I’ve been surfing the net for a while in search of stories to share with you about presentations going badly wrong. Mostly what I found were entertaining YouTube videos, but not a single confession written by someone who ‘bombed’. Here’s the thing, bad presentations do happen to good people. We’ve all been at a presentation that’s had us curling our toes and looking at the floor, praying for it to end. And if we’re honest, we have all given presentations that we’d rather eradicate from our memory. But we can’t. They keep popping up, together with the sickening dread that we felt as we died a long, slow death on stage.
I have my own story. I was invited to give a speech at a graduation ceremony many years ago. I felt honoured by the invitation and reminisced sentimentally about my own graduation as I set about designing the content. I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to share some words that I wished I’d have heard at that pivotal point in my life. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that I would be talking to a few hundred graduates at a time when the job market was extremely slow. I expected the Hall to be full of dewy-eyed optimists eager to make their mark on the world. I pitched my content with just the right amount of inspiration and motivation (or so I thought). It bombed. As I looked out at the hundreds of faces staring back at me, I had a sinking feeling that rumbled down to my toes. As I stood there I could see that my audience were anxious about the future, unsure about whether they’d get a job or whether they’d be given the opportunity to make any kind of useful contribution to the world. My Pollyanna words were rolling like tumbleweed through the Hall. I simply hadn’t done enough work on my ‘Who?’ I’d made an assumption rather than checking out the facts. I’d failed to find out what might really be going on in the minds of those listeners.
It’s a lesson that has marked me like a branding iron. It’s so important to do the preparation fully and unsparingly, spending time on every single question in the 7 Key Steps. It’s also important to make a powerful impact when giving the presentation, for all the right reasons. I’m relieved to say that I haven’t relived that dreadful experience, but only because I’m a pedant when it comes to preparation and because I follow some key rules when it comes to delivering the content. Those delivery tips have got me rave reviews and follow-up work, but I’m only too aware that I can trip off that high wire in to the abyss the moment I choose not to follow them.
It’s dreary but necessary to appreciate that every single person in the audience has a preferred learning style. Some are just like you, and others are at the other end of the learning-style spectrum. The consequence is that if you design the content and format in a way that works for you, you’re going to alienate a good chunk — perhaps two-thirds — of the audience. By deliberately building your content to appeal across the range of learning styles, you are taking your own message seriously because you are sufficiently passionate about sharing it to do the necessary work.
The ‘work’ is about being aware of what the different learning preferences are and tailoring your content to appeal to as broad a section of the audience as you can, given any physical or time restrictions that apply. I’ll use the terms taken from Peter Honey and Alan Mumford’s research in to preferred ‘learning styles’. They describe Activists as ‘hands-on’ learners who prefer to ‘have a go’ and learn through trial and error. Activists have an open-minded approach to learning, involving themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. Reflectors prefer to learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They avoid leaping in and prefer to stand back and view experiences from a number of different perspectives, taking time to arrive at a conclusion. Theorists like to understand the theory behind the actions. They need models, concepts and facts in order to engage in the learning process. They prefer to analyse and synthesise, drawing new information in to a systematic and logical ‘theory’. Finally, Pragmatists need to be able to see how to put the learning into practice in the real world. They like to try out new ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work. Here is a table that summarises the activities that best appeal to each learning style.
|Activist||Activists are those people who learn by doing. Activists need to get their hands dirty, to dive in with both feet first. Have an open-minded approach to learning, involving themselves fully and without bias in new experiences||
• Problem solving
• Group discussion
• Role play
|Theorist||These learners like to understand the theory behind the actions. They need models, concepts and facts in order to engage in the learning process. Prefer to analyse and synthesise, drawing new information into a systematic and logical ‘theory’.||
• Background information
• Applying theories
|Pragmatist||These people need to be able to see how to put the learning into practice in the real world. Abstract concepts and games are of limited use unless they can see a way to put the ideas into action in their lives. Experimenters, trying out new ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work.||
• Time to think about how to apply learning in reality
• Case studies
• Problem solving
|Reflector||These people learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They may avoid leaping in and prefer to watch from the side-lines. Prefer to stand back and view experiences from a number of different perspectives, collecting data and taking the time to work towards an appropriate conclusion.||
• Paired discussions
• Self-analysis questionnaires
• Personality questionnaires
• Time out
• Observing activities
• Feedback from others
When you’re thinking about how your message can best be absorbed by the audience, you’ll want to reflect on how to ‘package’ and ‘share’ that message. Your options will depend on the format; if you’re working with a smaller group, there’s likely to be a greater opportunity for role-play than in a larger group. But even with a larger group, there are lots of opportunities to be creative. And please, don’t leave all your creativity on the PowerPoint slide! You’ll see from the table that the activities that appeal to the widest group of learners are – yes you’ve guessed it – stories. And that brings me neatly back to the narrative structure of ‘Setup’, ‘Conflict’ and ‘Resolution’.
Personal stories are very effective. If you’ve ever seen the Amy Cuddy’s TED talk then you’ll know that to be true. In her book Presence, Cuddy confesses that she hadn’t fully decided to tell her own story until she got on to the stage. Since that talk, Cuddy has received thousands of emails from listeners who identified with that story – that’s what made the biggest impact of all – and that’s what led her to write Presence. There’s just no telling where a great personal story will take you, or the audience. Clearly your story has to be relevant to your topic. It should also talk about a transformative experience, like learning — the painful way — that being acutely aware of the challenges your audience members are facing is a ‘do or die’ component to a great speech.
If the format of the group lends itself to discussion in pairs/threes, or breaking out in to small groups to complete an activity, I’d recommend those for assisting the learning process because they, too, appeal to a wide range of learning preferences. Even if I’m talking to an audience of hundreds, I will incorporate a practical exercise that gets them moving around or talking to their neighbour but only if it will reinforce the message. Otherwise, it’s a gimmick.
So, what’s the story that will add depth to your message? Can you make it personal? If not, can you at least make it relevant, compelling and transformative, and follow the ‘Setup’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Resolution’ structure? The Internet is a great resource for finding examples of great stories. See what you can find that fits with your own style and the topic of your presentation and emulate it. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.