Awful presentations are the norm, with swathes of text on-screen, presenters speaking over everyone’s heads, little interaction, no stories, poor images and a bored audience. Why? Why do otherwise competent people give hapless presentations? Invariably nerves are blamed but nerves are not the problem and generally do more good than harm.
The real reasons for awful presentations are nuanced and hidden, a set of unconscious bias that lead us to communicate very differently in a presentation than we would in a conversation, even though they are essentially the same thing. But the good news is, these faults are easily identified and fixed.
We tend to view presentations from the inside out, from the presenter’s perspective, not the audience’s. We become obsessed with what we are saying over what the audience is hearing. Presenters will often say things like, ‘How do I cram so much material into so little time?’ but we never experience this problem in a conversation.
In a conversation, if someone asks you what you do for a living, you will say, ‘I’m a school teacher’ or ‘I’m an engineer’ or ‘I’m a professional tennis player’. You’ll sum up a 20-year career in two seconds. If the listener wants more, you’ll delve deeper. This is a normal audience-led communication and it works very well. But in presentations we do it all backwards, we focus on talking – widely used phrases like ‘public speaking’ are a symptom of this – instead of listening, and whether our material is structured so that it can be listened to.
There are several unconscious biases that lead people to do things in a conversation they would never do in a presentation. For example, people tell far more stories in conversations than they do in presentations, they cite more examples and speak in the concrete not in the abstract, they seek frequent input from the listener, they give their opinions, they talk with energy and use their bodies and facial expressions naturally, they steer the communication in the direction of interest of their audience, and they communicate insight not information. By identifying these behavioural differences, you are just a step away from properly enhancing your sophisticated conversational skills in your presentations, and hopefully this book can help you do so.
Awful Presentations is a blend of cognitive psychology and common sense. The cognitive psychology provides the theory and the common sense – based on nearly twenty years experience in the private sector and teaching at UCD – explains why people don’t heed this advice. The audience-side of our brains knows that presentations often fail and still we fall into the same bad habits. The truth is, a presentation, with a live, enthusiastic, expert presenter, with his or her stories and examples, aided by images, videos, live demonstrations and contributions from the audience, can be the most multi-layered, engaging communication of all.
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