Too many presenters say things like:
“I know you can’t read this but…”
“This is pretty dull stuff so I’ll try to get through it quickly.”
“You may be bored by my presentation today but it is really important.”
“Let me tell you a funny joke.”
“I know you are out there; I can hear you breathing!”
“I just love my blue laser pointer!”
“Whew, that wasn’t so bad was it?”
These (and more) are indicators of two things: the presenter is a rank amateur, and the audience has once again been noble enough not to string them up by their thumbs!
In reality, these presenters are not amateurs in their field. They are accomplished professionals who know their stuff but not how to convey it. The audience is eager, open and wants this presentation to succeed. Our corporate culture, however, has intimidated audiences into being polite Labrador Retrievers—ever loyal, even-keeled and placid. Presenting technical, complicated material need not be a chore when you THINK!
Transform how you think about your role: Your first job is to be a memory-maker, so don’t be the supplier of solely facts and data. You are there to present and inform, but more importantly, you are there to create a learning environment. A community of learners is there to unite around your message and make something of it. The last time you went to a comedy club, despite having a great time, you likely had trouble retelling the stories and jokes the next day for those who were not there. That is because you had a community formed around not only the presentation and digestion of material, but you were there to be entertained. That the last meeting you attended left you unable to explain what you learned does not mean you had a positive community experience!
Presentations should focus on digesting content into directly-applicable skills going forward. Because there is no subject that cannot be presented without interest and enthusiasm, you can transform your mindset from that of a lecturer to that more like a preacher, counselor and facilitator.
Hunt for the essence of your content: When you simplify, you stand a greater chance of being an educator supreme. While coaching a sales rep from a Fortune 500 company, a consultant was told the rep feared “dumbing things down” for his audience would reduce his credibility. The consultant encouraged the rep to speak with elegant simplicity, as that would engage customers in thinking of the meeting as a conversation, allowing this sales rep to directly respond to the client’s most pressing questions. Imagine the difference that this rep saw when he began the conversation by sharing four quotes from consumers who had used their product, explaining the results they had experienced. Outcomes, after all, are the essence of why anyone tries new products.
Investigate the expertise present among your audience: Facilitation does not mean “boring group work,” for—when done effectively—it permits the attendees to meet and learn from one another. When you’re given a timeframe in which to present, perhaps one hour, plan to speak for only a third to half of the time. This allows for true interaction.
Net results make you valuable: Pragmatism must be a goal, so think about what the audience will do with the material. Always ask yourself this question, “What do I want them to think, feel, and do as a result of this presentation?” It may help you to send an advance e-mail to all the participants at your next meeting, asking the group about their work, how they are struggling now, and what they hope to learn during your time with them. This will give you a clear sense of direction that meets the audience where they are psychologically, and where they want to be professionally. Even if your next presentation is to your own team (a group that you may believe that you understand well), send the e-mail. Net results are what your boss and clients care about, because they demonstrate the value of attendance.
Know the stories and examples that make your presentation memorable: Watch the presenters at your next meeting just minutes before they start. Too many of them are likely fiddling with their slides. There comes a time, however, where professional presenters stow away their slides and commit pen to paper, noting what stories and examples they will use to accompany each visual. This nuanced change in focus will have a dramatic change on how the audience perceives the speaker. When you personify the content with real-life stories, your audience sees you as a peer – not as a lecturer. While PowerPoint can be a great tool for visually representing data, some speakers rely too heavily on it. To force yourself to re-focus your attention on your message and away from your slides, use a flip chart for your next presentation. As you draw and write, you will focus on what the audience needs to know. Remember, some of the most intimate connections with the audience can be made with no visual aid. Your audience will remember the stories; they’ll forget about the slides.
THINK About the Feedback: To evaluate your progress toward becoming a masterful facilitator, just go to the restroom after your presentation. That’s where people will be discussing what intrigued them, whether they were bored, and whom they met during their time with you. Beware: you may only hear positive feedback from those who don’t want to hurt your feelings, but note the different reasons your participants enjoyed your presentation. “Great talk!” and “I didn’t before understand how to give a good technical presentation that focuses on stories over data” are worlds apart!
When your technical presentation is compelling, you will literally have no competition.
Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at kevinoc.com.