Why Data Overload Is Ruining This Industry

Somebody Tell an Interesting Story, Please

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Jeff   Rosenblum
Jeff Rosenblum
Why do we feel compelled to bore the hell out of each other when we get together in meetings and conferences? We work in, arguably, the most interesting industry in world history, so why do we have this addiction to overwhelming data, graphs, tables and boring presentations?

Seriously, when was the last time you saw a truly exciting, inspiring and compelling presentation? On the flip side, when was the last time you saw a presentation filled with 50 slides of charts and graphs in PowerPoint? We all hate PowerPoint. We all make fun of it. Yet we always fall back on it.

We need to be better storytellers. All of us. Not just those of us at agencies and media vendors. Not just during pitches. Everyone in this industry needs to learn to sell to our bosses, teammates, other departments and even subordinates. The most powerful businesspeople and world leaders are all great salespeople, and they're all great storytellers.

To cure the problem, we need to get to the root of the problem: Approximately 15 years ago, PowerPoint became the de facto tool for presentations. It was great initially -- the ability to project text, images and charts was compelling. At the exact same time, the research world went through a revolution. Projects that previously took six months to complete were truncated to six days. As the internet advanced, we gained access to more and more data in an even shorter time, which was amazingly useful, but came with a side effect: data overload.

As we instantaneously gained access to exponentially more data, we recognized the ability to use it to a competitive advantage, but we didn't realize the downside of ruining our internal communication. We're drowning in data and drowning in our addiction to the data. A presentation consisting of 50 slides of charts and graphs virtually never ends with a win. Why? Because it is boring as hell and boredom does not lead to inspiration.

We seem to think that since data is available, it needs to be at the core of all decisions and presentations. The true power of research is in the insights and the action. Data should be used to enlighten us about audiences' unmet needs. It should spark a conversation and help generate ideas. It should be included in our strategic planning and creative development. But, when selling an idea, we need to remember that it's the story that will create a visceral reaction. It's the story that will get remembered. It's the story that gets bought.

One of my favorite examples of great storytelling in our industry is this clip from "Mad Men." Yes, it's dramatized, but it makes my point. At the end of his pitch, there is no doubt that he won the gig. He told a story rather than simply regurgitating facts. He made the story personal and created an emotional connection. He had absolutely no text, charts or graphs. Perhaps most importantly, the entire pitch was extremely brief. In fact, he has an entirely blank screen in the presentation. Just plain white. Think about the guts it takes to show a blank slide.

When presenting, think about your competition as the smartphone in the hands of everyone in the audience. We must learn to create presentations that are so compelling that the audience doesn't feel compelled to look at their phones.

We don't need to fill every second and every slide with information. We need to take risks. I've never read a story about someone who took the safe route to incredible success. Take a risk. Don't show every data point possible, show one or two that hammer on your key point. Don't start with an agenda; start with something that captures attention immediately. Don't take a full hour; focus on brevity so that you can be truly interactive with your audience. Leave your audience wanting more.

In our industry, Steve Jobs is regarded as the greatest pitchman. Watch a few clips of him. Call me crazy, but I think he's OK. Far from great. We've all seen great orators like Barack Obama and Winston Churchill. It is not an exaggeration to say that they can send chills down your spine. Steve doesn't do that at all. Sure, he has some amazing products to pitch, but Apple isn't the only company with world-class products. Steve excels because he doesn't make the same mistakes that the rest of us make. He stays on point. He doesn't rely on charts and graphs. He knows that less is more.

Author/adventurist Peter Shankman recently advised the industry in Hope Beyond the Hype to "listen to the wind." In the way that animals feel slight shifts in the ground that tells them there's an earthquake under the sea that will turn into a tsunami, we should not make decisions based on overwhelming volumes of data or infinitesimally small fractions. Rather, we should unite the many data points from the varying channels to gain actionable insight, and turn that into a compelling story that rallies internal and external teams to do original, breakthrough work

Don't get me wrong; research and data are a necessary part of our process. In an industry that changes as rapidly as ours, we absolutely must have data to ensure that we are meeting our audiences' cognitive and emotional needs. But, we can send decks to our internal audiences filled with data to support our key points that we show in our presentations. Our goal as advertisers is to do breakthrough work that makes brands famous. To do that, we need to get our teams to rally around unprecedented ideas. We need to tell compelling stories to make an emotional connection during our internal pitches if we have any chance of doing so with our external audiences. We need to simplify to amplify.

Jeff Rosenblum is founding partner of Questus, a digitally led advertising agency with offices in New York and San Francisco.
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