What You Don't Know About Presenting

I spent a year at work as a side project learning and teaching people how to have more effective meetings. It’s always interesting to evaluate meetings (and presentations) to see where things could be improved.

To understand how to make the best improvements to your meetings and presentations, you need to understand the underlying purpose of having a meeting or giving a presentation in the first place. Meetings serve as a mechanism for communication. When you have a meeting, you’re not just deciding to communicate with others in a live, face-to-face setting; You’re intentionally choosing this mode of communication over other modes. For example, you’re making an explicit, conscious decision that email is not a better way to communicate these ideas than the meeting format.

There are consequences of making that decision within the meeting format. Considering what you want to convey and the end results should always be in mind. Organize your meeting around achieving those end results. If your intent is to inform a large group of people of some ideas all at once, this type of meeting is called a presentation.

It is surprising to me that people still, even within this very narrow band of communication technique, fail to carry forward the basic idea of intentionally choosing this meeting type for a specific purpose.

A common problem I’m noticing with presentations lately is that presenters tend to have way more to say than would be interesting or useful to the people listening. Or, if their overabundance of content would take more time than the presentation will allow, they summarize in a way that is ineffective. In most of the cases that I’m referring to, a large number of speakers must convey individual concerns within a fixed amount of time, giving none of them the time for a deep exploration of their topic with the audience. What’s more, such a deep exploration would not be appropriate for this audience, since not everyone will be deeply interested in every topic, and the goal is to inform people lightly about what is going on, not provide them detail in a thing with which they have no involvement.

There is a challenge in doing this well, of course. A definite tension exists between what you want the audience to know and what the audience wants to learn. The best presenters in this format understand this and present their topics accordingly.

A common problem I’ve heard lately with presentations is presenting initially or solely from the perspective of “we did a thing”. Often, the benefit of the thing that was done is left for the listener to infer, and sometimes this is not possible. Instead of saying, “Bob, Joe, and Diana spent the last three weeks updating all of the widgets with green knobs, at the cost of only $45,” a presenter could say, “We now have new green knobs on our widgets to let you more easily narfle the garthok.” These things are not mutually exclusive, but often the latter is dropped for time, and is actually the more important aspect of the presentation for the large audience.

It bears mentioning that for longer segments, stories are useful. A common presentation technique seems to be to clinically point out the identification of a problem, explain the solution, and then thank those involved. I would not suggest that this is not effective, but it does not necessarily draw the audience in to engage with the information. A better way would be to tell an effective story. Telling good stories as part of a presentation is hard, and this may be why this technique is dodged. Nonetheless, there really isn’t a better way to engage an a passive or hostile audience.

“A month ago, Diana wandered into my office with her red knob, complaining about how our garthok narflings were always lower than our quotas. I gave her the task to determine what we could do to increase our results. When your feedback was overwhelmingly about the visibility of the knobs on the encabulators, I was skeptical, but we initiated a plan to replace the red knobs with green ones. Nobody expected the astounding change. You can now so easily narfle garthoks that we’re meeting every number. Thanks to Bob, Joe,and Diana for helping address this serious concern, and for keeping everything under budget.”

Or something less Conehead-ish.

I would suggest using total motivation as a guide. Express the story or blurb from the perspective of how the news makes your work more fun, easy, or enjoyable. If not expressed in play, express the story from the perspective of purpose, and how it achieves the company mission, core values, or personal/team goals. If not expressed in purpose, express the story in potential, and how it sets us up for better play or purpose in the future. Leaving off the net effect to the employees or the company of some news that is presented is a huge miss that should not be allowed to pass.