Any good presentation is a story, and a good presenter is adept at telling their audience a story in a way that is compelling. Some are naturally good at this sort of thing - but all of us have been forced to sit through presentations with no unifying thread of story.
Luckily for the rest of us, there are techniques that can help us become better storytellers, and avoid boring our audiences to tears.
One of the most effective approaches I have learned is called SCIPAB, a technique developed by Steve Mandel and now spread by the company he founded, Mandel Communications. I was lucky enough to be trained in SCIPAB by Mandel Communications as part of a more general "presentation skills" training. I don’t want to steal their thunder (or their business!), but I do want to share some of the insights that I carry with me and use regularly.
SCIPAB is an acronym, which stands for the phases of a story:
These phases have a specific technical meaning within the Mandel technique, but they also align with the phases of another framing device, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. There are seventeen phases to the Journey, which Steve Mandel wisely condensed to six for his audience of sales people and marketers. To quote Wikipedia:
In the Departure part of the narrative, the hero or protagonist lives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an adventure. The hero is reluctant to follow the call, but is helped by a mentor figure.
The Initiation section begins with the hero then traversing the threshold to the unknown or "special world", where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.
The hero eventually reaches "the innermost cave" or the central crisis of his adventure, where he must undergo "the ordeal" where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing "apotheosis" and gaining his reward (a treasure or "elixir").
The hero must then return to the ordinary world with his reward. He may be pursued by the guardians of the special world, or he may be reluctant to return, and may be rescued or forced to return by intervention from the outside.
In the Return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the treasure or elixir he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man. The hero himself is transformed by the adventure and gains wisdom or spiritual power over both worlds.
Let us map SCIPAB onto the Hero’s Journey, so that we can take our audiences on a journey with us and lead them to a shared conclusion.
The S, Situation, is the status quo at the beginning of the story, where our audience is living today. In most heroic stories, this is some kind of idyll, but actually in most presentations, this part is present as an opportunity to confirm our understanding of our audience’s… well, Situation. In a general audience, this is to level-set that we all understand the main forces and trends affecting our industry or sector. In a more specific audience, this is our opportunity to confirm our understanding of their specific context, and to trot out all the homework that we have been doing on them. (You have been doing your homework on your audience, right?) If this phase goes well, we have successfully positioned ourselves as the right mentor to lead our audience on a the journey.
The C, Complication, is where we depart from the comfortable status quo. In this section, we are pointing out the trials and tribulations that are the consequence of the Situation. This is where we start to turn up the heat a little and say things that may be uncomfortable for the audience, pointing out ways in which the status quo is problematic or unsatisfactory. This often boils down to 'that was a great plan, until these changes occurred, which made it no longer such a good fit".
The I, Implication, is the nadir, the lowest point of the emotional journey. Here we describe the ordeal that is inevitable if the Complication is not addressed, the "innermost cave" of the Hero's Journey. This phase is specifically about the bad things that can happen: toil and trouble, with the ultimate possibility of failure in the background. At this point the audience should be deeply uncomfortable, facing unpleasant truths about the long-term consequences of staying on their current trajectory.
Having brought the audience to this low point, we give them a vision of what is possible. The P, Proposal, is where we describe a different outcome, the "treasure or elixir" that our audience might win by confronting the monster that we described in the previous steps. Here we are selling a shining vision of a possible future - one that is accessible if only the Situation can be confronted in the right way, avoiding the Complications and their Implications.
This emotional alternation between high and low is very important. In a longer presentation (or blog post or white paper or any other kind of story, for that matter) you can even repeat this alternation multiple times, taking the audience with you on an emotional roller coaster ride. Too much doom & gloom in one dose, and you’ll start to lose them - not just because it makes for a depressing presentation, but also because you end up talking down their current situation. No matter how bad they might accept intellectually that things are, having someone else poke at the sore points over and over (and over) will trigger a negative emotional reaction sooner or later. Don’t call other people’s babies ugly - at least, no more than is strictly necessary!
Because this is ultimately a storytelling methodology in service of a sales effort, the key is to include concrete requests and actions that the audience should take. This is the A of SCIPAB: specific Actions that you want to happen as a consequence of the story you have told. This could be a next-step workshop where you can go deeper into specifics of your Proposal, an opportunity to present to someone higher up the org chart, or a request for the audience to do something, such as download an evaluation version of your tool - but the key to ensuring progress and maintaining momentum is to ask for something at every step.
Finally, close on the B, Benefits. This is the high point of that emotional roller-coaster, and also aligns to the Hero’s Journey. This is where the prospective customer gets concrete about the "treasure or elixir" they can gain from our Proposal - not to mention the "wisdom or spiritual power" they will gain along the way. This is to the Proposal what the Implication is to the Situation: the consequences that we can reasonably expect, given that starting point.
Above all, don’t be boring
By structuring your communications in this way, you will be able to have much more explicit and productive conversations with prospective customers - and at the very least, you won’t be boring them or inducing Death By Powerpoint.
Plus, this way is much more fun for the presenter. Try it, and let me know how it goes!
This is also known as "Position", but "Proposal" is what I learned, plus I think it fits better within the flow. ↩