The Other Half of a Presentation: Your Audience

By Jim Endicott, of Distinction

Sometimes you can just tell. Maybe it’s their body language or something in their eyes but you just get a feeling about some audiences. That was certainly the case one Friday morning last fall. As I set up for the presentation, the group slowly funneled into the room…

Some seemed interested in what I was doing while others were visibly distant. I guess this is where we learn a lot about the skills we bring to the table.

One size rarely fits all

One size fits all may be true with sunglasses and socks, but when it comes to presentations, presenters need to exercise some discretion in the volume and detail of content delivered. Because of the time it takes many to create a presentation in the first place, presenters often try to leverage that investment by using the presentation in its entirety with every audience. Here’s why that rarely works. Each audience represents a group with a unique set of filters that our presentations are viewed through. Senior staff members may be looking for summary information from you and might just be sizing you up for a promotion based on your knowledge of a certain topic.

A group of product engineers embrace detail because that’s the world they live in. A group of marketing or public relations individuals may be looking for more visually oriented materials and less text. Same presentation – three unique audience perspectives. To create truly good presentations we need to get into our audience’s skin and see our content through their eyes. Unsure how to do that? Take someone out for a lunch and ask.

I’ve learned to trust my instincts and with the group I now stood in front of, I needed to have a very strong opener. I wasn’t too worried about those who already seemed interested but the others had to come along quickly so their disinterest did not impact the entire group. I enlisted their assistance as newly deputized presentation consultants to help me evaluate one rather inept presenter – Dilbert. Several years back, I found a perfect screen saver of Dilbert delivering a presentation in his inevitable style. He was doing everything wrong, and from the looks of the characters around the conference room table, he had lost them long ago. At first, the critique from the audience was pretty slow. “He has his back to the audience” one person said. Another added, “He’s not making eye contact with them.” (This was actually a trick answer. No one has ever really seen Dilbert’s eyes) “His overhead transparencies are really horrible.” Now we were on a roll and the comments came quicker and with keener insight. We had a few laughs at Dilbert’s expense but it pointed out some interesting things. It’s always so easy to spot inadequacies in others, but so hard to see them in ourselves.

Conscientious and objective self-examination is not a natural thing for most of us – all the more reason to enlist the aid of objective coaches.

The importance of good strong starts

I can’t emphasis enough how important the first 5 minutes are to a presenter. Whether we like it or not, audiences will make decisions in those critical moments that will impact their attention for the balance of the presentation. For that reason we need to carefully think through how we will start. We need to convey that this presentation will be different then what they are accustomed to. A concise and well-told personal story that cleanly ties in your theme, an unexpected voiceover from an industry expert, asking your audience to respond to a certain question that causes them to relate to their own experience – all techniques to start strong but it doesn’t end there. They’re also making decisions about you. Be open and personable. Also, your agenda slide will validate for them that you’re taking them down a path that is relevant. Spend 30% of your pre-presentation practice time working on the first and last 5 minutes.

I was off to a pretty good start. Just 15 minutes into the presentation I seemed to have their attention. Then I made an unfortunate miscalculation. I moved into what I call the MARCOM (Marketing Communication) Value Matrix. The whole purpose of this series of visuals is to bring a group of new or seasoned presenters to the point where they look at their presentations in a different light. Until we have a genuine sense for the “stakes” every time we get up to present, we will always treat the presentation as an after-thought, a necessary evil. This little illustration normally resonates with my audiences but somehow this time it wasn’t working. This business practical perspective did not resonate with this audience. Whether they simply lacked the personal experience to relate to the example or they wanted something else from me – a third of the group started to fade. How I brought them back in the next minute would determine success or failure for the morning.

Reading your audience

It’s not enough to simply prepare ahead of time for our presentations – we need to sense the mood of our audience during the presentation. As I watched a recent footbal game, I was reminded about how much planning went into that game. As much as they prepared however, the players would still call audibles (a spontaneous change in the play initiated by the players before the snap of the ball). There’s a lesson in that for us as well. If the level of detail seems to be sending our audience into LaLa Land, insert an unplanned interaction with the audience to draw on their experiences or move to more summary statements until you find a topic that resonates with them. If the senior staff seems restless, stop and ask if the information being provided is helpful. If the audience seems to stay riveted on the screen and not you, perhaps you need to black out your screen (B key during PowerPoint Show) to refocus their attention on you.

Suddenly, the bell rang signaling the end of first period sending the twenty students scrambling for the door. A few stopped to thank me for coming while others seemed to be more enthralled with my small multimedia projector than anything I had said that morning. Every semester I join Cheryl Bailey’s PowerPoint class at Newberg High School for an hour to help them look at the next few months as not something to simply endure – but rather an opportunity to learn an essential life skill. You see, whether we like it or not, we’ll always be presenters. In the future, those students may be presenting to class of high school peers, a prospective employer, a college class or perhaps to a Board of Directors. The ability to distill our thoughts into applications like PowerPoint, create meaningful images to support our story and deliver it with some level of confidence can be career changing if not life changing.

I may not have totally won the battle that morning but I got them thinking. All things considered, that was a big success. Besides, next semester I’d knew I’d get another crack at a whole new batch of future presenters.

Learn more about Jim Endicott and Distinction.


Published On: 28th Apr 2009

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