I was looking at a recent post on the Presentation Advisors blog that set up the hypothesis that audience members tend to agree on how bad the majority of presentations are. They even agree on the most common bad habits and presentation mistakes. So how is it possible that when you take these same people with their audience frustrations and insights and you turn them into presenters, they make the same mistakes and create the same lousy presentations they were just complaining about!?! Is it because “Audience Members are from Venus, Presenters are from Mars?”
The blog post generated a few comments from readers, but they tended to concentrate on the usual tactical suggestions for presenters… “Think like your audience” or “Don’t rely on your slides as a teleprompter script.”
I have concentrated on many of those same practical suggestions in my training for webinar presenters. How many times can we in the presentation consulting/training community repeat the tired old chestnuts about larger fonts, less text, more graphics, greater contrast, etc, etc, etc? There are studies and books and blogs and before/after presentations all over the web from professionals in presentation design and delivery. They are all remarkably consistent and mutually supportive in their messages. And it doesn’t seem to be having any significant effect on the average quality of presentation design and preparation.
So I started thinking about it from a different angle. How are we not “thinking like our audience” when presenting these tips? And I realized that perhaps we are addressing the wrong audience entirely!
Think about it… Aside from a vanishingly few professional presenters, the people making business presentations have jobs defined by other measures of success and productivity. Who gets asked (directed) to make presentations? Engineers, consultants, managers, lawyers, doctors, and so on. For every one of those people, the presentation is psychologically and pragmatically a distraction and time sink from their “real” work. No matter how much they would like to create a fancy presentation with tons of graphics and iterative rounds of practice/refinement, they can’t afford to do so. Because they are never going to be evaluated and rewarded/punished based on the quality of their presentation.
When was the last time you heard of a product manager or sales engineer getting a poor annual review because he made a boring presentation with lots of dense text and bullet points? Never. But he sure gets marked down for not completing his “real” assignments on time or devoting enough attention to his other duties. What is the incentive to spend the extra time and effort on a strong, engaging presentation? If he’s really lucky, he’ll be seen as such a bad speaker that he’ll never be asked to “waste time” on a presentation again!
Maybe it’s time for those of us in the business of giving presentation design tips to step back from the tactical best practices for a bit and collectively do some evangelizing up the chain of command. We need to get explicit and remind management why good, strong, engaging presentations matter enough to the company to deserve time and attention when they are needed.
Whoever gives that presentation represents the company, the department, and the products/services/information available for use. External presentations might very well be your one and only chance to gain or lose important stakeholders. Internal presentations determine whether you are contributing to the overall growth and business acumen of other employees who can make or break your company’s success.
That’s important enough to warrant a statement from management when someone gets a presentation assignment. “I expect you to take the time necessary to do this right. I’ll be paying attention to the result, and I’ll provide both critique and the support you need to make sure you are able to develop this important business capability along with your other skills.”
Until that happens, presentations will remain boring and poorly constructed. Because those are the ones that are faster and easier for the presenter to get out of the way as a distraction from his “real” job.