In his book This Means This, This Means That, Sean Hall asks readers to vote on which of two sentences is the best. “The cat sat on the mat.,” or “The cat sat on the dog’s mat?”
I know that may sound painfully simple, but it illustrates the point beautifully.
If the cat sat on the mat, does anyone really care? Cats sit on mats all the time. But, if the cat decided to curl up on the dog’s mat, well, that’s a different thing. There’s a good chance that if the dog finds out, he’ll have a serious problem with someone messing with his mat. Was the cat trying to provoke the dog? How did the dog react? Is the cat still alive?
Again, it’s a simple example, but it shows how effective some tension can be.
Tension is at the heart of every compelling story, which makes it rather surprising that it’s usually glaringly absent from most pitch presentations of new ideas.
Most of the ones I’ve dozed—I mean sat—through have been some variation of “Boy meets girl and lives happily ever after” (product meets consumer need and sells happily ever after). Not emotional and not believable.
If you’re going to pique an audience’s interest, you need a major piece of tension that throws the status quo off kilter. In other words, “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back.”
In disruptive pitch terms, “Boy meets girl” is all about empathy. “Boy loses girl” is tension. “Boy wins girl back” is where the audience truly believes in the solution.
A presentation without tension is usually a presentation built solely on common sense, on information the audience already intuitively knows. (The prevalence of common-sense presentations is what probably gave rise to the rather sarcastic definition of a consultant: someone who takes your watch and then tells you what time it is.)
What’s wrong with appealing to what the audience already knows? Plenty.
When people hear something they already know, they tend to tune out. And if there’s one thing you don’t want during your presentation, it’s an audience that has mentally left the room. Your idea has to be something your audience will remember long after you finish your presentation.
It’s all about creating a disturbance, a disruption, between what your audience assumes they’ll get and what you actually give them. Common-sense, tension-free presentations do the opposite: They give the audience exactly what they were expecting.
And that’s the kiss of death.