Friday, July 8, 2016

John Oliver’s Secret to Well-argued Presentations: Argument Wells

Today’s post is a digression from the usual Healthcare IT subjects. Instead, I want to focus on the presentation skills of HBO’s John Oliver because Kathy Klotz-Guest recently posted about some of the specific attributes of Oliver’s content that makes audiences want to watch and, more importantly, share it. My focus is a little different. I’ve done an analysis of the structure of a John Oliver piece and want to show how you can use his techniques to improve your own presentations.
I based my analysis on a story from Last Week Tonight about Dr. Oz that’s available on YouTube. Warning: language is not safe for work.
Crunching the Numbers
I began my analysis by downloading the video’s automatically generated subtitles usingDownsub, which gave me a time-coded transcript. I did some cleanup with a text editor to get the data into rows and columns, and then I imported the data into Excel. 
Next, I watched the video repeatedly. Every time the audience laughed or applauded, I (subjectively) rated the response from 1 (chortle) to 5 (roaring applause). I included these ratings in a new column in the row that contained the text to which the audience reacted.

After rating each reaction and dividing the video into one-minute buckets, I was able to plot the audience’s overall reaction at each minute of the segment.

We can see that the story about Dr. Oz is not uniformly funny. In fact, there are two points – during minute 5 and minute 10 – that aren’t very funny at all! The end of the segment goes off the rails, with John Oliver bringing in one gimmick after another to prove that it’s possible to engage viewers without making misleading health claims, and the audience goes crazy for nearly two minutes.
Interpreting the Results into Engaging Presentations
What can we learn from the shape of the reaction level curve?
  1. It’s important to mix arguments with amusements. Follow the 60/40 rule.

    Every line in John Oliver’s story is either part of a joke (37%) or part of a logical exposition designed to make a rhetorical point (56%). Some are both (7%). If the 7% of dual-qualifying lines are evenly split between arguments and amusement, the argument-to-amusement ratio is almost exactly 60/40.

    In John Oliver’s case, he delivers the amusements as professionally written comedy. The entertaining parts of your presentation may be anecdotes, statistics, charts and graphs, images or audience surveys.
  2. Develop “argument wells” within the structure of your presentation.

    During minute 5 and minute 10, the graph dips into a “well” characterized by virtually no reaction from the audience. In these argument wells, John Oliver is making serious rhetorical arguments about the danger of blurring the lines between health advice and entertainment. There’s no laughter or applause during these times because the audience is busy making sense of the logic.

    Argument wells provide an opportunity to focus on a really important part of the exposition without distraction from anything amusing. These are useful for driving home your presentation’s main points.
  3. Follow the five-minute rule.

    Notice that the two argument wells are spaced five minutes apart. Once every five minutes is a good pace for bringing serious arguments to the forefront of a presentation. That means that in a 15-16 minute segment, it’s possible to have two or three spots where the argument goes in depth.

    The space between wells will still contain important points, but they’ll be embedded within more entertaining aspects of your presentation.
  4. Bury the lede. (And yes it’s “lede” not “lead”), as Bradford taught me).

    The thesis of this piece is “dietary supplements in the US are shockingly unregulated,” which is not explicitly stated until the first argument well. Leading up to this point, John Oliver lays out quite a bit of evidence that points in this direction to maintain interest by building suspense.
  5. Finish big.

    Most presenters will not be able to match the finale of John Oliver’s segment about Dr. Oz, which features puppies, a marching band, and a tap dancing Steve Buscemi, so you’ll have to set your sights more modestly. It’s too late to make any new points in the final moments of your presentation, but it’s a great time to review or summarize your content in a maximally entertaining way.

    Leave the audience on a high note with a capstone story or infographic that brings your entire argument together. For example:

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