Presentation mistakes and recoveries

by Peter Watts

The testimony of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor teaches both how to avoid a self-inflicted presentation pitfall, and also how to escape it.

 

During a week of intense congressional cross-examination, Sotomayor demonstrated herself a model of calm, intelligence, and perceptiveness. Allies who sought to aid her were nurtured, while those who sought to provoke her were defused. 

 

One particular area of the hearings came to dominate media coverage, and at one stage did become a problem for the unflappable nominee, and that was the much covered “Wise Latina” quote.

 

The “Wise Latina” phrase that caused consternation amongst Sotomayor’s adversaries, had its origins in a speech the nominee had made some years earlier to a group of students. When viewed in the context of the audience addressed, it made perfect sense; a clever, humorous phrase that both flattered and encouraged. When taken out of context however, and viewed in isolation, it implied that one group, defined along racial lines, was inherently capable of better judgement than another.

 

The phrase was too narrowly defined, taking a point and stretching it into the realm of hyperbole. It would inevitably return to publicly haunt its creator.

 

When adding rhetorical flourishes to presentations, especially ones that flatter one  group through comparison to another, always ask yourself the question “How would it sound if this was later quoted in isolation, away from the group for which it was intended?”

 

If the quote suddenly sounds clumsy, or even worse, prejudiced, be sure to leave it out.

 

Having fallen into her own rhetorical pit, Sotomayor then elegantly demonstrated how to escape it; she apologized.

 

Many of us would have attempted to explain the phrase and then defend it. We would not have wanted to so publicly admit we were wrong. Sotomayor did the exact opposite. Having explained the origin of the “Wise Latina” comment and placed it into context, she  made a modest statement that she had got it wrong. The phrase had been clumsy, and she regretted using it.

 

Having made such a concession, Sotomayor’s adversaries in the hearings now had nowhere to go. To have kept attacking post-apology would have made them appear petty. Even dedicated detractors are disarmed by a well placed acknowledgement of “I was wrong”.

 

Sotomayor, now secure in her path to the Supreme Court, not only proved to us all the wisdom of the phrase “When in a hole, quit digging”, but also demonstrated that sometimes apology can be more deadly to an opponent than defense.

Presentation structure: Handling the questions at the end

by Peter Watts

The most valuable thing that you can know when asked a question is frequently not so much the answer, but why the person is asking the question in the first place:

 

Interest

Your presentation has provided just enough information to hook the audience’s attention and now they want to know more!

 

Gratitude

The audience enjoyed your presentation, and liked the way you put forward your ideas. They are now showing polite appreciation by putting a couple of final questions to you.

 

Security

The audience has been tempted by your message, and is looking for further reassurance before they move to the next stage with you.

 

Misunderstanding

Something you said in your presentation didn’t quite make sense or has been misunderstood. The audience is therefore giving you the opportunity to clarify.

 

Vested interest

Someone in the audience has a vested interest in discrediting your message. Their hostile questioning is their attempt to do so, while at the same time betraying their hostility both to you and to their colleagues.

 

When taking questions at the end of a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind two things:

 

There are several reasons why someone might be asking you a question. It’s important to understand that reason and then handle the question accordingly.

 

There is no rule that says you are the oracle-of-all-wisdom. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, “That is a great question and I’ll need to check with a colleague to make sure I bring you the correct answer.”

 

Here is the basic process for handling questions:

 

Maintain open body language

It is easy for us to slip into a defensive body posture when being questioned. This sets the questioner up for confrontation even when the question itself is completely innocent. Make sure you do not fold your arms or place your hands on your hips while taking a question.

 

Listen carefully

While someone is putting a question to you, concentrate on listening to their every word. Remember that there may be any one of several motivations behind the question and unless you listen carefully, it will be difficult to identify exactly what information your interrogator is seeking.

 

Check your understanding

Repeat the question back, gently re-phrasing it a little, and ask the questioner to confirm that you have correctly understood them. If you yourself did not understand any part of the question then ask them to tell you a little more before you answer. You would be surprised at how often this exercise prevents some major misunderstandings.

 

Answer honestly

If you can answer the question, then go right ahead! If however you are unsure, then be upfront about this and say that you will need to check with a colleague.

Not only does this boost the audience’s perception of your integrity as a speaker, it also creates a valuable follow-up opportunity for after your presentation!


Presentation structure: Concluding your presentation

by Peter Watts

Congratulations! You’ve navigated the majority of your presentation. You’ve delivered a clear introduction, and guided your audience through the evidence that backs up your arguments. Now it’s time to wrap-up the show with your conclusion.

The conclusion of your presentation is the section that the audience will remember the most clearly, for the simple reason that it will have been the last thing they heard. It’s also most probably the last thing you will have planned and rehearsed, and for that reason conclusions can often be surprisingly weak. Presenters can often be observed to deliver strong presentations that suddenly come to an abrupt halt! This type of conclusion is known as an “Emergency Stop”, when the presenter, realizing that they have said all they intended to say, flounders for a moment before uttering a simple “Thank you for your time”, and awkwardly leaves the stage.

As an observer it can be amusing to watch the audience at such moments. Many literally jump in their seats, exactly as if they had indeed, been passengers in a plane that has just made a bone shaking landing after an otherwise smooth flight!

Think of the stages involved in an aircraft coming in to land. First of all the passengers are instructed to put on their seat belts and prepare for landing. The crew walks the aisles checking everyone is strapped in and all lose items secured before the captain guides the plane down to a, hopefully, smooth connection with the ground. Finally, as the passengers depart, the last thing they hear  is “Thank you for choosing this airline, and we hope to see you again soon.”

If you keep this model in mind, then you will have all the stages necessary for your conclusion:

Prepare for landing

As you start your conclusion, state firmly that this is what you are doing. The conclusion is a vital part of the presentation, so make sure everyone is primed, listening, and has their seat in the upright position.

Land the plane

You want to make sure that the wheels on which your argument rest will connect firmly with the ground. To ensure those wheels are down and locked into position, re-state the key points in your argument, summing them up in the sequence that they were delivered, and linking them back to your key message.

Thank the passengers

It’s essential to thank the audience for their time, and to tell them what you hope will happen next. What is your objective for this presentation? What realistic action do you want the audience to take next? Is it to book a follow-up meeting, or visit a web-site, or to start a business review process? Whatever your goal, state it as a call-to-action as your final words.

Before the audience does depart however, it is very possible that they may have questions for you. The subject of how to handle those questions will comprise our final installment on presentation structure, next week.

Presentation structure: Creating a compelling argument

by Peter Watts

Between the introduction and the conclusion of any presentation, lies the main body of it’s content; the argument. This crucial section comprises the facts and persuasive reasoning that must support your case and convince the audience. 

If two words alone could describe your goal when constructing and then delivering the argument, those two words would be “Prove It!”

During your introduction, you offered a proposition to the audience, suggesting that due to situation A, you believe they should implement solution B. The argument will reveal to the audience the mechanics of your reasoning, and two elements must be considered: structure and relevance.

Structure

The argument is unlikely to comprise just a single fact. You will have multiple points that you want to explain, and each of these points should be regarded as a mini presentation in it’s own right, with it’s own tiny agenda, body, and summary. The technical term for each of these mini presentations is a “division”, referring to the dividing up of your content. As you move from one division to the next, tell your audience that this is what you are doing, and why the content of the division supports your original thesis:

“So, our XYZ product, by providing increased reliability, will help you to increase customer satisfaction. Let’s move on now to consider our next point which is……”

This division of content, accompanied by clearly stated transitions, makes it easier for the audience to concentrate and follow your logic. If, for example, you have three points to make, and 15 minutes in which to make them, the audience then find themselves having to concentrate in short five minute blocks rather than for a prolonged 15 minute discussion.

A further advantage of this approach is that in the event that members of the audience lose track, due to the human habit of allowing their minds to wander, then they won’t have long to wait before the next section comes along when they can re-join the flow of the presentation.

Relevance

Audiences need to clearly recognize why your presentation is uniquely relevant to their interests. “What does this have to do with me?”. To answer this question facts must be customized to the daily realities of the people in front of you.

Consider what is important to the audience. If you are presenting to a board of hospital trustees for example, then link your facts to the welfare of patients, to improved and swifter diagnosis, or to the more effective use of research funds. If you were presenting to the management team of your own company, make sure you have links to company goals, or to challenges currently faced.

Customizing a presentation in this way does not need to be a lengthy exercise. Just one or two relevant illustrations per fact will be sufficient.

Stepping Stones

By regarding the body of the presentation, the argument, as being a series of relevant and interlinked mini presentations, even the most complicated subjects become more manageable for both you and the audience.

Presentation structure: Introductions that win you control

by Peter Watts

“Who is this person, what do they want from me, and how long have I got to sit here?”

Welcome to the internal dialogue of someone about to hear a presentation. The introduction’s goal is to answer those questions, creating an audience ready and willing to listen.

Who is this person?

Who you are and who you represent are foremost with any new audience. Even with groups already familiar to you, if there is just one new face at the table, include a personal introduction.

Briefly include what qualifies you to be speaking. Does your current sphere of responsibility or qualifications make you a specifically credible source on this subject? If so, include it within your introduction. State it succinctly, avoiding any appearance of self-importance.

What do they want from me?

Align your presentation to the objectives of the audience. Intrigue them with how your product / service / idea will help them. This audience is about to give you the investment of their time. State what their return will be on that investment.

Share up-front the objective of the presentation so the audience understand the destination you are heading for.

How long have I got to sit here?

Map the structure of your presentation onto a slide or flip-chart that shows what will be covered and when. Similar to horses that becomes jittery when they sense a rider is not secure with the reigns, audiences need to know you have a clear plan of action. 

Within your agenda include how long the presentation is to last, and how you would like to handle questions: as they arise or during a Q&A session at the end.

Earning control

For the duration of your time at the front of a room, you must be in control, and that control can only be exercised with the willing compliance of the audience. Keystone behaviors for the introduction are therefore humility, warmth, and confidence. Think about the qualities you like presenters to project. Reflect those qualities, answer the audience’s early unspoken questions, and you will have successfully launched your presentation with the strongest of possible starts.



Presentation structure

by Peter Watts

Effective presentations have an architecture that makes them into identifiable structures, and without which they are little more than jumbles of random facts and anecdotes.

When presenting, our message must be mounted into an organizing framework that places its content squarely before the audience. Our tool for making that happen is structure.

At it’s simplest, structure is defined as being “The Three Tell ‘Ems”:

  • Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em
  • Tell ‘em
  • Tell ‘em what you told ‘em

This is achieved by:

An introduction that provides a clear skeleton of the presentation:

  • what you are going to say
  • the sequence in which you are going to say it
  • why you are going to say it
  • how long it’s going to take you

A middle section that puts flesh on that skeleton while delivering the information you promised to deliver and in the sequence in which you promised to deliver it.

A conclusion re-emphasizing the key points that have shaped your argument.

Each of these three phases of structure has it’s own subtleties, not just in terms of the information to be included, but also the best way in which to express that information. Over the next three weeks, we’ll examine each of these three phases in turn, establishing how to create presentation structures that clearly communicate what you want to say.

Next Week: Introductions

Presentation structure: Your main message

sign

 

by Peter Watts

The most valuable asset a presenter can have is knowing exactly what their presentation is about.

Thinking about a forthcoming presentation, can you answer, in one short sentence, the following question:

What is the one thing you want everyone to be saying as they leave the room?

  • In a recruitment interview it might be “This person is the best choice for the job
  • In a sales situation it might be “That product is the most reliable
  • Bidding for a budget, it could be “This project delivers return on investment

Encapsulating your presentation down to one succinct message can be surprisingly difficult. The different pieces of information which you want to include can compete with each other for air-time in a noisy log-jam of presentation possibilities! Remember that if you find it difficult to identify that one main theme within your presentation, then your audience will find it impossible!

Simplicity is a priority. The simpler, stronger, and shorter your message, the better. Your goal is to deny the audience the opportunity to do anything other than get your meaning, loudly and clearly.

Imagine your message as the central pole of a huge canvas umbrella, the type you might sit under for an al-fresco meal on a hot day.  You want people to feel comfortable and secure under the umbrella of your presentation, and that pole, your message, is it’s central support.

See the message clearly written down the side of the pole. Every point you make in the presentation must stem directly from it. Just as the individual struts of the umbrella all connect to the pole and support the canvas, anything that isn’t firmly attached, is going to flap around, distracting the audience.

If you need convoluted connections to get points to stay in place, then they don’t belong in the presentation. Leave them out! Keep it simple! Don’t put in extraneous details that will only cause people to become confused.

In a later blog, we’ll discuss how to handle objections in presentations. For now it’s worth noting that many objections are caused by these lose flapping features that make the customer challenge “What’s with that bit, I don’t see where it fits”. Eliminating the extraneous, leads to less objections.

Having a clear and overt main message in your presentation makes things easier for both you and your audience.

Presentation body language: Hands and open posture

by Peter Watts

There are three things your hands should avoid touching during a presentation; your chest, your hips, and each other!

When we feel insecure, we use defensive body postures. Our hands might clutch before us, interlocked fingers flexing in angst, or alternately they might find a convenient object and start to fidget compulsively with it. All such gestures are unconscious and it’s only when we see ourselves on video that we discover what distracting gestures our hands get up to while we are speaking!

The optimal posture for presenters is to keep the upper body “open”; free from defensive body postures. This leaves the question of what to do with those flapping, fidgeting hands, and is why many presenters use props to anchor their hands, the two most popular being pens and notes:

Pens

Hold a pen with it’s right end in your right hand, and it’s left end in your left. Your hands are now occupied, while being physically prevented from meeting by the pen between them. If you need to gesture to something on the slide, the pen becomes a convenient pointer.

Make sure the pen you use isn’t the type with a clicker to extend and retract the nib, or you might subconsciously click your way through the presentation instead!

Notes

As with the pen, notes can also be an anchor. Hold them by their two bottom corners and, once again, you are securely in the open body position. If you want to gesture or point then you can do so, before returning your hand to it’s note-holding position.

Carry a minimum of ten sheets even if your notes only cover the top page. Ten pages have a rigidity that a single page does not. If you have the slightest hand-tremble, a single page will amplify it, whereas ten pages will absorb and mask it.

Over time you will become used to working in the open posture and can free your hands  to use as tools for adding emphasis and style. Initially though, it can feel more comfortable, as many presenters do, to use well chosen props to keep that posture open.

Presentation body language; Movement

by Peter Watts

The Chinese have a marvelous piece of wisdom for presenters:

“When standing, stand

When sitting, sit

Do not wobble”

This proverb reminds us that when presenting, body movements appear amplified; especially movements that take place in the feet, legs or hips because the resulting posture shift ripples upward to tremble the entire body.

A presentation is basically a conversation, and in a conversation we create emphasis with hand gestures, head movements, and occasionally leaning in towards the person we are speaking to. Similar movement in a presentation is a good thing. Notice though, that these conversational movements all come from the upper half of the body. Movement in the lower half of the body such as shuffling feet and shifting the weight from hip-to-hip tend to indicate restlessness and boredom. The phrase “rooted in conversation” may originate in the way that when we are fully focussed on something, our feet and legs remain still.

For basic standing posture during a presentation, be face-on to the audience, with your legs still, and your feet slightly apart for stability. If your legs tremble a little in this position, soften your stance and allow yourself the smallest of bends at the knee. This releases tension and allows you to comfortably maintain a steady posture for surprisingly long periods.

If you have the space available to you, introduce some deliberate movement across the presentation space so that you use both sides of the stage. Making the audience change their visual focus to a physically different spot can re-engage attention and underline transitions in your subject, as well as giving yourself the chance to change posture.

  • When you are ready to move, make it a deliberate progress from one standing position to another.
  • When you get where you’re going, stop, and re-anchor your feet and legs. Avoid movement becoming peripatetic.
  • Ensure you come to a resting position that is still face-on to the audience.

Making good use of the physical space around you during a presentation shows confidence and control, so long as you don’t overdo it.

With whole-body movement, less is more.

Presentation body language: Eye contact

by Peter Watts

Staring at the ceiling, the back wall, or our notes while presenting can sometimes feel more comfortable than looking at the audience. By concentrating on something other than the people in front of us, we effectively find a handy blindfold. Like poor unfortunates before a firing squad, we spare ourselves the view of the guns!

This is why it can be so hard to maintain eye contact while presenting. We avoid looking at our audience because we are afraid of what we might see; the blank expressions staring back at us. We are afraid we are going to see bored people, and to believe it is we who have bored them. Rather than risk such negative feedback, it’s easier not to look!

People listen in different ways depending on their learning style. For many, the more they focus on your message, the more their facial expression can become the blank mask misinterpreted as boredom. Frequently, the blanker someone may look during a presentation, the more focussed they are on what you’re saying!

The rewards of maintaining eye contact with an audience are great:

  • Stronger connection to those in the room
  • Greater concentration from those listening to you
  • Visual feedback on how well the audience is reacting to your message
  • A tremendous statement of your own confidence and control

The structure of your presentation, and how you use notes can help you in maintaining eye contact. Keep your presentation and any slides you are using as simple as possible. The more complicated your slides, the more you are forced to look at the screen behind you, and turning your back on the audience while speaking is one of the cardinal sins of presenting.

For presentation notes, use bullet points to help you remember the flow of your presentation. Avoid long-hand scripts; they compel you to look at the script and not at the audience. Effective bullet-point notes allow you to pause, glance at the notes, and then bring your eyes back to the audience before continuing.

Audience eye contact becomes easier as you overcome your initial discomfort. Discover how it increases your power as a presenter. You will soon find that you would no more give a presentation without eye-contact than you would drive a car wearing a blindfold.

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