Home > Public Speaking, Social Psychology > The Biggest Pitfall in Work Presentations, and How To Avoid It

The Biggest Pitfall in Work Presentations, and How To Avoid It

It’s been a little while since I last posted an entry. I’m coming to the end of a double-loaded term in MBA school, and that’s where most of my time has been going recently. Also, I think I’ve been putting too much effort into writing seminal entries: 1,200- to 1,500-word articles that are establishing broad principles. So I’m going to shorten up the posts for a little while, and kick out some more practical, useful content.

Here’s one very practical piece of information, based on a discussion from one of my classes on making presentations in the workplace:

 

Presentations: Why Should They Care?

 

The discussion started with the obligatory question. “Why do we make presentations?” It then posed a few potential answers:

  • To persuade
  • To generate buy-in
  • To inform
  • To announce
  • To motivate
  • Etc.

Most of those words would make for pretty good presentations. They imply action and intent. I want to focus on the one that doesn’t: “to inform.”

In freshman scene study class at Wesleyan, most of the beginning acting work came out wretchedly. That was because we neophyte actors had very little understanding of what was actually going on between the people in the scene. Dr. Ficca would ask an actor, “What are you doing up there?”, and the actor would respond, “Well, I’m telling this person so-and-so. I’m informing them. I’m giving exposition.” Then, Dr. Ficca would (lovingly) tell the actor that no one on stage ever, ever simply informs, and that the actor was doing a depressingly bad job with the scene because he wasn’t actually doing anything.

 

Professors John Ficca and Jared Brown, Illinois Wesleyan University

Professor Emeritus John Ficca (right) with Dr. Jared Brown, Illinois Wesleyan University

 

We learned fast that if we chose “to inform” as our action, it meant we had to go back and re-think what we were doing.

“To inform” is the weakest possible choice a stage actor can make. It doesn’t even really count as a choice; it’s tantamount to spewing lines at another actor without regard for objective or reaction.

Back to professional presentations. I want to throw this thought out on the stoop, and see if the cat licks it up: if the purpose of your presentation is “to inform,” you need to go back and re-think what you’re doing. “To inform” is never an appropriate objective choice for any workplace presentation.

Every presentation you will ever give will elicit some kind of reaction. That’s what makes them important. You frame your goal in terms of the reaction you want. If your goal is “to inform,” you will give the most lousy talks because you will just be conveying information with little-to-no regard for your audience.

What do you want them to do with this information? What do you want them to believe? How important should it be to to them? Should they walk away impressed? Excited? Should they be convinced of a course of action? Should they value something more than they did?

I fell into this pitfall the other day, and I was reminded of this fundamental truth by a friend of mine in front of whom I was practicing. I had to make an investor presentation, and I was outlining my product and where it stands in the marketplace. I constructed it as a briefing.

When I came to the end, the first thing my friend said was, “Who is this for? It’s not clear.” I told her it was for an investor and she pressed further: Why do you spend so much time outlining the sales challenges, and negatively-sounding information? Aren’t you running counter to your own purpose? Don’t you want to sell him a nice, shiny product?

I’ve been doing this a while, and I fell into an obvious pitfall with a presentation of great importance. It’s so easy to start shoveling information into PowerPoint decks that we sometimes miss the whole point of the exercise. We all need to constantly look out for this gaping trap.

Before you get up in front of anyone to talk, know what it is exactly you want to come away with. Never go up there strictly to inform. Otherwise, it’s just talk.

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