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Learning from Superheroes: Why Every Presentation Needs Conflict — Renovate Communication Design, LLC

Learning from Superheroes: Why Every Presentation Needs Conflict

Imagine Superman without Lex Luthor, Spiderman without the Green Goblin, Batman without The Joker, or Thor without Loki.

Boring, right?


Every superhero needs a villain.

What good is a crimefighter if there’s no crime to fight? The badness of the bad guys validates the goodness of the good guys.

Without the Matrix, Neo is just another office drone who hacks in his off-hours.

Without Darth Vader, the Empire, and the Dark Side, Luke Skywalker is just another brooding farm kid on an outpost planet.

Every hero’s story needs conflict to make it interesting.

To make things even more interesting, however, the hero’s conflict is often internal as well as external.

Should Neo swallow the red pill or the blue pill–join the struggle against the Matrix or remain in his relatively safe but artificial world?

Should Han Solo enlist with the Rebel Alliance to fight the Empire or continue smuggling for his own selfish gain?

Should Peter Parker continue to fight crime as Spiderman or give it up for a simple, happy life with Mary Jane?

Conflict creates a natural curiosity in an audience since we want to know how or if the tension will be resolved. Conflict, then, is an important tool for keeping attention.

So whether you call it conflict, tension, or contrast, your presentation also needs it to make it interesting and memorable.

Here are two ways you can build external and internal tension into your presentation.

External conflict: introduce a tension but don’t resolve it until later

In this case, the conflict is yours, not your audience’s. Maybe it’s a story from your own experience or a problem from someone else. Your audience feels the tension and wants to see it resolved, but the problem is not their own.

One client we recently coached told her audience about taking 15 family members–spanning 4 generations and 90 years in age–on a vacation. Where would they go? How would they get there? What special concerns (diet needs, limited mobility, relationship dynamics) would prevail?  By setting the stage with these questions, she created a sense of tension in her listeners–they want to know what’s going to happen! By waiting until the end of her presentation, though, to reveal what happened, she kept their attention through the talk.

Internal conflict: create a desire for change

What do I want my audience to do? This is one of the first questions that should guide your planning. Once you’ve answered that, you can build your message around taking your audience from where they’re at now to the place you want them to go. This differencebetween where they are now and where you want them to go–this contrast–creates tension.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, for example, he described the current world of smart phones: not very smart and not very easy to use. He then offered Apple’s solution: very smart and very easy to use. That contrast creates a conflict in the audience. “I don’t want to keep using my dumb, difficult phone,” we say to ourselves. “I want the new, smart, easy-to-use phone.”

What change do you want your audience to make? Create tension and highlight it. In fact, Nancy Duarte has a great TED talk describing how to use this type of contrast to structure an entire presentation. Check it out.

In your next presentation, find a way to include conflict to keep your audience interested and you’ll find it easier to move them as well.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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