Presentations: move from ‘telling’ to ‘asking’

Quick question before we begin: how many people reading this have sat through an absolutely boring, insufferable presentation in the past day? Week? Month? Year? Probably quite a few.

Now quick story before we officially begin this post: my first semester of graduate school was the fall of 2012; at the time, I started to realize that while I was 31 or so then, most people were 23 or so. I’m not even that good of a public speaker — although I’ve had moments here and there — but I was kind of surprised because our first semester of classes was (a) Micro-Econ, (b) Staffing and Training Development and (c) Statistics. The third one is important, for sure — BIG DATA, Y’ALL!!! — and the second one is important too (America’s hiring processes are a wreck). I think micro-econ is contextually important to help you understand things, but I don’t think it really rolls up with working in a corporation. Instead … public speaking does. Working in an office is all about making points quickly and doing presentations and projects well. I actually told the director of the graduate program that she should swap out micro-econ for public speaking or presenting skills in that first semester; nothing happened with that, but I honestly believe presenting is hugely important and very few people know how to actually do it.

So here’s something interesting, from Matt Abrahams of Stanford: while we often conceptualize presentations as being us (the presenter) telling the audience something, maybe we should really think about it in terms of asking. Questions engage people — they keep their brains running — and offer context on what’s being discussed. As Abrahams writes:

Of all the tools and techniques a speaker can use to make a presentation more effective, the simple question is the most versatile. Think of it as the Swiss Army Knife of presenting. A well-timed question can accomplish a myriad of communication tasks, from building intrigue to fostering audience engagement, helping you remember what to say, and even calming your speaking anxiety. Leverage questions, and you can become a more compelling and confident presenter.

One point Abrahams brings up is interesting: questions can actually build the confidence of a presenter. Rather than thinking of the whole thing as a performance where you’re on display, you can think of it more along the lines of “What does my audience need to hear from me?” In fact, I kind of like it when presenters open that way: What issues are you having? What would you like to hear me discuss? Especially if the presenter is supposed to be an expert, I don’t want him/her to just dive in — I want to know that the presentation will be tailored to the people’s needs who are in that specific audience.

Here’s another great line from Abrahams:

I loathe speaking manuscripts and full-text speaker notes, which only invite memorization and actually increase performance anxiety.

Concur — so maybe we really do need that mandatory college-or-graduate level class about speaking and effective presentations, and maybe we need a new model for it. After all, think about these two things right now:

1. How were you initially taught to speak in public and prepare for it? (Probably the old “everyone in their underwear” trick, right?)

2. Can you think of anything else that’s so essential to day-to-day life regardless of profession as “being able to present your ideas clearly” that’s mastered by such a small percentage of the population?

Ted Bauer