Jonathan Thomas Q&A
I thought my first encounter with Jon Thomas was when I cited his bio story, one of the examples Michael Margolis shared during his webinar series on developing one’s bio story. He responded with a comment about his bio story that he elaborates on in this Q&A; his comment prompted me to invite him to do the Q&A. As I was researching questions to ask him, I made the horrifying discovery that I had already encountered Jon when I trashed a presentation his company crafted that was one of the winners of SlideShare’s 2010 World’s Best Presentation Contest. Yikes! Jon was a very good sport in commenting on my skewering. Jon is one of several practitioners in this Q&A series who emphasize storytelling in presentations. I’m thrilled to have him — especially after I dissed his work here!
Bio: [in his own words from his company site]: I am the founder of Presentation Advisors, but more importantly I am a storyteller and have been developing engaging brand stories for nearly nine years. I have extensively researched the topics of presenting, design, marketing and storytelling and fear that the world has unknowingly been exposed to a poisonous presentation landscape since the inception of PowerPoint. I am here to make a change.
Presentation Advisors was founded on the principles of simplicity, clarity, beauty, and most importantly, narrative. I design presentations with the audience in mind, including vibrant images, few words, and an engaging story. I don’t play nice with bullet points, and work best with clients who are willing to throw out what they know about presentations and realize that a story is more powerful than their sales pitch.
Whether your presentation is polished and you’re just looking for visuals, or you know you have a story and don’t know where to begin, don’t worry. I have designed award-winning presentations from just a two-page word document, and I’m excited to work with you to help you present your emotion, your passion, and your story.
I am also the Director of Communications for Story Worldwide, the world’s first post-advertising agency, where I am constantly working to make Story famous through social media engagement, audience generation, web strategy, and content creation.
I am an avid blogger and passionate speaker on presentation and marketing topics. You can follow my daily ramblings on my Twitter account. If you’re hoping for a follow back, make sure you’re not doing any of the 10 reasons I won’t follow you back.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: Right out of college I joined a video production house and for five years immersed myself in the story. From videography, to script writing, storyboarding, graphic design, editing, and producing — it all revolved around telling a compelling story that would entertain. I even started my own wedding videography company and had to weave the story of my clients’ wedding days into a two-hour DVD. It was hard work, but seeing their eyes light up when they watch it for the first time was pretty amazing.
From there I got my MBA in marketing and left the production house for a job within marketing at an IT security firm. It wasn’t easy since the firm was working with traditional, interruptive marketing techniques like direct mail, list buying, and cold calling. I sat right next to our outside sales team (telemarketers) and heard them get hung up on (and rightfully so) day after day. It ate me up inside. I felt bad for them and for the people on the other end of the line. I knew there was a better way to tell our story.
I made it my goal to bring the company into the 21st century — what I now like to call the post-advertising age. I totally immersed myself in the latest marketing books and read blogs religiously. I took a fondness to social media, eventually launching a corporate blog and Twitter account. I loved everything about it this new style of marketing and knew it was going to be the industry standard very soon.
Only out of chance did I start working on presentation design. I had a basic graphic-design background, so all of our corporate PowerPoints started showing up in my email box with notes asking if I could “pretty them up.” I figured if I was going to do that on a regular basis, I better learn how to do it effectively. Again, I turned to books and blogs to teach myself the ways of Presentation Zen.
I’ve always felt that the intersection between marketing and presentation design was storytelling. In order to engage your audience and express how a product or service can truly affect their lives, you had to have an engaging story. That story flowed through our presentations into our marketing materials, blog posts, webinars and more.
A little more than two years ago I founded Presentation Advisors to help others present more effectively, and joined Story Worldwide in April of 2010 as the Director of Communications. Story was walking the walk and talking the talk of brand storytelling way before any other marketing agency, and I knew a place called “Story” was going to be a great fit for me.Q: In your comment on my blog, you wrote, “… To be honest, [my bio story] used to be pretty bad, and after some honest feedback from friends and family I spun it 180 degrees and tried to craft it in a way that tells a story and helps the reader understand who I really am. I approached it from a very honest place…” Can you talk more about this process and how you made it storied bio?
A: I rarely do anything without proper research. I’m travelling to France in September and I’m already researching the area, how to get around, local customs, where the train stations are, etc. So it’s no surprise that when I had to write an About Me page, I did a bunch of research.
When I found what most considered to be best practice About Me pages, I realized that many of them had interesting stories. I wrote what I thought was a good About Me page, complete with a few funny insights into who I am. However, when it came time to publish, I couldn’t do it. I let my lizard brain get a hold of me and reverted to standard corporate jargon.
The first About Me page I published spoke in the third person and simply stated some of my background and professional experience. However, once I sent it around to friends, family members and colleagues, I got some interesting feedback. They could tell that I wasn’t being truly honest with myself. I actually got a pretty blunt email from my brother-in-law asking me why I was putting on such a front. I didn’t have a good answer.
So I revised my About Me page to read the way I really wanted it to read. It’s in first-person, mixing both professional information with personal information. I’m a human being and I want those who read my About Me page to know that. I have other interests outside of business and sometimes those interests make for interesting conversation. At a recent presentation of mine I had a lengthy conversation with an audience member about how much I like ice cream.
If your About Me page is on any sort of business or professional site, it needs to carefully balance professionalism with personal storytelling. Include just enough information to validate your authority in your field. Also, let them know where they can find you (Twitter, Facebook, other blogs, etc.) That also helps to establish authority. After that, add some information that shows you’re human. I talk about my education, where I’m from, my non-business related passions, and my personal ethos.
At Story Worldwide, our bio pages have a picture of our business cards, with three truths and a lie. The page includes the back-stories of two of the truths, but you have to get in touch with the person to find out which of the remaining two is true.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I am a very frequent participant within social media, and I can’t stop raving about its potential as a business tool. When I started Presentation Advisors, it was simply a blog — a place where I could harvest my thoughts and findings about presenting, presentation design, marketing, and communications. It was my first foray into a media meant to be social — where traditional marketing techniques would not be accepted. Instead of selling my services, I helped others become better presenters.
Shortly thereafter I joined Twitter, which, combined with the blog, has been a knockout combination for me. The people I’ve met through Twitter and the recognition I’ve received from my writing on the blog (and as a guest on other blogs) has fueled all of my marketing efforts. I’ve never paid a dime to market Presentation Advisors, aside from the blog hosting costs.
What I’ve always believed was the underlying power of social media was the ability to bring humanity back into business. That humanity is achieved through storytelling, and we’re using these mediums to do so. It may not be a “story” in the traditional sense. But when you look at my Twitter feed and see the type of content I’m spreading, the conversations I’m having, and the people I’m connecting, you begin to see who I — Jon Thomas — really am. And that puts a face on Presentation Advisors and Story Worldwide, the two brands that I represent.
As Guy Kawasaki says, “People are enchanting.” The more humanity you can add to your brand, the more enchanting you’ll become. Connecting with your audience (clients/prospects/fans), telling real stories, addressing problems openly and honestly — these are all methods of framing your brand story that can be accomplished through social media.Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Not too long ago, the brands that “won” in marketing were those that had the most money. They could buy the best TV spots, the best billboards, the best radio commercial slots, and they could get eyeballs because the consumer didn’t have any power. If audiences wanted their entertainment, they had to sit through those ads. Brands didn’t need a story — they just needed brand exposure.
The power is shifting, though. Consumers don’t have to be subjected to this type of advertising. We can fast-forward over the commercials, pay for commercial free radio and television, and simply ignore the marketing we don’t want to hear or see.
Now, in order to reach consumers, brands have to create content that’s relevant, useful, and entertaining. That’s where storytelling comes in. Brands must create experiences that audiences enjoy and want to share with others. It’s within these experiences that stories are told.
Instead of paying for a 30-second spot, a beauty salon could invest in creating a blog dedicated to providing hair tips, tricks, latest styles, and customer stories. This keeps a customer engaged with the brand even when they’re not at the salon and creates a bond between consumer and brand that transcends pricing and quirky advertising.
Not to mention there are tools that are popping up every day, anchored by Twitter and Facebook, that allow brand and consumer, actor and fan, charity and volunteer, to connect on a human level. It’s becoming part of our culture to expect all brands to be human. Ten years ago if I had a problem with my cable provider, I had to call an 800 number, fight a phone tree, and battle with a robotic sales rep. One person heard my complaint, and the cable providers knew it. I had no power. Now, I can take my complaint to Twitter or the brand’s Facebook page and I can voice my complaint to hundreds if not thousands. This usually results in an immediate response, and that response becomes part of the brand story. They may respond so well that they turn my anger into evangelism, and I can tell my story to those hundreds, if not thousands of people in my network.
It’s been fantastic to see humanity and creativity return to marketing and advertising, and it’s all rooted in story.Q: If you could identify a person or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: I was just having a conversation with a soon-to-be college graduate who wrote his communications thesis on how Twitter killed the PR agent. I find the adoption of social media by celebrities to be quite intriguing.
Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter give consumers an avenue to connect with their idols in a way that was IMPOSSIBLE just a few years ago. I grew up a Celtics fan, but there’s no way Larry Bird was knocking on my door to say hi any time soon. But now there are all kinds of professional athletes using social media, and while it’s not anywhere near a guarantee, if I reach out to my idol on those channels maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a response. Just the ability to listen to their stream of consciousness makes a fan feel like they’re part of the conversation. And if there is a real direct response, then that creates a bond that is stronger than any baseball card or poster can ever create.
Celebrities have a built in audience, so once the join Twitter, they don’t have to focus much time on growing a followership. All they have to do is decide how they’ll use their power. I liken it to a superhero who just finds out he has a special power, like x-ray vision. He could use it for good or for evil.
As a Boston fan, I followed Paul Pierce on Twitter, only to realize that a majority of his tweets are paid advertisements. He’s using Twitter for “evil” and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s unfortunate to realize that celebrities would prefer the easy money of paid ads than to harness the incredible power of social-media channels to humanize and tell their story of who they really are.
As Gary Vaynerchuck says, “Giving a shit has an enormous yield,” and that couldn’t be truer. Gary has nearly 900,000 Twitter followers and I’ve gotten numerous responses from him, including personal email responses. He gives away tons of useful content for free, and I owe much of my success to him. So there’s no doubt I’ll be buying all his books, suggesting them to others, attending his speaking engagements, and promoting the heck out of his stuff. His story is about caring, and that resonates with me.
Q: Are there situations in which a presenter might be better off not using slides at all but should just tell stories?
A: I don’t know if I can name any specific instances when slides aren’t appropriate and just storytelling is, but I do want people to understand that I don’t believe PowerPoint slides are always necessary. Just because I’m a presentation designer doesn’t mean I’m ignorant to the fact that there are situations where slides may not be necessary and could ultimately be a hindrance to the learning process, especially if they’re poorly designed. I simply believe that in situations where slides could be beneficial, those slides must be designed effectively in order to properly engage the audience and aid in their retention of information.
Q: A story practitioner colleague follows this formula for presentations: “3 stories, 3 points, sit down.” To what extent do you feel formulas like that are useful for presentations?
A: I don’t subscribe to any type of formula. I don’t know how anyone possibly could. What if you have four great stories? What if you have three but one is “meh?” I suggest going with whatever style/formula works for you. The only rules I follow revolve around respecting the audience and their time.
Q: You probably have stories you use repeatedly in presentations. Because you’re likely to give presentations of varying lengths, do you have a short version and a long version of the stories you use?
A: I don’t have anything prepared, but you always have to respect the audience’s time and deliver the content you’ve promised. So sometimes stories will be shortened, or removed completely. Just make sure you practice the delivery before you try to edit a story or any presentation content for that matter.
Q: Should slides for a presentation be able to stand on their own without narration? There are thousands of slideshows on sites like SlideShare, and many have an audio track, but I wonder about the usefulness of the slideshows that lack narration.
A: SlideShare is a unique animal. It’s the first technology created for mass access and consumption of slide decks without a presenter. I believe there is a distinct way to design a presentation to be consumed on SlideShare or any other non-live environment (more akin to an eBook), and there’s a distinct way to design a presentation intended to be presented live, with a presenter.
The PowerPoint deck I submitted to SlideShare’s World’s Best Presentation Contest (which came in third overall) [embedded below] was actually created as a live presentation for a client. In order to make it work on SlideShare, I had to give it a fairly massive overhaul, adding text in many places where it didn’t originally exist in order for it to convey the proper information without a presenter or any type of narration.
I think SlideShare is a great tool, but I don’t want people to think that any old PowerPoint presentation can be put on SlideShare and consumed by an audience. There has to be a distinct design process depending on where/how the presentation is consumed.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Never be afraid to show your humanity. We are all human and we connect with others when we see their humanity. If someone puts up a front and tries to appear perfect, like a brand that shoves consumer complaints under the rug, we’ll never be able to fully connect and embrace them.