Posted by: kurtsh | June 17, 2006

COMMENTARY: “The Most Important Rule of Delivering Presentations”

I’ve recently noticed a fair number of my customers – many IT folks – that are finding themselves DELIVERING Powerpoint presentations and having to present ideas and concepts to management and peers.  I’d like to provide one piece of advice with a little bit of supporting evidence.
There’s a single fundamental truth to presenting that everyone should know.  The first question I ask any new Systems Engineer working for Microsoft is:
"Which of the following is the most important element of presentation sales?" 
a) having interesting & truly compelling presentation content
b) providing a customer-focused problem, a solution, and a executable next step
c) delivering technically accurate and business-relevant information
d) putting forth understandable & clearly comprehendable ideas
The answer is D.  Nothing else matters if people can’t understand you.  Most people realize that but some retort that even though your audience may understand your ideas, it might not be compelling enough to maintain their attention.  I would argue that that’s more hypothetical than it is reality.
The book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell states that researchers have discovered that children when tested, do not focus on attention-grabbing flash or captivating demonstrations or even amazing information or feats.  They will only focus consistent attention on things that they understand – things that their minds can consume.  It goes even farther than that:  Children might even tune out during segments of an event that they find boring, but as long as it’s understandable, they will return their attention when necessary AUTOMATICALLY to the extent that their brains will allow them.
The point is that children only have a certain amount of attention or focus that they can deliver and as long as the information in front of them is understandable, they will inherently provide the most optimal amount of attention possible to the event at hand.  No amount of flash & distraction will boost or change this.  The human brain has an automatic method of optimally delivering the maximum amount of attention possible.
I point this out because I’ve found throughout my career that my audiences are precisely like, well, these children.  As long as the information being presented to them is understandable, I will get the maximum amount of attention possible from them, even if it’s information they already know.  A person’s maximum level of attention is obviously something that’s dependent on how the attendee’s brain is wired, how much sleep they had the night before, if they have other more pressing things on their minds, whether they’ve had their morning coffee and donut, etc.  However, most of this is out of my control.
The bottom line is that above all things, a presentation must be comprehensible by the most non-technical layperson.  Never be afraid to repeat a point, never hesitate to define a term or an acronym, and most importantly, never commit the suicide of "deferring questions until the end of the presentation".  You should have enough time to accommodate questions and if you don’t, you should either extend the time allocated or if that’s not possible, start working on making your message more concise… and trimming down your Powerpoint.


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