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An Uncomfortable Truth

I’m often quite surprised just how bad a lot of the presentations that I watch are. There you are, I’ve said it. I don’t like saying it and it’s meant as a curious observation rather than a criticism but it really is surprising that a lot of presentations are really quite poor. Recently I witnessed a senior team give a group presentation. I was looking forward to it. I was interested. Their HR Director had told me they were experienced and of a “good standard.” They weren’t. By the end I was bewildered. I just wasn’t sure what they were trying to say and why anyone should care.

I find it very puzzling. Why does it have to be this way? As a group they boasted some impressive skills. There were incredible product designers, women who managed multi-national accounts and they were self-aware and likeable. But they weren’t very good at expressing themselves in public. Why have we sharpened up and excelled at so many aspects of business but somehow remained stagnant when it comes to presenting?

I think the answer is that some company cultures tolerate it when they shouldn’t. It’s also about what we learn at school and what we don’t learn about our own brains. There are many notable exceptions. People who don’t allow their nerves to get out of control and who invest enough time in understanding structure and how to engage an audience. But so many of us flounder.

Here are some golden rules I’ve learnt over the years:

  1. Audiences listen with their emotional brains. Understand that the human brain finds it easier to understand emotions than facts and logic. One root cause of miscommunication is the dissonance between the speaker and the listener. The speaker uses his logical mind to write a presentation but as he speaks, his words are first picked up by the audience’s unconscious emotional brain. So if you want to engage an audience spend some time thinking about them. They’ll appreciate it. Before speaking, sit in the audience’s shoes and imagine being them. Why should they care? Then build your speech around those key points (often it will be the things that people care about new markets, customer benefits, profit or avoiding problems.)
  2. Manage your emotional state. When you know you have to present, take time to really understand and manage your feelings. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? What is it you fear? Then ask yourself “how much of this is real and how much is imagined?” Write down your fears then fight the fear with logic. When I get nervous I tell myself “ is that really going to happen?” I think the best presenters are aware of their fears but decide they are not going to happen.
  3. Only Connect. Understand that your primary purpose is to connect with the audience. Don’t hide behind PowerPoint. Get out there, look them in the eyes. I remember watching the CEO of a large multinational speaking to a new graduate intake. It was hard to listen to. Hundreds of slides and poor delivery created this huge psychological distance between the audience and the presenter. What that audience was crying out for were stories. Stories about the company, other graduates, the market. Something to hone into. A well-told story is easy to visualize so your audience are more likely to feel an emotion, to remember and to be driven into action.
  4. Is PowerPoint for you or the audience? Don’t open PowerPoint until you’ve written out a structure. Try and find your opening, your main points and your conclusion. Help the audience follow your presentation by sign posting. (In a moment I will be looking at new markets but first I’d like to…)
  5. Take risks. Audiences are often open to humour, unusual openings and intriguing stories. You may find that you actually enjoy it rather than dread it. Your audience will certainly notice the difference,

Good luck.

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