Last week I got to talk to the guy behind several advertisements that are ubiquitous in the Wichita area.  His name’s Bruce Rowley, head of RSA advertising company.  RSA is based in a nondescript building downtown that ironically doesn’t draw attention to itself at all.  I almost missed it.

My favorite advertising campaign, apart from the unrelated Budweiser Frogs, is RSA’s “Show the World Your Wesley Baby.”  New parents can show off their baby pictures on a billboard if they want.

Bruce had some good advice and a recursively themed 20-point presentation on presentations.  Some of his best advice was:  “Let a little of your life sneak in.”  He gave the example of “accidentally” showing his desktop with a picture of his cute daughter on it.  I had never thought of this, but it’s an important and easy way to establish a connection.  Another piece of advice was the connection between the third and nineteenth points: Confirm your destination, and Circle back around. At the beginning of your talk, give a roadmap of all 20 of your points (or whatever number).  At the end, summarize everything up to that point.

I think this was the key piece of advice:  “Involve your audience.”

After his presentation, he asked if we had anything to add, saying that he’s always on the lookout for good advice on public speaking.  I couldn’t think of anything at the time, but I felt like there was something on the tip of my tongue.  Shortly after I left, I realized what it was: “Raise questions in your audience’s mind to capture their interest and lead them to the next step.”  Part of what makes any presentation interesting is wanting to know what comes next.  (It’s also essential to a joke with a punchline: Create a syllogism and leave it to the listener to complete it).  It’s a storytelling technique, but as Bruce said, “stories are the foundation of human communication.”

For example, the author of The Da Vinci Code opens the book with a murder mystery: “Who killed this guy in the museum and what does the message written in his blood mean?”  The same thing worked in another extremely successful novel, Harry Potter.  Near the beginning of the first book, Harry gets a mysterious letter and keeps getting prevented from opening it.  That tension carries the story through the first several chapters, and once the hero finally opens the letter a new series of questions is raised.  In both cases, throughout the whole story the audience is led in an overlapping cycle of question-and-answer.

I once had a conversation with my dad where he (intentionally or not) gave a perfect example of how to apply that concept outside of storytelling: He was explaining a concept in a book he’d read recently.

He said, and I paraphrase: “The most skilled people in the world (the best golfers, musicians, businesspeople, and so on) generally devote about 10,000 hours to practicing their craft before they became truly great at it.  Tiger Woods, the Beatles, Bill Gates, and other highly skilled people all spent many long hours honing their skills before they became masters of what they do.  But on the other hand, there are thousands of other guys who like to play golf and have spent more than 10,000 hours playing, and yet they’re not outstanding golfers like Woods.”

He paused, and I asked the obvious question: “So what’s the difference?”

He explained that the difference is that the people who became masters spent those 10,000 hours not merely repetitively doing the same task, but in constantly pushing themselves to do better.  Those who improve monitor their performance and focus on what they’re not good at yet.  They leave the comfort zone for the learning zone.  Those who don’t improve tend to not keep track of their progress and only focus on what they’re already good at.

The point is, that gap between the premise and the conclusion engaged me, and if done well that type of interactive question formation will engage anyone.

I’ve become convinced that one should live one’s life in the learning zone, and make a practice of leaving one’s comfort zones.