Who are you presenting for?

When you have a presentation to give that you just want to nail, you might read a few articles with their “top ten tips”, watch a few videos that break down Steve Jobs’ style, or you might borrow books on making slick slides. I did, and they certainly helped… But I was working with a blind spot.

My latest presentation seemed to be well received, but I felt like it lacked a bit of “soul”, like it wasn’t a complete success. In this post I’ll give the advice that I feel is often overlooked.

Last month my company attended a conference relating to the application of dimensional inspection in the aerospace industry. We’ve attended these conferences for a few years now, and we try to have a good presence there because many of our partners, competitors and potential customers attend it as well.

Wall of text, slide after slide. This was the rule, not the exception.

A major component of the conference is the presentations given by the experts in the field, and although the topics that the experts presented had potential, I had trouble staying attentive for more than a few minutes at a time. Their delivery was horrible, quite frankly. One of the indicators of the quality of a talk are the slides. On the right is a picture I snapped during one of them, to give you an idea of a typical slide.

This year our company was asked to give a 20-minute presentation, and my boss appointed me and my colleague to fill in that time slot.

My colleague and I wanted to give a presentation that would captivate our audience and at the same time boost our company image. Something better than what anyone else had done in the years we’ve attended. I looked articles, videos and books on giving a better presentation, and they revolved around superficial, gimmicky tips that are easy-to-apply. For example:

Armed with these tips, we modified our talk bit by bit until we felt that it looked great. We practiced the delivery, making sure we spoke enthusiastically with minimal fidgeting. The result was a talk that was quite well received. The audience was engaged, we made them laugh a couple times, and after the presentation a few of them personally congratulated us on our talk.

This was probably the busiest slide that we had in the whole presentation. As a result, people focused on what we were saying rather than reading the slides.

We made our company look good, knowledgeable and dynamic — to my boss’ delight. That evening, over beers, I asked him whether there was anything we could have improved. He said “Nah man, it was perfect.” I guess our presentation surpassed his expectations, but despite this I wouldn’t grade myself an A+ on it. I hope to one day be as good as some of the best presenters on TED, and I knew something was missing. It was something that wasn’t covered in any of online tips. I had a blind spot that I only noticed after having given my presentation, once the pressure of pleasing my boss was gone. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my boss also had the same blind spot, but it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Have you ever been in a situation where:

  1. You are assigned the task of presenting a set length of time.
  2. The audience contains people you want to impress (your boss, other experts, etc.)

If so, then if you might not be aware that your focus shifts from presenting for your audience to presenting for yourself. What I mean by that is that instead of preparing a talk with the intent of offering as much value to the audience as you can in what limited time you are given, your ego gets in the way and your top priority becomes preserving/enhancing your image.

That’s what happened to me, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late. What did I do to prepare?

  • Since I was allowed to talk on any relevant topic of my choosing, I came up with a list of topics I can talk for 20+ minutes and picked the most promising one (the more all-encompassing the topic, the better).
  • I proceeded to list all the things related to the topic that I can talk about, including the many examples that support my main point.
  • I wrote my script by stringing all of these bits together (we had over 30 minutes of content!)
  • I cut out the more boring examples, and then my colleague and I built our slide deck while following the presentation tips.
  • Realizing that the talk was a little dry, we injected it with a bit of storytelling at the beginning, and quizzing the audience here and there and adding humor where we could.
  • At some point in the middle of the talk, we felt it was a good idea to reiterate in simpler terms the point we are trying to make. You know how when someone rambles on, they’ll interrupt themselves with “Anyways, point is…”? Well, it was akin to that…

Can you see how backwards that was? It’s like at first I wanted to make sure I’d have enough content and then once the talk is assembled, realizing it was rather dull, we were gave our presentation a face-lift, retro-fitting the features that we noticed looked good in other presentations, trying to keep them engaged. Yes, our presentation might have looked good, at a superficial level. Yes, perhaps we looked knowledgeable by covering so many examples. And yes, we might have looked dynamic and hip by having a Steve Jobs-like presentation.

But we were guilty of the same thing as the other speakers with their dense, boring, overly intellectual slides: We wanted, above all, to establish our expertise and to look good—Not to serve the audience. My colleague and I just did it with less words on our slides! (Only half-kidding…)

I came to this realization only after the presentation, after the pressure was alleviated and only once I felt I had achieved my primary, subconscious goal: To look good. It was this subconscious goal that pulled my focus away from what my primary goal should have been: To serve the audience.

If you find yourself in a similar situation (you are assigned the task of presenting for a specified time-slot to people you want to impress), take a moment to identify the pernicious desire to preserve or enhance your ego. Otherwise, it will hold you back. Public speaking is scary, and it’s only natural to want to look good, but identifying and acknowledging this will be like removing a blind spot.

Next time I find myself in a similar situation, I’ll take a step back and avoid making the same mistake by first asking myself:

What do you want your listeners to gain from your talk?

Everything else is derived from that. Everything that I add to the talk should serve my objective. My self-talk would go something like:

  • Does it serve the audience that it lasts 20 minutes? Not necessarily, so it shouldn’t be your focus. At least, not from the very beginning! First come up with the core content and then if it turns out that you do need to add extra content, you can do it driven by the desire to make a stronger impact on your audience rather than by the fear of falling short.
  • Examine your list of examples. Are they all necessary to make a meaningful lasting impact in the audience’s mind? In other words, are they “transformative”, or merely informative? Avoid being cerebral by cutting out the unnecessary lists and talk about things that matter at a more personal level.
  • Consider the reason why you select certain tools and presentation styles. Are you using it to support your message or to enhance your image? Take Prezi, for example: Its gorgeous animations blow PowerPoint’s slide transitions out of the water. Seduced by its novelty, many jump on this new tool but end up “misusing it” by spending a lot of time on converting their PowerPoint presentations without capitalizing on the fact that Prezi allows you to giving a spatial relationship between concepts. As a result, their animations wowed their audience but also distract them from the actual content they are trying to communicate.

To stay on track, you want to ask yourself:

Who are you presenting for?
Yourself, or the audience?

If it’s for the audience, then what do you want your audience to walk away with? And subsequently, do your choices move you in that direction or are they driven by a hidden desire?

I think a healthy dose of self-reflection can protect you against shortsighted inner motivations. And I think this could be the missing piece, the advice that I needed to perhaps give an A+ presentation.

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