Podcast 27: A Great Presentation has a Fractal Structure

Podcasts

A few days ago, I started watching a Netflix documentary on how fractal mathematics helped start Pixar. (Yes, I watch really boring stuff on Netflix, but in my defense, I was watching it in bed, at night, trying to go to sleep. It worked.) We have always had a fantastic success teaching people how to design presentations that are based on just a few (three to five) main points. However, the documentary explained how the structure of this type of presentation works and why it works so well. So, in this episode, we’ll show how the techniques that we cover in our classes work… mathematically. We also have a Techfind that will help you add local humor to your presentations.

TechFind: Use Google to Add Humor to Any Presentation

Whoop AssWhen I first started speaking and writing, I was always looking for ways to add humor to my presentations. At the time, Dr. Phil was a regular on the Oprah Winfrey show, and eventually, he got his own daytime TV show. Whenever he made an appearance on Oprah, he always got a lot of laughs because he added a lot of Texas idioms to his speech. (In fact, Dr. Phil was the first person to ever use the phrase “Open up a can of whoop-ass” on national television.) So, I figured that since I am also from Texas, if I added some uniquely Texas sayings into my presentations, my speeches might get even funnier. It worked.

The great news, now, is that Google (or any other search engine) can makes finding the perfect idiom for your speech pretty easy. Just type your region into the search engine and add the word Idiom. When I typed up Texas Idiom, I got a bunch of funny saying such as…

  • If you cut your own firewood, it’ll warm you twice.
  • He can strut sitting down.
  • She’d charge hell with a bucket of ice water.
  • Busy as a stump-tailed bull in fly season.

Okay, this technique doesn’t work for every state or region, but you’d be surprised by how funny regional humor can be. For instance, when I typed in “Alaskan Idioms”, I got…

  • You know you’re in Alaska when your snowblower gets stuck on the roof.
  • You know you’re in Alaska when you know that bear insurance is being with someone that you know you can outrun.
  • You know you’re in Alaska when you have more miles on your snowblower than you do your car.

Just for fun, let’s try Midwest Idioms.

  • That makes as much sense as government cheese.
  • Slow as molasses in January.
  • He’s got a hollow tail. (Is angry.)

The point is that these are a fun way to add just a spark of humor to your presentation.

A Great Presentation has a Fractal Structure

As I mentioned in the introduction above, I came across the term Fractal Mathematics from a Netflix documentary. (Which documentary doesn’t really matter.) The more that the host explained about this division of math, though, the more sense the three-point talk makes. Without going into all of the boring explanations Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. An example of a natural fractal is a mountain range. When you look at a mountain from a distance, it is very difficult to judge how far away from the mountain you are. In fact, if you take a close up photograph of a bolder, it will be very difficult to judge whether the bolder is one foot tall or thousands of feet tall.

Another example of a fractal is a triangle. Try this. Draw a triangle. Then put a dot in the exact middle of each side of the triangle. Now connect the three dots. You will create four new triangles that all look exactly like the first one, but on a smaller scale. You can do the process again and again, and you will always end up with smaller versions of the original shape.

Pixar Realized that this Mathematical Theory had Other Applications

In 1980, Loren Carpenter was working for Boeing in their computer graphics department. The executives at Boeing wanted their marketing posters to have realistic mountains in the background, so Carpenter wanted to try to make the mountain ranges using computer graphics. The problem was, though, that each iteration of the graphic looked pretty fake. The mountains were square and boxy. Since Carpenter also had a mathematics degree, he had had come across a paper written a decade or so earlier that talked about how fractal mathematics was the backbone of natural shapes in the world. He wondered if he could use the concept to create more realistic computer images.

What he figured out was that if he created the same shape (a triangle) and created an infinite number of the same shape, he could create a more realistic mountain (also a triangle). The smaller that the images got, the more that the sharp and straight lines of the shapes began to appear curved. This technology became the basis for the graphics created by the Pixar movie company. So, when you look at Buzz Lightyear’s curved nose, the image is actually a series of infinitely smaller straight-lined shapes.

Use the Same Technique to Create a Great Presentation

So, if you think about the technique that we covered in Podcast #3 How to Design a Great Presentation, the technique follows the same formula. First, you start with the original topic. For example, “I want to create a mountain that is triangle shaped.” Then, break the original topic into four (plus or minus one) equal parts. If you stop there, you will have a good outline, but the information won’t be very practical. (You’ll have a boxy looking mountain.) However, if you break each of those new triangles into four (plus or minus one) equal parts, the shapes become smoother. Do this process again and again, and your content becomes smoother and less jagged.

For a presentation, start with a topic. Break the big topic into four component bullets. Then make each of the bullets into its own separate presentation and do the same thing. Create four (plus or minus one) bullets for each original bullet. Then repeat the process.

Example Presentation: World History

Let’s do a quick example. Let’s say that our topic is “World History”. If we wanted to create an hour long presentation about World History, we could add a bunch of stories and examples and maybe some analogies and showmanship. We might make the presentation entertaining. However, the content wouldn’t be very practical.

But if we create a separate presentations out of (1) the Pre-Written History Era, (2) the BC Era, (3) the early AD Era, and the (4) Post-Industrial Revolution era, the content will be a little more useful. If we took the BC Era and divided it into sections based on the civilizations that ruled including (1) Egypt, (2) Babylon, (3) Assyria, (4) Greece, and (5) Rome, the content gets even more practical. As a final example, let’s take Rome and break into components as well. We might end up with (1) The Republic, (2) Hannibal’s Invasion, (3) Julius Caesar, (4) Augustus, and (5) Constantine. The more that we continue to break up the content into smaller components, the more practical the information that we can cover.

So, when you design your presentations, think about the “fractal approach.”

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