A Tale of Two Decks

A Tale Of Two Decks

This is an excerpt from The Storytelling Book, an award-winning guide to using storytelling techniques to improve presentations and communication. The book is already on a fifth reprint and has been translated into Mandarin.

A warning against thinking of conflating two different presentations into one. 

One of my many deeply held philosophical values is that nothing good comes of forcefully blending two disparate components. Why this natural aversion to blends? Because a blend cannot help but feel like a compromise. So: Deck 1 is the material we use to present with. Deck 2 is what is to be left as a record of that event.

If necessity is the mother of invention, convenience is the father of compromise, so we create one answer to two different sets of problems: the lowest of common denominators fails on both counts. 

Let’s just unpack those differing needs for a moment.


Let us call Deck 1 the “presentation deck”. This has to communicate the findings, the insights and the point of view. But because it is presented, it is effectively performed, which means that – like it or not – it will inevitably be viewed as in some ways a performance. This means that theatrical conventions will apply: not that you will be judged as though at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, but nevertheless storytelling and drama will play a part.

Most significantly, it means that you have an audience. A live group of people hanging on your every word and gesture, and the moment is all.

Everything happens now at the time of the presentation. For example, though I have no data to validate it, I would venture that 89% of all major decisions are made at the time of a presentation and not afterwards. The moment is all-important and – assuming no major decision-makers are absent – the nature of the brain is that many conscious and unconscious processes will be in place and making decisions “live”. Hence, the role of what comes after the live presentation is going to be far less important than is often assumed: more of a rubber-stamp, a papal imprimatur (“let it be printed”) or some follow-up information to verify a question that was raised at the time.

As business people have become ever-busier, less time is spent going back to presentation decks, and the window between seeing a presentation and making key decisions has shrunk analogously to “theatrical release to DVD” in the cinema world. The opportunity to affect decisions is almost certainly going to happen at the moment of the face-to-face presentation.

Finally, on a personal level, the presentation is the chance for the presenter to shine and make, or manage, an impression.


On the other hand, Deck 2, the “leave behind”, is an altogether different beast.

Its primary role is not to communicate the findings and insights (this will almost certainly have occurred at the original meeting) but to act as a reference to which those who were there can return (though my experience is that happens far less than is commonly thought, even in competitive agency pitches). It also acts as a second-hand “book of the film” for those who didn’t make it to Geneva.

For some, it will therefore offer the chance to delve beneath the surface and check their memory against the written record as a glorified contact report; or give them a chance to delve beneath the surface into the details.

In some ways there are parallels between Deck 1 and Deck 2 and the System 1 and System 2 cognitive systems. Deck 1 should feel more natural, intuitive and spontaneous. Deck 2, on the other hand, should be the more rational, calculating and measured response.

But I remain convinced that the importance of the “leave behind” has deteriorated as the demands of the moment have become paramount. It is a pale imitation of the presentation in influence.

And yet…… and yet, we still lazily make the assumption that one deck will be good enough for both tasks.

My two-tier tips are as follows:

  1. Start with a hypothesis (or several) and see which can become the central skeleton for the presentation, the golden thread that will lead you, and your audience, through what you have found and want to communicate.
  2. Prepare what I call the VLE (the very long edit), which actor and comedian Will Ferrell labelled his “vomit draft”. Sweat out all the information, think more and prepare the alternative angles you can take. Allow your mind to incubate and avoid the confirmation bias of only seeking out material to verify what you want to verify [or worse still, what you think your audience wants verified].
  3. When you have a comprehensive VLE which still has a golden thread of which you are proud, spend time on both a title that does it justice and an introduction that will attract attention and encourage involvement from the start.
  4. Seek advice from colleagues, or even expose some of this to your main contact or the person/people you will be aiming to influence shortly.
  5. This then is your “leave behind”.
  6. Now – and this is very important: leave that behind.
  7. Start afresh and work on it as if this deck is not yours and has fallen into your hands by some mysterious Coen brothers’ deceit. Your task is now to render it “fit to present”. This is not as easy as you think.
  8. First, edit, reduce and simplify. “Write less and think more”, as we said before. Always recall that summaries can be as effective as full chapters and that you can always have back up ready (hidden charts, other physical material or even something you can rehearse in your head).
  9. Make sure the signposting is clear, simple and expressed in dramatic terms, rather than tired marketing-speak. 
  10. Ensure the material is presented in a manner that appeals to the emotions of those present, and is also communicated in a way that feels like it addresses their most significant business issues, rather than “some stuff I have done that I’d quite like to say out loud”. 
  11. Reduce it again. Simplify more. Make the language more striking and harpoon-like. Produce something unusual that will live on past its first performance.
  12. Make sure the golden thread, the headline and the peak end effects are in place. If so, you will be ready for the final stage. Namely, if you found yourself in a screenplay adapted from a Philip K Dick novel, your laptop was snatched by replicants and the CIA had erased all reference to the material, could you deliver it without any visible means of support?
  13. Could you give a five-minute story of the whole presentation that could be taken back to Geneva, assuming the clients hadn’t been replaced by androids?

Anthony Tasgal is a Man of Many Lanyards. He runs his own training company and is a Course Director for the CIM [Chartered Institute of Marketing], the Market Research Society, the Institute Of Internal Communication, the AAR (ad agency/client relationship advisers) and the Civil Service College, running courses on Storytelling, Behavioural Economics, Insightment and Creative Briefing in the UK, US, Europe, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and UAE. 

Also check out our affordable online Principles Express course, Communicating Research Results. This course is self-paced and can be completed in about 10 hours for only $359. Learn more.We are grateful for the course to be sponsored by Confirmit, a global leader in the delivery of Market Research, Customer Experience and Employee Engagement solutions to help companies and agencies make smarter, more cost-efficient decisions. Such sponsorships have funded the development of our line of Principles Express courses.

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