Context is King

Steve Jobs is great at it. But it only takes a little effort and imagination, and you can be great at it too. Great, that is, at putting things into context so your audience can understand and relate to them.

Of course, it’s the audience’s context that matters. You have to put yourself in their shoes, work out what they know and how they think and feel, and find something which is meaningful to them. It’s all about using something they understand to help them understand something new.

This post was inspired by the picture below, by Kai Krause (kindly shared under a Creative Commons license), which shows the true size of Africa by cleverly fitting other countries inside it. For people who do not know Africa well, but are well aware of the immensity of China, India and the USA, this is a great example of using something they do know to show them something they perhaps do not. (More examples below.)

There is a sound scientific basis for this. We all have our own reality tunnel, which means that we see new things in the context of everything we already know or have already experienced. If we can’t fit something in, we’ll either ignore it, or distort it – subconsciously – so that it does fit with our own reality. (The filters of generalization, deletion and distortion will be familiar to students of NLP.)

Therefore you have far more chance of getting your message across successfully and undistorted if you purposely relate it to something your audience already knows or understands. It’s like giving them a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and showing them where it should go.

Here are some other examples of putting things into context.

iPad sales. Steve Jobs announced in June 2010 that several million iPads had been sold since the recent launch. It’s hard to relate to several million of anything. It’s a big number, but is it a good or bad sales figure?

But Jobs hadn’t finished. He then announced that it was the equivalent of one iPad every three seconds. Now that you can imagine. Visualize an iPad coming off the production line every three seconds. Visualize a huge queue of people in an Apple store each with an iPad in their hand, and how many sales assistants would be needed to get one out of the door every three seconds. That’s something we can imagine and relate to. For the financial thinkers among us, that’s also a large chunk of profit every three seconds. Four months on, I don’t remember the sales figure, but I do remember ‘one every three seconds’.

Paper usage. Here’s one I used back when I was selling print outsourcing. I was working with the Brazilian subsidiary of a large US corporation, and I needed to grab their executives’ attention on the importance of saving paper and optimizing their print infrastructure. So I calculated their annual paper usage, and knowing that several million pages would elicit a ‘so what’ response because they couldn’t relate to it, I worked out how far the paper would stretch if laid end-to-end.

I then asked them how far they thought the paper trail would stretch, and when they had no idea, I was able to show them the answer on a slide similar to the one below. Their jaws hit the floor. This was something any Brazilian could relate to, and the idea of their paper trail going all the way through the Amazon (particularly since paper uses trees) hit them hard. I think that was the slide which won us that multi-million dollar contract.

Back to the Mac. Here’s another Apple example, from its recent Back to the Mac event where Apple tried to convince everyone that for all the success of their iPods, iPhones and iPads, they haven’t forgotten the Mac.

Apple COO Tim Cook talked about Mac sales, which are worth $22 billion, but again, he put this big and unimaginable number into context by adding that if Apple only sold Macs, it would be #110 on the Fortune 500 – i.e. the 110th biggest company in America. That’s something people can relate to far more easily.


Each of these examples is about using something people already know or understand, in order to help them to learn or understand something new. It requires you to get inside your audience’s head, to think the way they think, and to know what they know. Good presenters do this anyway.

Great presenters then use that empathy to communicate their messages in a way which is not only easy to understand, but which people want to remember.


3 Responses to Context is King

  1. Jon Thomas says:


    You always write great stuff. This is more great stuff!

    Context is huge, and it can not only be powerful when used correctly by the presenter, but also even MORE powerful when an appropriate slide is designed to complement it. I don’t have the link nearby, but there was a Shift Happens presentation (just search it on SlideShare) that has some great imagery to put some things in context.

    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

  2. Phil Waknell says:

    Quite right Jon, and using visuals to enhance the putting-into-context might well be the subject of my next post… watch this space!

    Thanks also for the compliment which is praise indeed from a such a talented scribe 🙂


  3. Indeed! Context is key to conveying information, as the brain processes data by making connections and comparisons.
    As you illustrate well, a speaker needs to leverage his audience’s filters and beliefs for the message to resonate and be relevant.
    Our educational systems would be more successful if this was the dominant pedagogical style – which links back to your post last week on American v. British presenters: could the dominant French teaching style be one of the root causes of the oft mind-numbing quality of business presentations here?

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