

And now for something completely different…..

I regularly give talks on the future. I’ve spoken to groups from second grade to senior citizens. I have given talks to members of dozens of professions, in different industries, and in different countries. I have evolved my approach over the years in an effort to make it work as well as possible for people.

Speaking is work I enjoy very much. Getting a group excited about the future is fun and rewarding.

In many ways, when you present on the future, you are lucky. The future is a star. Lots of people are interested in hearing about it, and there is a lot to tell. Nearly everyone sees its relevance, and even if they don’t, there’s a lot to entertain people about the future.

Fairly often, I speak to a corporate group during a quarterly or annual meeting. I’ve seen the great contrast in those gatherings between what the company’s executives must talk about, and what I get to talk about. Their PowerPoint shows are filled with spreadsheets and pie charts–a focus on market share, profitability, and so on. That’s their job, and the meeting needs that information.

When it’s my turn, I usually feel the urge to say “and now for something completely different.” Sometimes, but not always, my host has made sure the group’s expectations about what I am there for are clear. I always clarify my role and make sure to read the comfort and readiness of the group as I get started.

I tell them: “my role is to share some insights about the future with you. I have chosen carefully what to share, and have worked to be sure what I have to say is important to your business. Your role is to find connections to what I have to say, and to add your knowledge and wisdom to it. You don’t have to agree with me, but I hope you’ll react, one way or another.”

Then I move into my talk. I work to make it as powerful, but also as useful as possible. I believe that to adequately inspire people to think about the future I need to do several critical things:

  • Give people insights in their language and in ways that are accessible to them. That depends on the person, so I know that there will be auditory and visual learners with me, and there will be people who must have data, and others who benefit from an experiential process. I also need to know where they are coming from-to understand their interests and sensitivities.
  • Find a balance between the familiar and the new. That means approaching the new ideas in a language that ties things to the interests of the group in front of me. The futurist’s instinct is not always to do that-it feels like dumbing things down or pulling punches. It’s not. I can show mind-bending things to a group, but then be sure to say, “so that means…” and make near-term and concrete connections to their business.
  • Make it visual. I’ve written several times here about the power of images. See here. Images make a big difference in presenting on the future. If nothing else, they liven up a session, and contrast well with the steady diet of quarterly data tables that executives get.
  • Tell stories. Stories cut across a range of disparate ideas and facts, and can give people a clearer view of the future. That may, of course, mean sharing some well-fleshed-out scenarios of possible futures.
  • Model the right kind of thinking and behavior-which means getting people to “play” with the future, trying out ideas, speculating, and making new connections. This is the kind of thinking they need to make a habit in their day-to-day work.
  • Make the time I spend their time. That means structuring the presentation as a dialogue as much as possible. It means stopping as often as every 10 or 15 minutes for discussion, a question, a chance for those attending to jot a note down, to capture what their thoughts are. What matters in the time I am in front of a group is not so much what I want to say, as it is what they latch onto and combine into their thinking.

It is my hope that you can find some useful thoughts in what I’ve just shared. I don’t claim to have it all figured out, but I’ve moved a long way over the years in finding better ways to bring people insights on the future.

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