I had a boss several years ago who said, it’s not what you say (the content), it’s how you say it (the presentation). I never really realized what that meant until I was client-side, working at ConAgra Foods, reviewing potential agencies to work with. As the review team was dissecting the written responses and ultimately the face-to-face ones, many of us were getting fixated on the presentation of the materials instead of the content.
Here’s what I mean. Some agencies, chose to simply print paper and bind their response, while others chose heavier stocks of paper, special fabrics, or bound the materials in shrink wrap like a frozen dinner. I’m being serious about that last one. One agency printed their response on a heavy weight foam-core like material, spiral bound it, then dropped the response into a plastic TV dinner style package and then shrink wrapped it. I can tell you that there content was lacking, but we advanced them to the face-to-face final round because of it. We “appreciated their ability to think differently.” They didn’t end up panning out for a variety of other reasons that should have been red flags through out the process.
Over the years I’ve seen people get wowed by the presentation of the content and overlook the actual content. Politicians are notorious for this, as are restaurants. Have you ever been to a 5 star rated restaurant? You know, the kind where the service is amazing, they ask you your preference on bottle or tap water (they might even offer Peligrino), there are 7 courses to the meal, and each plate is exquisitely created with certain colors, sauces and garnishing. If you have, then you’ve probably left hungry after dining or been disappointed in the actual food itself.
I experienced this up close and personal when I first moved to Chicago. A friend kept raving about Charlie Trotters. So I scraped together my cash and paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $350.00 to be treated by great service and horrible food. When I explained the situation to my friend, she looked appalled. How could I NOT like Charlie Trotters…it’s a 5 star restaurant where the chef sends out special selects to “treat” you, the china is bone white and you’re warmly greeted the minute you enter. My response was something to the effect of, yes, all of that was fantastic, but I only cared for about 1/3 of the meal and left hungry.
As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve realized you can get by with poor content, but great presentation. The key, however, is get by. Eventually, you’ll run into a person like me, that doesn’t care about the presentation. All they/I care about is the content. That person will call you out, challenge you and leaving you feeling naked in a room of decision makers. When that happens the light bulb usually goes off and even your peers realize you don’t have the skills. It’s a scary situation and unfortunately one I’ve seen far too many times. In a perfect world you’d have both the content and the presentation. It’s a beautiful thing to watch someone that has both.
If you had to pick which one to focus on however, I’d encourage you to become experts of the content. Smart people with discerning taste respect, applaud, and desire great content more than great presentation.