by Theodore May

Behold the monster!

Feb 12, 2016
InnovationIT LeadershipIT Skills

Competing narratives in a technology presentation.

robot keyboard
Credit: Thinkstock

Technology presentations usually announce something new: new hardware, new software, new additions to the ecosystem, etc. And anything new can meet with resistance. Significant changes based on the introduction of new technology can be emotionally disruptive in any organization.

The audience is more likely to respond with enthusiasm if the changes are framed within a familiar narrative. Presenting a compelling narrative, which an audience can adopt as their own, will lead to broader support for your recommendations or decisions.

The standard epic narrative

Technology presentations tend to rely on the core narrative most favored by business and the media: the classic epic. The epic narrative recounts the history of initial ideation, prototyping and new product development as brilliant flashes of problem-solving insight followed by a series of setbacks and breakthroughs. The gritty heroes of the narrative ultimately persevere and triumph. This epic “birth in a garage” narrative is essentially a morality tale. It presumes that the heroes are virtuous. The virtues we prize today above all others are innovation, disruption, and entrepreneurial zeal. If successful, the heroes possessed and displayed these virtues in abundance. If they had not been innovative, disruptive, or entrepreneurial enough – not wholly virtuous – they would have failed.

We like this narrative, and business continues to be enthralled by it, but it is has limited value in terms of motivating an audience. These virtues are not on-demand. How they are acquired and cultivated remains something of a mystery and they are not immediately actionable. If you exhort an audience to begin to innovate and disrupt immediately, you will likely be greeted by blank stares. The audience is usually mindful that these epic use cases are the exception not the rule. While highly entertaining, the audience may struggle to see how these over-dramatized events are immediately relevant to their own day-to-day work experience.

So presenters who rely on this narrative need to be highly specific when it comes to describing how these heroic insights and events are actionable for the audience. And they also need to be aware that there are two competing narratives at work in the mind of any audience for technology presentations that are more likely to influence their response.

Into the wild

The first competing narrative casts new technology in the same role that wilderness and the American West played in the development of the national psyche of the United States.

The audience may see technology as a force of nature that is awesome but not always benevolent: something wild, untamed and inherently menacing. Adopting new technology is like homesteading on the frontier, not without obvious risks: painful lessons, low initial return for hard work, the threat of competition for resources, and a rapidly changing environment ruled by forces beyond our control.

The tonic for this cautionary narrative is usually an assertion of manifest destiny. Technology is destined to be harnessed, pacified and ultimately civilized by human effort and ingenuity. But the audience needs to know why they should not feel threatened in the interim, otherwise they may be too quick to pack it in.

We typically do this by emphasizing the user friendly: ingeniously designed devices and applications that are easy to use. This is essentially the promise of Apple. But you also need to detail exactly how this solution will overcome the forces of nature (reliability, support, obsolescence, complexity, flexibility) and not become an overwhelming force of nature itself. These are not secondary to the feature list for many in the audience and best left to legal and business affairs. These are existential threats gnawing away at minds in the audience while you speak.  

Dr. Frankenstein will see you now

The second competing narrative also views technology as a threat, but it is a threat of our own creation and one that menaces us personally. This is the dilemma posed by Frankenstein’s monster. When we adopt a new technology we may be adopting a monster that will become aware of our own ambivalence and turn on us. Technology is seen as having an almost human face but as fundamentally alien, malevolent, and hostile to mankind. The audience may be delighted by the novelty of any new technology at the first encounter, but there is a deep uneasiness lying within. Extreme examples of this can be seen in recent headlines announcing that even Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking offer warnings about the risks associated with the development of artificial intelligence. If the monster of our own creation is unleashed without proper safeguards, not only our jobs are at risk, but our viability as a species may be called into question. So any technology presentation that strays beyond the routine should address this dark narrative by offering modified guidance based on Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics.

  1. This technology will not injure or replace you. It will only make your job easier.
  2. The technology will be responsive to your needs and commands, and there is nothing you can do using the technology that can cause damage to the ecosystem or other human beings (i.e. it is fail safe.)
  3. It will not place an undue burden on you for learning, maintenance, monitoring, updates, downtime, notify, etc. and will not take any action itself that could cause you or anyone else harm.

You have to reassure the audience that this technology will do no harm. Put their fears to rest and close the book on that narrative.

Remember that when it comes to new technology, the audience may be more afraid of you and what you are going to say than you are of them. If you control the narrative, assuage their fears, and address their most primal concerns about the technology, your ideas, analysis, recommendations and decisions are more likely to be accepted by your audience and there will be no cause for panic, torches and pitchforks.