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The Sesame Street Presentation Rule

After being on both the giving and receiving end of plenty of presentations, I now realize there's one golden rule which applies to all of them:

Entertain your audience.

Every slide of your presentation should serve this fundamental vision statement. Is it entertaining? I don't mean each slide has to contain a wacky joke of some kind. Every slide should provoke a reaction from the audience -- be it controversial, unexpected, amusing, or a meditative Zen koan. Prod your audience. Do this not only to keep them awake, but to engage their brains. Deliver a series of short, sharp shocks that jolt your audience into a heightened state of engagement.

Once your audience has engaged with your presentation, that's when you trick them into learning. The very best presentations entertain and educate-- the common portmanteau is edutainment. The archetypal example of edutainment is Sesame Street.

Sesame Street characters in a group photo

Sesame Street is the second longest running children's show in the world, racking up 4,160 episodes over 38 seasons so far. They must be doing something right.

The show's format called for the humans to be intermixed with the segments of animation, live-action shorts and Muppets. These segments were created to be like commercials-- quick, catchy and memorable-- and made the learning experience much more like fun. The format became a model for what is known today as edutainment-based programming.

CTW aired the program for test groups to determine if the revolutionary new format was likely to succeed. Results showed that test watchers were entranced when the ad-like segments aired, especially those with the jovial puppets, but were remarkably less interested in the street scenes. Psychologists warned CTW against a mixture of fantasy and reality elements, but producers soon decided to mix the elements. A simple dose of cartoon-like characters lets the humans deliver messages without causing viewers to lose interest.

You might think it's patronizing to lift techniques from a television show aimed at preschoolers, but I find that people of all ages need to be entertained to fully engage with what whatever it is you're presenting. That's why your primary goal for any presentation is to entertain. If the audience doesn't walk out of your presentation thinking "gee, that was fun!", then I can practically guarantee they'll remember little about you or your talk. There's nothing more stultifying than walking out of yet another interminable, droning presentation to realize that all you have to show for it is another hour of your life ticked away. If you design to entertain first and teach second, even if your presentation bombs, at least the audience will get some fleeting entertainment out of the time they invested in you.

So the next time you're putting a presentation together, remember the Sesame Street Presentation Rule -- don't forget to add the muppets!

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror