Everyone needs to learn how to give presentations

Giving Presentations

Couple of stories before we get going on this post.

1. I went to graduate school (for business/organizational development) from 2012 to 2014. It was a little bit off-task, to be sure. In the first semester of the first year, we had three base classes: one was on Microeconomics, one was on Training and Development, and one was on Stats and Reasoning. (C) is essential. Big data is legitimately “a thing.” (B) is important, especially if you’re interested in helping with training or developing employees, which a lot of people in the program were. (Talking more broadly about HR might be a rabbit hole, though.) Micro-Econ always confused me. It’s important to fundamentally understand, yes, but the focus/function of this program was mostly getting people into corporate rotational jobs — in those jobs, you’re not often drawing S and D graphs, you know? One time, I told the head of the program that Micro should be replaced with a Public Speaking/Presentations course instead, to ground the students in doing that. She deflected it and said it had always been done that way. That’s a common response to a lot of things you say in life, and it sucks.

2. I worked at McKesson in summer 2013. I talked about it a little bit here. I also mentioned it briefly here. Near the end of the summer I was there, we had to give presentations to higher-ups, etc. Most of these consisted of a slide deck and some narration in front of a group of people, which people commonly refer to as “a presentation.” My final one had about eight slides. I already knew I probably wasn’t getting a job at the company afterwards, and honestly, part of me couldn’t care less. (Transparency.) So I did eight slides, focused on key information, delivered, and exited. The girl I shared an office with? She sent me slides to edit. 71. I actually think it might have been 90. These were 15-minute presentations, OK? It’s literally impossible for a human to take 90 slides and go through them in 15 minutes, not to mention a total fucking fool’s errand.

3. Once met a guy who worked directly Jack Welch, a management icon. He told me that if you couldn’t make your point to him in 3-5 minutes or with a 1-sheet, he was basically like, “NEXT!!!” I like that. Honestly … most transactions are pretty simple to explain on face. They might be complicated to implement, yes, but in terms of explaining them? “There’s a need here. We could fill it by doing X-thing and it will make us Y-amount of money.” Done. Donzo.

The thing is, just like most people can’t effectively manage, most people can’t present worth a damn. I’ve been working, give or take, for 12 years now. I’ve probably sat through 4-5 good presentations in total, and probably 1,400-1,500 awful ones. I’d honestly say that’s the breakdown.

I often wonder why this is, and I come back to the central concept that presentation skills could be inherent in a person — i.e. charisma — or simply that it’s not taught enough. Both could be reasons.

There’s this idea, though, that I discovered in Harvard Business Review. Obviously there are cultural differences inherent in many aspects of business — right now I’d argue that US/Asia divide is flummoxing a bunch of companies — but one we don’t often talk about is this idea:

Principles-first reasoning vs. applications-first reasoning.

Principles-first is more common in Europe and associated countries; essentially, those types of thinkers begin with the why. They want to know the reasoning and ideas behind a strategy before action starts.

Applications-first is more common in the U.S. and other more Western nations, and it tends to focus on the how. General conclusions come from factual observation, and the focus is on the actual process of getting stuff done.

If you’ve ever worked even 2 minutes in an American office, this shouldn’t surprise you: almost everything is about how and process, to the detriment of actual human involvement sometimes, and that also created a massive management/leadership hole which Simon Sinek and others were able to get famous by driving a mack truck through:

Oftentimes, this is why presentations can flop — not necessarily that you’re doing every presentation cross-culturally, but … presentations are often part of meetings, and meetings are made up of disparate groups of individuals at different points in their day, with different priorities, thinking about different things, etc.

This is what happens with presentations: some people are on a different page, some want info one way (why), others want it another way (how), some people shouldn’t even be in the meeting, etc.

I do think, though, that everyone needs to learn how to give presentations at some point in their academic/professional arc. Of course some people will still be better at distilling a message or using jokes or being charismatic, but everyone needs to understand the basic ideas inherent in speaking, condensing a big idea, etc. That’s literally 10-15 times more valuable than base academic knowledge — because you can be the smartest fucking person on the planet, but if you can’t stand up in front of others, organically or inorganically, and explain exactly what attitudes of yours are so smart, you’re not going to actually be considered smart. (Tree falls in the forest stuff right there.)

Point being: think about things like how and why, and think about these skills within your own life. Even if you’re a total desk jockey, you never know when you may have to explain an idea to someone or go big with a concept. You need those skills — for reals.

Ted Bauer


  1. Totally agree, Ted. I was once told as a very young grad student that, like it or not, I was going to be giving A LOT of presentations in my lifetime. I was given a choice: either I could resist learning the skill, and dread the presentation each time it comes knocking, OR I could learn to be a presentation rockstar and actually enjoy the experience while using it to my advantage. Tough choice. That was a big step for me — realizing that presentations were an inevitable and essential part of professional life and that doing them well can be a learned skill just like any other. Now I give them almost every day like a champ.

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