There’s a stunningly inspirational story told in Anne Bruce and Sardék Love’s Presentation Essentials: The Tools You Need to Captivate Your Audience, Deliver Your Story, and Make Your Message Memorable. Bruce recalls the moment when she began a conference presentation before a group of people who had had far too much too drink. One of the unruly audience members, from his seat in the front row of the room, immediately begins heckling her and ultimately decides—unwisely—that it would be appropriate to throw a tomato at her. Looking down at the splattered tomato that is now on the lapel of her white silk suit, she doesn’t miss a beat: she uses a finger to scoop a piece of the demolished tomato from her coat, tastes the tomato, and responds “needs more salt.” Which, of course, immediately has the audience completely on her side as the person who threw the tomato is led out of the room, and she receives a standing ovation at the end of her presentation.
That “needs more salt” approach perfectly describes what makes Presentation Essentials so important for any of us immersed in—or dreaming about being immersed in—a career that involves an ability to engage audiences through first-rate presentation skills. The need for salt reminds us that the way we season our work with a commitment to planning, practice, storytelling, the use of empathy, a commitment to excellence, and an ability to quickly recover from whatever is thrown our way determines whether we deliver a perfectly-prepared souffle or something that is so flat that it should never have been let out of our kitchen.
True to its title, this is not a book that lingers very long on any of its important themes; it covers the essentials, punctuates them with simple graphics that summarize points to be recalled and incorporated into our work; and includes an “essentials toolkit” a with concise lists of “dos and don’ts of presenting,” a set of guidelines for creating effective presentations, and a presentation-development worksheet, among other resources.
Bruce and Love bring, to their work, years of successful experiences as engaging, effective presenters in numerous countries, and what they cover serves as a primer for new and aspiring presenters as well as a review manual with plenty of helpful reminders to those of us who have been involved in teaching-training-learning and other presentation/facilitation environments for a considerable period of time.
A particularly refreshing and helpful section, for me, came early in the second chapter (“Presentation Structure”). Although I have, for many years, been writing and presenting material in highly-interactive sessions designed to inspire positive transformation among those I serve, I’d never quite thought about the process in the terms outlined by Bruce and Love: creating that single, overarching “Big Idea Statement” that, in one sentence, explicitly expresses the problem, the expert insights to be offered, and the stakes that are driving the need for change among my co-conspirators in learning, aka, the learners with whom I am working. I always design and share sets of goals and objectives, but reading Bruce and Love’s examples, including this one (on a theme I frequently address with colleagues and learners), are immediately helping me up my own presentation game in terms of going for the direct, concise, emotionally-engaging challenge that drives the work I facilitate and the opportunities for transformation I attempt to foster:
“More than 50 percent of your virtual training content is a complete waste of time, money, and resources, leaving team members unprepared to fulfil their job duties, thereby putting your human capital investment dollars at severe risk.”
Delivered to the right audience at the right moment, that summary statement offers the invitation to and promise of change that is at the heart of what so many of us attempt to do through the presentations we design and deliver. That example alone, with the outline of the process that leads us to develop that level of challenge, makes the book one well worth reading and rereading.
“Before designing your presentation, you must create your Big Idea Statement,” the authors remind us. “The Big Idea Statement is the main point of your presentation, and its purpose is to compel your audience to reconsider what they know to be true and take action to change.”
A theme that pops up a few times in the book is the need for adaptability in our approach to designing and delivering effective, engaging presentations, and the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on our is acknowledged on page 64 and again in Chapter 10 (“Delivering Online Content”): “The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed a seismic transformation in the way presentations are delivered. Presenters are now expected to be fully capable of delivering presentations in person as well as virtually across multiple platforms. That’s an extreme example of being adaptable.” (p. 64)
For those of us who had already been engaged in extensive online-presentation work via Zoom and other platforms well before the pandemic hit full force in early 2020, the transition was hardly noticeable, but it did create a tremendous expansion of opportunities among those who suddenly, forced to go online for learning and other presentations. An area of exploration beyond the scope of this book—and one in which I’ve been immersed with colleagues for nearly three years now—is what new opportunities this rapid transformation has provided and what we can do to hold onto the best of the opportunities rather than shelving them away and going back to practices that were commonly pursued before so many of our colleagues and learners were forced to move full-steam ahead to hone their presentation skills in online environments.
Regardless of environments (e.g., onsite vs. online vs. hybrid), plenty of elements remain consistent and essential to our work, and these are the elements Bruce and Love capture so effectively throughout the book as they suggest a variety of presentation seasonings we can add to our work. The summary of “Six Keys to Audience Engagement” (on page 65), for example, are worth reviewing every time we sit down to design a new presentation:
And their reminder regarding how to approach practice and rehearsal—“Don’t practice your presentation until you can get it right; practice your presentation until you can’t get it wrong”—needs to be in the forefront of our minds when we move from the design phase to the delivery phase of the work we do as presenters.
Whether you quickly read through the entire book in a couple of sittings or spend more time working your way through it by reading a chapter and then applying lessons learned, you’ll find the time spend with Presentation Essentials to be well worth the effort. And your co-conspirators in learning, action, and positive change will be among the beneficiaries of your effort.