Pop Culture References In PresentationsWheres The Beef?

Today I saw a tweet from a presentation trainer whom I know and respect. They wrote that in a training call, they used an analogy referencing a 1980s Sally Struthers ad campaign about feeding children. It landed flat, leaving the audience bewildered.

Last night on the Oscars, quite a bit of attention was paid to the Will Smith/Chris Rock altercation. But I wonder if younger viewers had any idea what Rock was talking about in his joke when he referenced “GI Jane 2?”

My adolescence took place during the 1970s. There was no internet. No smartphones. No DVRs or VCRs or home video. There were three network TV stations, carrying 99% of the programming that people regularly watched.

My point in bringing this up is not that things were BETTER then… Just that things were DIFFERENT then. If you consumed a piece of popular culture, you consumed it in the same way at the same time as everybody else in the country. We saw the same commercials because there was no way to skip them. We saw the same episode of the same popular TV shows on the same night and then talked about them the next day at work or at school.

As a result, we shared media-generated cultural touchpoints in a way that is almost inconceivable today. So many people watched the same things and discussed them at the same time… Then they took on even more staying power based on the references ABOUT the original moments, as comedians and parodists used them to connect with their audiences over weeks, months, or years.

It’s very easy for people who came of age pre-internet to communicate in a series of catchphrase references, simply expecting others their age to understand not just the source, but the underlying meaning expressed by use of the quote.

“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”“Where’s the beef?”“You’ve got spunk!”

A very gradual weakening of this homogeneity started happening as more TV channels became available, with more programming choices. By the 1980s, home video rentals made a wider choice of movies available from a wider timespan, and home recorders made it possible to time-shift viewing. But it’s the growth of the internet and social media that has undermined the entire concept of a time-based shared cultural experience.

Nowadays, nobody is expected to have seen anything at the same time. “Don’t mention anything about that show or movie… You’ll spoil it for me!” Cultural touchstones may indeed pop up, but they have far shorter lifespans. I get an email each week covering the top memes of the preceding week.

News and entertainment is concerned with collecting instantaneous clicks and views, which means they have to constantly move on to the next “Shiny New Thing.” There is precious little time for things to settle in and collect cultural resonance by comedians and parodists using them as a base point over a long period of time. If Colbert or Kimmel or Fallon makes a joke reference about something, it’s unlikely to come back for another reference the following night… They’ve moved on to the next item that has briefly caught public attention.

Earlier in this post, I referenced the Oscars broadcast with an oblique reference to Will Smith and Chris Rock. The global viewing audience size and amount of coverage the incident received makes me fairly comfortable that you knew what I was talking about today. But would I embed the reference in a presentation I planned to deliver in a month? Probably not… I don’t trust it to have that much staying power in the minds of the general public.

What does all this mean to you as a presenter? You need to watch out for assumptions of shared knowledge, experiences, and memory among your listeners. You’re dealing with different ages, different time-shifted consumption of media, different niche interests being served by online micro-communities. Things that were briefly popular may have faded from memory before you ever deliver your presentation (or may fade over the lifespan of an evergreen presentation that gets reused over time).

And this doesn’t even address the international multi-cultural problem presented by our globally-connected world. I used to give presentations to people primarily in my own country. Those days are long gone. Now even if I find an audience my own age, they may be located in countries that never saw the same programming or wildly popular movies we all experienced together here in the USA.

In most cases, for public presentations where you don’t know the makeup of your audience I recommend staying away from popular culture references. If you really feel it’s important to your message, give a little context for the people unfamiliar with your source reference. And ALWAYS explain the meaning or point you want people to take away from the reference… Never assume that they know what you were trying to communicate by making the allusion.

After all, you want to end up like Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra, not Shaka when the walls fell! *

* The closing line is a reference to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that postulated a culture that communicated entirely in references and allusions to shared stories. It means you want to gain understanding and cooperation with your colleagues rather than failure in your presentation.