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Presentations are the bane of business, but this isn't how to make them better

Jimmy Wales Presentation

Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales gives a presentation.

At Harvard Business Review blogs, Ron Ashkenas of Shaffer Consulting has some advice for fixing bad presentations, which he thinks are too long and boring, weighed down by data. He breaks the cure down into three simple initial steps:

So how can you get better at clearly conveying a message or helping your people develop this skill? Start with these steps to get it right:
1. When you prepare a presentation, work backwards. Start with the key message or takeaway that you want to convey. Then imagine that you had to send that message via Twitter instead of using slides, charts, documents, and discussions. Force yourself to summarize your key points in no more than 140 characters. Based on that focus, then think through what other information you'll need as backup and support.

2. Practice making your presentation without any slides or other supporting materials — and limit the time to six minutes. Think of it as a TED talk that's going be watched by millions of people on YouTube. Doing this (and getting a friend to capture it on video) will force you to be very clear about what you want to say and how to say it with conviction and zest.

3. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and imagine how they might react to your condensed message. What questions will they ask and what concerns might they have? How will you address these, and how open will you be to alternatives? Speculating about these scenarios ahead of time will give you confidence to state your position clearly and respond to audience feedback.

I don't disagree with Ashkenas' basic diagnosis of why presentations go bad. But I'm not sure I like how he wants presenters to think in Twitter character counts or TED talk mode. Presentations are presentations. The reason why managers fail to do them well is because they don't treat them as a completely distinctive genre of communication. They're thought of as a business skill, or practice, much as meetings are considered something that happens when you get to the working world, rather than as a unique kind of human interaction.

When I've worked in business, I've focused deliberately on the dynamics both of presentations and meetings. And I've come to two core conclusions: presentations are arguments; and meetings are therapy.

Consequently, thinking in Twitter word counts — and for that matter, in terms of "key points" — might eliminate the data-crunch problem, but it isn't going to bring argumentative urgency to your presentation. You'd actually be better off watching YouTube videos of standup comics.

As for the TED talk notion...well, giving yourself a time limit is probably a good idea. But TED talks are supposed to be about ideas. Presentations are about analysis and objectives. They should lead to ideas, rather than derive from them.

I do like the idea of considering your audience's reaction. Preparation never hurts, and visualizing what your audience will think is a great way to get out of your own personal data bubble. When I was studying rhetoric in college and graduate school, we often discussed the way that argument should "teach, delight, persuade" (after Cicero's advice to orators) and how speakers should "anticipate rebuttal."

But you can see how this kind of thinking is slightly different from considering potential questions from the audience. What you're admitting instead is that your presentation is a type of argument — one that takes place in a business setting, rather than in, say, a courtroom. You should prepare to be challenged, not just subjected to feedback.

I'll get into why meetings are like therapy in another post. But what do you think? Can presentations be improved if you think of them the way I do? Or is Ashkenas' advice the way to go?

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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