How not to have a presentation that sucks…

The Author not quite as picturedI had to do a presentation on e learning a couple of weeks ago.  Not a big deal, just a brief history of the technology and some pros and cons.  I have done so many similar presentations over the years I could likely do it in my sleep.

And that’s a dangerous thing.  That is the road down which lies suckdom.

The enemy here of course is complacency.  I can’t count the times I have been on Sunday evening flights sitting next to the guy who is casually assembling his Monday morning presentation on his laptop while swilling a double Scotch. 

This, unfortunately, is how a lot of presentations get put together.  Jamming PowerPoint slides full of the latest facts and figures featuring novelty fonts, bizarre colour schemes and using wacky animations and transitions.  Or using 300 slides for a thirty minute presentation (an impossibility, I’ve tried). 

I’ve learned, through hard experience, that the best way to have a presentation that doesn’t suck is to treat every presentation that you are invited to give as something special. 

I remember vividly a presentation from hell that I endured one late summer day a few years ago in New Orleans. 

It was at the annual meeting of the Life Communicators Association a professional organization I belonged to at the time.  The speakers at their annual meeting were normally top notch and we were all expected an informative after lunch presentation from a noted Wall Street financial analyst. 

This was the kind of meat and potatoes information that we could carry back to our companies and earn the respect and admiration of our superiors – the kind of information that would convince them that the cost of the trip was worth it and not just an expensive boondoogle.

So here we all sat still quietly digesting our ballroom lunch of some sort of chicken and those marble sized potatoes that only seem to available at hotels waiting patiently for enlightenment. 

The next forty five minutes would have been less painful if we had been surrounded by monkeys scraping their claws across blackboards and screaming in unison.

Our beloved speaker stood up to much applause, turned on her laptop and started her PowerPoint presentation and turned to the screen as she lead us through a series of slides as incomprehensible as the philosophy of Martin Buber, delivered in a flat monotone voice that made my ears buzz for days afterward.

She continued to face the screen oblivious to the exodus that started about twenty minutes in and increased to a maddened scramble worthy of the last lifeboat on the Titanic. 

To be totally fair, her presentation might have set off sparks among her peers in the boardrooms of Wall Street, but here in New Orleans it was lost on a group of poor hapless financial communicators.

Finally, just as I was about to gouge an eye out with my coffee spoon to relieve the pain, it ended and those of us who remained sat stunned in silence.

A few days later, after the pain subsided, I tried to analyze where it had all gone so horribly wrong for her. 

First, she had no concept of the audience she was addressing and what level of knowledge we had about her topic.  She was perfectly comfortable with her subject matter but we just did not have the background or knowledge to understand what she was talking about. 

Second, she turned her back on us, possibly because she found her slides more interesting than her audience, which made it easier for the smarter members of the audience to escape.

Finally, there was no real structure to her presentation, she just started and continued until she ran out of slides. 

While, at the time, her presentation felt like the death by a thousand small cuts, it does stand out in memory as one of the worst presentations I have ever seen. 

If only she had taken the time to learn about her audience and what their needs and expectations were. 

If only she had structured her presentation so it had a definite beginning, middle and an end. 

If only she had turned to face us and engage us with a dynamic enthusiastic speaking style.

If only, if only, if only…

If only her presentation hadn’t sucked.

So whenever complacency strikes and I am tempted to just wing it, I conjure up that painful memory and resist the temptation.  For down that road, as I said earlier, lies suckdom.

2 Responses to “How not to have a presentation that sucks…”

  1. sara young says:

    Hi Peter
    You’re a very funny writer, who writes well.
    Do you submit your articles to business magazines? And if not, why not?

  2. Peter McGarvey says:

    Thanks Sara, I like the idea of being published in business magazines and if any editors out there are interested in my crazed take on things please get in touch

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