Friday, 16 December 2011

Presenting - are you memorable for the right reasons?

This morning I presented the findings of a survey I had conducted at the commissioning organisation's annual conference.  I had to be up early as I had an hour's drive to Geelong and my session was scheduled for 9:15am and I wanted to get into the room well beforehand.

I'd spent a lot of time thinking about the people (most of whom I had not met), the organisation and the issues and how I was going to tell the story revealed by the survey.  Presenting the findings of a survey could be dry, repetitive, boring, and lengthy.  Who would want to sit through that?  I had already provided a written report to the CEO, so that could easily have been provided direct to the staff instead of having me present at the conference.  I needed to communicate something else, something that couldn't be conveyed just by reading the report.

The trip was trouble free and I arrived with about half an hour to spare.  I sat in the room during the morning's first session.  They were already well under way and it was only 8:45!  I took this as a good sign.  During that time, I put on my deep facilitation hat and started to take in the "data" that the room provided me.  Who was talking?  What were they talking about? What was the vibe in the room? Were people engaged? Bored? Resentful? Asleep? What else was there in the room that could tell me something?

I paid attention to the conversation taking place before my session and listened for anything that was relevant or could be linked to the story I was about to tell.  There was a lot - a press release from the future (the year 2015), photographs, copies of the good looking and informative annual report and most of the participants were wearing shirts proclaiming the organisation for which they all worked.  So much information!

I'd provided my formal biography for the conference papers, so didn't flinch when the CEO suggested he would give me a tabloid newspaper style introduction.  He asked me for keywords.  The first one that sprang to mind was "blonde" and the other was "dead" (neither true).  Oh dear.  I decided to keep quiet.

As a professional communicator I am confident in my ability to tell an engaging story and my reputation relies on this.  Feedback after the session confirmed this.  But there was other feedback expressed - there was a level of surprise that my presentation had been interesting, engaging, entertaining even.  General expectations were set at a very low level.  I was shocked to discover that people expect to be bored by conference presentations.  This was no reflection on the organisation that I was working with but was an expectation grounded in lived experience.

How sad!  Presenting at a conference (or anywhere!) is such a great opportunity, whether the audience has 20 people, 200 people or 2000 people.  Why would presenters not set out to engage and provoke their audience?  Sometimes I think presenters can be so caught up in the subject matter that the focus of a conference presentation becomes technical expertise rather than communication.  I would argue that the primary purpose and focus should be communicating a message, telling a story, provoking some kind of emotional response, moving people to action.  This takes skill and these skills can be learned.  Awareness, preparation, practice and coaching are the keys.

Next time you're in the audience for a presentation think about how you're feeling.  Are you engaged by the presenter?  Are they communicating with you?  Or are they so focussed on the 77 slides in their carefully crafted Powerpoint presentation that you, the audience, need not even be in the room?  What would you do differently?  What do you notice this presenter doing that might also be habits of yours?

Spend some time thinking about presentations that have really rocked your world.  Why?  What happened? What was the presenter doing?  What words would you use to describe how you felt and what you observed?

If you have a presentation coming up, don't take the actual presentation for granted.  You need to spend time practising and rehearsing before the "performance".  This means doing more than writing out Powerpoint slides.  What is the purpose of your presentation?  How do you want your audience to feel?  What do you want them to do?  Consideration of these often forgotten questions will influence how you approach the presentation.

Nothing frustrates me more than slide after slide, heavy with text, with the presenter reading them to the audience.  Pretty soon I'm thinking about how else I could spend my time.  Just give me the slide pack and I'll read it over the coffee break.  I'm sure I'm not alone.  So often, presenters sabotage themselves and forget about what it's like to be in the audience and what they need.

What will you do differently when you prepare and deliver your next presentation? How can you make sure you are memorable for the right reasons?

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