The Problem with Problem-Solution Presentations

Christopher Witt —  January 5, 2015

Problem/Solution FormatThe most common form of a presentation is both easy and effective: 1) identify and discuss a problem, and 2) propose a solution.

But there’s a problem with the problem-solution format. A big one.

I noticed it, again, as I sat through a recent presentation about climate change and alternative energies.

You already know from my brief description what the problem was: climate change. And the proposed solution is equally clear: alternative energies.

The speaker had impeccable credentials in the eyes of his audience. They knew him, respected him, and believed him. His knowledge was wide-ranging, in-depth, and substantiated by multiple, credible sources.

His presentation was well-structured and logical.

The picture he painted — the problem — was bleak. Really, really, really bleak.

He spent at least 45 minutes defining the problem, analyzing its causes, and spelling out its implications (i.e. impending doom in all its various forms).

Then — with only 15 minutes remaining — he turned to the solution.

He talked briefly about some immediate, incremental changes (e.g. replacing incandescent light bulbs with LED light bulbs) that need to be instituted. And he spoke generally about bigger economic, political, and social issues that need to be addressed.

That’s the problem with a problem-solution presentation.

It’s easy — most of the time — to talk about a problem. Easy to illustrate it. Easy to demonstrate its scope and repercussions. Easy to convince an audience that the problem exists and needs to be addressed.

Problems often loom large in an audience’s imagination. They’re big, immediate, painful, real, and scary.

It’s not so easy — it’s often quite hard — to present the solution. Hard to make the solution as believable as the problem.

We all left the presentation I described a little depressed. We were convinced of the magnitude of the problem, underwhelmed by the efficacy of the proposed solution.

Here’s the challenge for anyone preparing a problem-solution presentation: You have to make the solution credible and powerful enough to solve the problem.

If you’re going to describe a really, really, really big problem, you better have an even bigger solution.

It’s okay to define and describe a problem in a way that scares your audience. Fear focuses people’s attention and, used wisely, can stir them to take action.

But scare people too much and they shut down. They become immobilized. (And they may, as a defensive reflex, turn against you: the source of their fear.)

You have to give people hope: the belief that they can do something that will make a difference.

Making an audience accept a problem’s reality is easy, because scaring people is easy. Whipping up fear is easy.

Instilling hope is hard work.

You have to give your audience the hope that their actions will make a difference, that the problem, as big and as bad as it may be, can be addressed and corrected.

That’s your job as a speaker: to move an audience from inaction to action, from fear to hope.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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  1. The Problem with Problem-Solution Presentations... - January 16, 2015

    […] It is easy to convince an audience that a problem is big, real, scary. It is harder to convince them that your solution will have any effect.  […]