Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stop bitching about dull presentations and do something!

Business presentations.  Hands up if you've ever sat through a dull, overly wordy Powerpoint presentation about which all you can remember is the boredom?  If anyone asked you what the content contained you'd draw a blank.  Now hands up if you've ever given one of these presentations?  I'm guessing all you felt was relief that it was over rather than elation that you had moved your audience.  You see as audience we want to be entertained, informed, enticed, provoked and stimulated, and yet as presenters we are terrified of differentiating ourselves. What's the deal?

First let me be clear that I am not talking about the big annual sales presentation, up on stage Steve Jobs style.  For those such events it is generally understood that highly visual, multi media, well paced presentations are appropriate.

I'm talking about the types of presentations where you are informing stakeholders about your business or strategic plan - what you've done, what you need to do and what you need to do it.  Too often these become templated, drone-like dull-fests that waste time and feel more like a homework check-in than articulating a business vision.  After all, matching slide headers does not a consolidated thought process make.

Why do we fall into this trap?
  • Status quo bias - our tendency to stay with what's known.  If a templated Powerpoint pack laden with charts and narrative is what the CEO is used to, then that's what gets dished up. No one wants to rock the boat.
  • Herding - our tendency to follow others and hide in the pack.  Now, given the invariable inter-company competition that goes on within all businesses, herding can seem counter intuitive - after all, each team is really trying to distinguish themselves as the best.  But our willingness to conform to a specified style of presentation is most definitely herding behaviour - we are choosing to not stand out. 
  • Group think - the dynamic where conflicting views are suffocated in favour of the prevailing shared view.  Dissenting voices are not welcome.  The culture of dull-presentations is an embodiment of group think and if you yourself are uncomfortable about presenting in a different way, it's because group think rules.
Fear of losing face
Underpinning our resistance to stepping out of the convention presentation style is our fear of what happens if we do.  We are more frightened of what we have to lose (credibility, promotion, even our job) than gain (engaged audience, insightful questions, endorsement, recognition as a thought leader).

It's cowardice.

Am I being too harsh?  It could be argued that a conventional, templated presentation does it's job because the content rather than the style can take centre stage.  And of course there have been countless examples of sloppy "creative" presentations where the slides have undermined the message.  But I do not agree that slides with four charts and multiple statements does an effective job at articulating your message (unless of course your message is that "I'm really really smart and impressive because I've spent a lot of time on this slide").  These presentations are written to give the presenter comfort rather than sway the audience, and would more appropriately distributed as Word documents.

Tips to make great presentations
By first acknowledging what holds us back we can then use behavioural techniques to make memorable and evocative presentations.
  • Vividness - make your core message vivid for the audience. Bring in props, use multi-media, use metaphors and analogies to help crystallise the message.  Ideally, make your presentation three dimensional - by this I mean take it off the slide and give your audience a sensory experience of what you are trying to convey.  If you are losing customers, bring in a tray of eggs and smash them to represent the extent of your customer attrition. If you are trying to stop operational inefficiency, bring in a bucket of water and pour it into a sink to show the money that is going down the drain.  You get the idea!  Your presentation will take on an energy and engagement that the business will be buzzing about for weeks.  
  • Saliency - we overweight recent or memorable events, so try to be first or last on the program and use your vividness tactics to differentiate your message from all the bland presentations.  Use group think and convention as an opportunity to cut through by being different.  
  • Tension - great movies, TV shows and novels create tension in their narrative before providing release.  Presentations should be no different.  Your job is to create emotional unease in your audience so they are engaged in your story, and when you have them, alleviate the tension by showcasing your solution. Putting all the answers up front in an executive summary means there is no reason for your audience to stay engaged through the story, and you therefore lose control of how the audience understands your plan.
Ultimately it takes courage to overcome the pressures of status quo, but I would hope that you are being paid for your individual talent rather than your ability to herd.  There is only one you, so how about injecting that into your presentation, being inspired by the payoff that comes with risk, and making your audience's day in the process?

For ideas on a similar topic, check out my piece on "Why We Hide Behind Big, Boring Reports".

For some great tips on creating memorable presentations, I recommend Dan and Chip Heath's "Made to Stick" and Nancy Duarte's "Resonate". 

Image from http://nobullets.wordpress.com/category/data-presentation/page/2/

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