Thursday, January 17, 2013

Planning the Show

My condolences...

First off I’d like to convey my deepest sympathy to the 50 or so people that will be receiving the stack of printouts I recently saw coming off the copier at the UPS store.

Here’s the story… the other day, I was sending a package and happened to see a stack of paper growing on the output tray of the copier.  I know it’s probably not socially acceptable to look at someone else’s copies (it’s sort of like peeking in a public restroom), but nobody was around the copier so I discreetly took a glance.  To my horror, I saw a huge stack of "6-slides-per-page" PowerPoint handouts being collated for some unsuspecting audience.  What’s worse – within each of these tiny slide thumbnails I saw lines and lines of…           wait for it…              TEXT!!!   

I could not bear to imagine the sinking feeling that the audience was going to have as they sat down for a long day of training/presentation/sales pitch/whatever.  They would open their shiny, new 3-ring binders with a sense of anticipation... only to find these tiny, word-filled rectangles filling each page. 

Under some circumstances, this could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

A few months ago I came across this video: Every Presentation Ever: Communication FAIL (caution it’s quite painful to watch – but like they say: “No pain. No gain.”)  " This got me thinking about my presentations.  Unfortunately, I find myself doing many of these same, awful things.
Here’s a question: How many of those stereotypical things do you do when in front of an audience?  (don't answer out loud, your boss may be listening).
How about this one: If you weren’t the presenter, would you pay attention to one of your own presentations? 

The problem is: most presenters are focused on their presentation (after all, they probably worked really hard on it.)  Unfortunately, this is backwards, you should be focusing on your audience not your material.  There should be a constant “dance” between the presenter and the audience, whereby the presenter provides the material in a manner that the audience can best handle it.  This give-and-take dynamic changes as a presentation moves along.  Some material is easy to digest and the presentation can move along quickly with few questions.  Other points in a talk may take a bit more time and discussion. 
This give-and-take dynamic became very obvious to me as I was in the audience for a recent taping of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”.  His opening monologues are a great example of this audience awareness.  When a joke really resonates with the audience, he pauses and enjoys the moment with them.  He may even elaborate on it and perhaps “milk it” a bit.  However, when a joke flops, he moves so quickly to another joke/topic, that the audience doesn’t have a chance to notice the previous stinker.

With Jimmy, he’s tuned in to the feedback from his audience.  Granted he can more easily measure a response by applause or laughter – we don’t often get applause or laugher in an engineering presentation... at least we hope not.

However there are some obvious responses we can be looking at:
-          Are people making eye contact with you? 
-          Are they taking notes? 
-          Are they preoccupied with their cell phone/laptop/papers/etc.?

Here’s a really subtle one:  did you know that people are less likely to cough, sneeze or blow their nose when they are fully tuned into something?

If you still are struggling to determine if people are tuned in with your talk, try this... at some point in your talk, step away from your slides and draw something on a whiteboard or flipchart.  Watch closely for eye contact changes or body language changes in the audience.  People will tend to re-engage when you change communication forms.  This is the kind of reaction that you should be looking for throughout your talk.

The above "painful" video was produced by the company “Growing Leaders” in promotion of the book “Habitudes for Communicators”.  It's a great, easily readible book.  I recommend it to anyone that spends time in front of any audience.  Check it out at: and start planning your next presentation as an "audience-centric" one!

Rock On.