Why presentation courses create ineffective presentations - 2003 dissertation extract
9th September 2006
Introduction, and extract from the 2003 MBA dissertation on ineffective presentations
Ever since the beginning of recorded time people have tried to influence and manipulate other people. It is interesting to discover why we remember certain things and forget so many others. We remember Eve, using her womanly wiles to influence Adams behaviour, Delilah influencing Samson, we remember the Greek and the Roman philosophers in the forum making passionate presentations to influence the mass in a particular direction, we remember the speeches of Churchill during the war when he urged the people with passion to fight the enemy in the skies, on the seas and in the streets. We also remember Martin Luther King’s passionate vision in his fervent presentation, “I have a dream of a little black girl walking hand in hand with a little white girl”. We remember the masterpiece, “The Prince – by Machiavelli” – his presentation to influence the foundation and the organisation of the nation state. It’s interesting to ask why we remember these presentations, yet forget what yesterday’s presentation was about. Was it passion, vision, imagination or simply good delivery which triggers the process of recall?
Presentations form an important part of business life and they become meaningless if they cannot be understood nor remembered. On average a business professional is likely to be subjected to up to 2,500 presentations during his or her career, on the MBA alone a student will be subjected to over 300 presentations and conduct over 40 in a brief, nine month period. A survey of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies found 78% of CEO’s ranked communication as the most important skill of a modern manager, yet the majority of us will struggle to identify five memorable presentations. The analysis of what shifts a mediocre presentation to an outstanding performance is one of the last bastions of business that has yet to be confronted. Great presenters possess an ability to take a creative approach to the construction of a presentation, however, this skill of creating concise, effective communication is available to all who find the courage to take the fresh approach outlined in this report.
The Importance of Effective Communication
The purpose of all presentations is to communicate, albeit in many different guises:
- Business presentation - the most common public speaking situation either as part of a conference or a seminar on a specific subject. Business presentations can take the form of a speech, a lecture or more commonly, an intimate, informal approach with the audience.
- One to one – most people don’t consider these conversations to be presentations and hence, don’t associate the same level of anxiety as in a formal business presentation. Yet, the same rules of planning apply, however, due to the interactive nature of the presentation, the presenter has to listen and react in a normal conversational style for maximum effect.
- Briefings – as the name suggests, briefings are intended to convey a process or activity where the role of the audience is to ensure that the action is carried out. Unlike business presentations, briefings are much more interactive to ensure clarity of understanding.
- Workshop – the key word here is facilitation, with the audience expected to participate and contribute as much to the proceedings as the speaker. Due to the interactive nature of the situation, the facilitator must act as much as a chairman and as a catalyst for ideas.
- Meetings – the most frequently occurring presentation, yet the least planned. Meetings should follow the same planning patterns to ensure structure, clarity and include an objective.
- Telephone – possibly one of the hardest types of presentation because you lose the ability to use one of your key senses, sight. Telephone presentations need to accentuate the use of structure, and attenuation.
- Video conferencing – the technology has moved a long way since the jittery images of the early 90’s. Shock and anxiety are caused for many people not used to seeing themselves on video, but can easily be eradicated through structure and careful management.
- Entertainment – although this report is primarily aimed at business presentations, it is worth discussing that not all presentations are business related. To inject some light humour in any presentation is dependant on the audience and the subject being discussed, which is discussed later in this report.
All presentations can be done on a formal, informal, interactive or removed basis. They all, however, have one thing in common, to communicate clearly with the audience in order to reach the stated objective, yet, the majority of presentations fail before they begin. I will focus primarily on business presentations where the objective is not only to communicate, but to clarify and convince the audience to take an action, be it to purchase, sell, acquire or change their current working practices. I often ask colleagues, if they liked or disliked the presentation they have just seen and how many salient points they can recall at the end. Given that the objective of a business presentation is to communicate, clarify and possibly take action, this is the fundamental test that I seek when addressing the success of presentations. Many will argue that success is subjective. They would be right to a degree, although flaws in style, structure or visual aids are easily spotted, and whilst they may be small, someone in the audience will be distracted from the key message and hence, will fail to appreciate the points being communicated. To begin, I’d like to define what I mean by a bad, mediocre, good and great presentation
- Bad presentation – one that is spoken of in a derogatory tone
- Mediocre presentation – one that people only recall a few of the salient points
- Good presentation – one that people can recall several of the points when questioned
- Great presentation – one that people will actively talk about and discuss when asked to recall their most memorable presentations, and take action if required from the presentation.
The need to present effectively is a rudimentary skill of all business managers. We live in an age where communication is key, yet, industry as a whole, continuously fails in its ability to deliver competent presentations. We all should aspire to be great presenters, but to be merely good will put you in the upper quartile as most presentations even fail to make this mark. We insist on a qualified Architect to build our homes, a qualified Surgeon to operate on us, yet, the one skill that embodies what businesses is all about, that is to persuade and distil information, is largely left to chance.
Elements of an Effective Presentation
There are many reasons why presentations fail and often several of these factors group together in a single presentation. The same reasons apply to what makes a presentation good, or average, it merely means that some of the points have been minimised, but have yet to be eradicated. The difference between a good and a great presentation will be looked at further on in the report. To begin, I will look at the common reasons why so few presenters hit their mark with the audience.
How We Learn
There are many well documented studies on early learning which form the basis of modern curricula. Techniques like explicit instruction or direct learning is a sequence of supports, which starts by setting the stage for learning, followed by a clear explanation of what to do (telling), and then followed by modelling of the process (showing) and completed by opportunities to practice (guiding) until independence is obtained. This technique is then further reinforced by techniques like scaffolding and spiralling to ensure past knowledge is built upon and linked to ensure a positive learning experience.
Similarly, in a business environment the need to capture the audiences imagination in a short period of time is important and a technique like storytelling is an age old, but extremely effective methodology that has been around since we first learnt how to communicate. Storytelling or the use of narrative is a largely ignored subject in today’s business environment, yet, remains one of the most compelling and successful way of sharing information. The problem with narrative is how to use it effectively, even though it is a technique we have all been exposed to throughout our childhood. I once worked with an IT company that provided complex digital workflow solutions. The presentations were always technology driven, showing how complex and integrated the technology was, which was well received by the technologists, but the target audience was the Board, which rarely understood the benefit technology would bring to their organisation. Instead, I used narrative to convey the solution in the form of a cartoon to the Board to illustrate the benefits from the point of view of their consumers. The story was light hearted, relevant, but more importantly, sold a vision that enabled Board members to grasp a complex solution.
Just as children have unique strengths and talents which they bring into the classroom, so too do adults have unique strengths and talents which they bring into the workplace. Students’ strengths have to be optimized and their weaknesses minimized for effective learning to take place. In my opinion, the same can be said with regard to adults. Effective teachers believe that all students have the ability to learn, the ability to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to use a variety of strategies to maximize their strengths and weaknesses; adults are no different. One strategy that is often applied in U.S. classrooms is Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Gardener, a psychologist and learning theorist at Harvard University, conceptualized this theory of Multiples Intelligences that states that all individuals have the capacity to learn and make meaning of the world around us in many ways. He has set aside the idea that a person’s intelligence can be measured with a discrete score, such as the IQ score, a number which is thought to be unchangeable. This has been replaced with the idea that people have a variety of ways in which they learn, and these intelligences can grow as we use them.
Gardner’s eight ways of knowing include:
Body/Kinesthetic Intelligence: athletic and aesthetic prowess, as demonstrated by athletes or physical artists (the gymnast, dancer, skater) who illustrate the intelligence of the body at work.
Linguistic Intelligence: demonstrated by either the very verbal, and/or those for whom reading and writing come easily, such as writers, editors, and journalists.
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: demonstrated by those who show facility in working with numbers, a strong capacity for deductive reasoning, abstract thinking, and the ability to see patterns. These traits are often seen in scientists, computer programmers, and engineers.
Spatial Intelligence: demonstrated by artists, architects, designers, and others with the ability to have an idea, visualize it as a mental image, and then construct it in a spatial form.
Musical Intelligence: exhibited by those who are drawn to music and demonstrate the thought processes that underlie the ability to perform or compose.
Interpersonal Intelligence: interpersonal gifts, a sense of what will work and with whom, demonstrated by those with leadership qualities and an intuitive understanding of others.
Intrapersonal Intelligence: demonstrated by those with strong powers of reflection, observers who digest what’s going on in their environments whilst processing events – qualities that often result in careers in psychology, philosophy, and writing.
Naturalistic Intelligence: exhibited by those who learn through their environment.
Students are often arranged in heterogeneous groups – groups of students with mixed strengths, abilities, and weaknesses. This type of grouping practice is currently considered the best way to service students at the middle level. “Research suggests that tracking (grouping students by ability) generally fails to increase learning and has the unfortunate consequence of widening the achievement gaps between students judged to be more able or less able.”
The above is also true in the workplace and as such, presentations should cater, whenever possible, to as many intelligences as possible.
There are many divided opinions on how long a presentation should be. Popular opinion is anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes, with the majority of presentations falling into the 30-60 minute category. One thing is certain, unless the presentation is highly absorbing, the attention span of the audience will quickly drop, making your presentation less effective. In the illustration below, we can see that after 10 minutes, our attention span begins to diminish, only to pick up at the end when we conclude signifying the end of the presentation.
Therefore, the argument of creating a presentation as a series of mini presentations with short, sharp bursts of information (we can only comprehend 7 +/- 2 facts of information at any one time) is compelling, each mini-chapter with its own start, middle and finish to achieve a high level of concentration. Taking an approach of three to four chapters in a presentation, each chapter allowing for a high attention span of six to eight minutes, the argument that the optimum time for a presentation is actually in the range of 18 and 24 minutes.
Good speakers acknowledge that information is best given in short sharp bursts, but many speakers who are so engrossed in their subject, run on considerably, ignoring the physiological and emotional needs of the audience. The same can be said of starting late, there is an expectation to start at the stated time and any delay causes audience anxiety even before the presentation has begun. As highlighted in memory thresholds earlier, the need to keep an audience focused is imperative for maximum attention and learning.
Care of the Audience
Care of the audience starts at the time they leave their office to attend your presentation. Zipf’s law of least effort states, make it as simple for the audience as possible. This applies not just during the presentation, but throughout the whole exposure of the audience. Signage, maps, and timetable are all key contributors to ensure that the audience is taken care of, allowing them to focus entirely on what is being said.
Presentations often get written not for the benefit of the audience, but for the benefit of the presenter. The opportunity to share information and instil wisdom is overtaken by the need to look good, and not make a spectacle in front of peers or colleagues. This manifests itself through a belief that the audience must be in awe through the overuse of technology, facts and figures, or quotes, irrelevant to the objective of the presentation. In addition, humour is often used to cover up a lack of self esteem and ability, largely resulting in failure, unless the audience is over eager to be entertained, for example, at weddings.
Lack of continuity
It has been said that the best person to follow is an economist, well known for their lacklustre performances. On a more serious note, an audience may be subjected to a number of speakers across a variety of topics in the same day. If appropriate, the presenter should remind and reinforce throughout their presentation of the link between what is now being said and that which has previously been said, making the whole seminar appear as a continuous block of knowledge. Moving ahead on this topic, there is nothing more off putting that watching a pitch from a company that uses different fonts, colours, or even repeats information unnecessarily. Multi- episodal pitches should be treated as a single entity, and a single person should be held responsible for ensuring continuity and understanding.
I’ll always remember, a company I once worked with had alliances with a number of companies, with their product set sold under the guise of the parent company. Whilst individually the companies had good presentations, together they felt like a medley of unrelated offerings that caused the customer to question the relationships and how they would be covered legally. Due to this approach, the power of the solution was lost, with the customer focussing on all the things that could go wrong through poor contractual relations.
These days it is rare for equipment to fail, yet, few prepare for the event. Physical factors consist of all those risky factors that can in effect be mitigated, such as, running late, pc failure, fire drills etc.
As with all projects, the task of planning is far more important than the plan itself, allowing the presenter to stay calm and in control whatever the crisis.
There should be no surprises in the majority of presentations, yet, often senior managers sit in utter disbelief that their employee is making a mockery of the organisation in front of an important client. The presentation is a vital component of any project, and as such should be treated with the same importance as finance, development, testing, or any one of the components that make up a project. It should appear on the project plan as early as possible to enable the speakers to gain stakeholder approval, and to determine the likely audience response to ensure that any critical activities, for example, prototypes are developed in time.
Generally speaking, identified friendly stakeholders from both organisations should at least be given an overview of the presentation in advance, or if presenting to a large diverse audience, information as to what has worked well in the past, or what they liked about a rival company’s presentation should be incorporated.
Motivational theory is routinely applied to getting the most out of our employees, yet, is never applied to presentations where the same rules should apply. Firstly, lets consider McGregor theory X and Y, do we consider that the audience is there under duress or that they are there for innate cognitive drivers like curiosity, sense making, order and meaning, competency or self understanding? Next taking an audience centric view of the world, in order to motivate according to Maslow, we must satisfy the hierarchy of needs:
- Biological needs
- The need to know and understand
- Freedom of enquiry and expression
- Self actualisation
While satisfying all needs is somewhat of an onerous task, accommodating biological and safety needs are paramount for without them we die. Similarly, if we don’t satisfy our need for affiliation and esteem, we feel inferior and helpless. The key point is that needs are not motivators until the lower ones in the hierarchy are satisfied, for example, you don’t worry about the sharks (safety) if you’re drowning (biological). Alderfer contrasted Maslows progression hypothesis that motivational drivers progress upwards as needs are satisfied. His ERG theory (existence, relatedness and growth) argues that all three can be present at any one time and hence, it’s important to cater for all three.
In my opinion, on the whole, presentations fail to take an audience centric view of the world. Whilst the presentation may be very good, if the audience is hot, thirsty or needing to use the bathroom, the higher order needs will be overcome with the desire to fulfil the lower level needs.
Stagnation of routine
To me, passion comes from belief, yet how can you remain passionate when presenting becomes routine? Due to fear of failure, the majority of business presentations follow a vanilla format that is never questioned, just passed down from one generation to the next without question. Why do presentations start with a self introduction, the length of time a presentation will last, and a thank you to the audience for turning up? In particular, the hardest task of all is to open up those minds that are used to a safe routine, that whilst they accept the need to change, are afraid that the change will be too radical and will result in failure.
Overuse of technology
For the most part, the majority of people equate presentations with the use of PowerPoint, and for the purpose of discussion, I include all electronic presentation software packages here, even though PowerPoint makes up 95% of the marketplace. It seems to me, whilst PowerPoint has been instrumental in advancing the ability to convey information clearly and concisely, it has also been the catalyst for poor performance. The key issue with PowerPoint is how it is used. Many people fail to appreciate that PowerPoint is a background tool and that the presenter remains the most important presentation tool of all. In my opinion, here are a few of the common mistakes that people make:
- Too much detail on the slides
- Lack of continuity of style, fonts
- Too many slides
- Personalisation of backgrounds, fonts that are inappropriate
- Overuse of technology, fading, animation, video clips .
- Over-reliance on the technology and not the content
PowerPoint is only a component of a presentation, and should be viewed as an aid to reinforce, not replace the presenter. Too many people spend 90% of their effort on the technology and only 10% on what they are going to say, which is a sure recipe for disaster.
The fear of speaking in public is often regarded as the number one of all fears, with over 41% of people having anxiety presenting in front of a group. The fear of presenting can be ascribed as:
• Laliophobia - Fear of speaking
• Demophobia - Fear of crowds
• Katagelophobia - Fear of ridicule
To quote Mark Twain, "There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars". Anxiety is a natural phenomenon, which in small doses, keeps us on our toes and fights off complacency. In contrast, too much anxiety has the reverse effect, causing people to ramble, mumble, and have poor posture and body language, all causing the audience to become distracted and bored. To summarise, fear of failure is the greatest anxiety of them all. Anxiety management can be broken down into 5 key sections:
- Belief that you cannot present
- Inability to plan and organise a presentation
- Inability to physically and mentally present
- Inability to present knowledgably
- Inability to manage the audience
Preparation is one of the key factors in reducing anxiety, reducing fear by as much as 75%. Physical exercises account for 15% of the presentation and the remaining 10% accounts for your mental state. Through proactive visualization, and the use of mentors, the remaining 10% can be alleviated.
Presentations, like any skill, take time to acquire and perfect. We all have to start somewhere and the speed of improvement depends on the individual, training, enthusiasm and dedication of the person. An important part of any presentation is a self assessment of your skills, plus an ability to accept criticism when asked. Many presenters continue to repeat the same mistakes and errors throughout their lifetime, simply through ignorance or laziness.
It is my belief that the first two minutes of a presentation are critical. When presenting to an unknown audience, the need to dress appropriately is commonly known, but rarely practiced properly. Many presenters follow the convention of suit and tie, but fail to acknowledge taste, or style. One lecturer of mine constantly wore ties that were down to his knees, failing to understand the basic rules of dress code. Another common failing is that of continuity of appearance when presenting as a group. As with the slides, the presenter form part of the aesthetic appeal of the presentation and should thus be reflected in how they appear.
Presentation styles differ considerably amongst nations. It is imperative for those presenting outside of their normal realm to take into account cultural nuances and the use of colour and style to ensure the audience is motivated and not offended. Referring back to motivation, European and Anglo American cultures place a high value on productivity compared to Scandinavian cultures, who place a higher value on their quality of life and social needs. Chinese culture, however, focuses on the needs of the community and not on individualism, as the following table illustrates.
Hierarchy of Needs in China
Safety and security
Sense of belongingness and love
Love and affiliation
Esteem, family and tradition
Safety and security
We have all suffered a dull monotonic presentation at some time in our careers, which undoubtedly caused the audience to become bored, agitated and lose interest. Some of the most memorable presentations of our time have been delivered on the radio, captivating the audience through effective use of the voice, completely without the use of visuals. As with a piece of music, variation during presentations is required to maximise effect. Vocal delivery can be broken down into
- Pace – short and long sentences combined with high and low ebbs to bring the sounds to life
- Speed – measured delivery, slow pace to start or complicated passages, quick pace for excitement or easy to follow passages
- Volume – lowering your voice for emphasis, higher to command attention. Volume is also be used to project to the rear of the room, which will vary between locations and audiences
- Pause – one of the most effective ways of emphasising your point
In the good old days of flipcharts, people were resigned to use three, maybe four colours. People mostly wrote in black and highlighted in green or red. Then, along came PowerPoint. Generally speaking, some people fail to understand that whilst the human eye can differentiate over 3million nuances of colour, we don’t need to use every one in a slide show. The use of colour is as common to us as the ability to breathe, we use colour everyday to make a point, in fact, over 700 million highlighters are sold every year to focus people’s attention.
According to research, colour communicates more effectively than black and white.
- Colour visuals increase willingness to read by up to 80 percent
- Using colour can increase motivation and participation by up to 80 percent
- Colour enhances learning and improves retention by more than 75 percent
- Colour accounts for 60 percent of the acceptance or rejection of an object and is a critical factor in the success of any visual experience
- Using colour in advertising outsells black and white by up to 88 percent.
Moreover, colours are as important as the text on slides, if not more so as we are largely visual creatures. Without a background in art, the rule of simple is better should be applied, as the colours you choose are not as important as the relationships they create. Some colours work together, others fight against each other. Establishing sound relationships is key. Colours are never viewed in isolation, but always judged in their environment. They are influenced by their neighboring colours. For example, a bright orange tie works well in a toy shop, but sticks out as brash and tasteless in a boardroom. The rule of simplicity is to follow nature’s lead. Use colours that mimic natural scenes. “Visualize the crisp aqua blues of the sea and deep green fir trees against a cornflower blue sky, or imagine a field in early winter, the dull yellows and golds, the muted greens and the flat, somber sky. These natural colours work in harmony together, evoke a mood and create a sense of balance and order”.
Where to start? The first thing you need to decide is the feel you want for your presentation. Colour definition starts at the planning stage with thermal qualities, defining how you want the audience to feel, from hot and passionate (reds, purples, orange) to cold and cool (blues and greens).
All things considered, the best rule to follow when selecting colour is, to keep it simple, less is more. It’s the relationships that make the colours better, not the quantity. Keep the quantity down to one or two and used tints and shades to broaden your palette, this will make the slides clear, elegant and to the point. When deciding on colours to use, think holistically about all the colours in the presentation, from the room, your suit, and to the handouts you are using - all should be coordinated for maximum effect.
Effective visual aids
It is common knowledge that the use of visuals dramatically aids learning and understanding, dramatically by as much as 400%. Couple the ability to convey information with our ability to process visuals 60,000 quicker than text, and there is a compelling argument that all presentations should incorporate the use of visual material. To maintain, the use of visuals has, however, often been misused or overused to compensate for a poor performance, replacing, as opposed to, supporting the presenter.
Research suggests that visuals should be limited to 40 words, using large Sans Serif fonts, such as, Helvetica or Futura, rather than Serif fonts, like, Times New Roman. The use of pictures, clipart and charts, or graphs, are to be encouraged, but simplicity is a must, as the average time a slide will be on a screen is 40-90 seconds. If the audience hasn’t grasped the image by that time, the message will be lost altogether.
It seems to me that this is the single biggest failure for presentations. The majority of presentations have failed before the first word is spoken, simply through lack of planning and preparation. Most training courses focus on the need to stand up tall and project confidently, which I argue is a tiny component of a successful presentation. To me, in turn, great presentations are created through a detailed understanding of what is to be presented, which instils passion, pride and ultimately confidence in the presenter.
People will believe you if they like you, so how to we create an environment of integrity, trust and honesty? This is the domain of emotional intelligence or EQ, reinvented from the study of empathy during the 60’s. EQ has always been a fundamental component of successful presentations, albeit in varying quantities throughout the decades.
Accordingly, EQ plays an important role not just in the ability to get your message across, but also in ensuring anxiety levels are minimised. To illustrate, I particular like Steve Hein’s simplified definition:
‘Knowing how to separate healthy from unhealthy feelings and how to turn negative feelings into positive ones'.
The experts say, individuals with the highest EQs excel at four interrelated
- the ability to persist and stay motivated in the face of frustration
- the ability to control impulses
- the ability to control their emotions
- the ability to empathize with others
Further, I would argue that all four are key presentation skills, and what we are trying to impart is trust. Trust is, of course, a variable commodity depending on what is being asked of the individual, for example, to lend someone £5 is considered a lower level of risk than lending £50,000.
In essence, the skill of creating a level of trust varies considerably between audiences, and the need to understand the audience is critical.
Notes to editors:
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