Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.

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