It’s not what you DO, it’s what you DON’T do – Series: Part 1

When you attend a presentation or demo, what kinds of things do you notice? Do you ever look at the open applications on a person’s computer screen? Do you listen to the background noises and try to figure out if they’re in an office, at home, or maybe the coffee shop? What about listening to the way people talk to each other, not just the words they speak, but the intent behind those words? Do you notice when someone can’t operate their computer or they get lost performing simple operations?

More often than not, you notice all the things that go wrong or don’t go as planned. You’ll see the mistakes that are made; they’re usually quite obvious. In my experience, it’s really easy to see the things that didn’t go well, while it’s much more difficult to point out the things that someone didn’t have issues with. I don’t mean the information presented either, I’m talking about those subtle elements that you’ll never notice as an audience member, but that are very important in professional presentations. That’s why I’m going to focus on the subtle, but important, elements that relate to our series name, “It’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do.”

Attention to Detail

I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth mentioning again: I served in the U.S. Air Force for six years. Throughout my entire military service, I had the phrase, “attention to detail” drilled into my skull. You may even know someone in the military and have probably heard them utter that phrase a number of times. I am in no way saying that military folks are better than anyone else. However, I am saying that the military attempts to make “attention to detail” more than just mere words. When you miss a very small detail you can put lives in danger, which is why the military has such an extreme focus on this specific topic.

Bringing that topic into our daily lives, and our presentations, can make a large impact on your audience because it’s not something that most people are given the chance to see. All that sounds good in theory, but you may be asking, “My presentations aren’t trying to protect national security. The success or failure of my presentation doesn’t put anyone’s life in danger. And even though the information I’m presenting may be important, the world isn’t going to end if people don’t pay attention. So what does it matter if attention to detail isn’t my priority?” You’re right; a presentation usually doesn’t run the risk of endangering someone’s life or run the risk of causing World War 3. But, does your presentation have an effect on your business? Are you presenting something that has the potential to make a sale or showcase a new feature? These reasons for a presentation aren’t life threatening but if you can outshine the competition, it could grow your career. That’s where attention to detail comes into play. One of the smallest, but very important parts of this concept is when you are able to deliver an uninterrupted and distraction free environment.

Turn off Distractions

The audience is watching your screen; they’re focused on a concept you are talking about, and *DING*. A notification appears on your screen. Bzzzzz Bzzzzzz Bzzzzz… Your phone starts to ring. *DING* Your instant messaging system plays a loud noise, and a notification shows on your screen. Do you genuinely think the audience DIDN’T notice these things? Do you really believe those small distractions didn’t take away their attention for even a fraction of time?

I cannot count the number of demonstrations I’ve been in where the presenter has failed to clear distractions from their computer. Maybe it’s just me but I find it completely unprofessional when email messages pop-up on the screen in the middle of a demo. What makes you, the presenter, so important that you can’t close your email for the one hour it takes to give a demo to me, the customer? I’m very serious about this; if you are in one of my demos and see an email pop-up on the screen, you need to call me out on it. It is disrespectful and shows the audience that they aren’t the complete focus of the meeting.

Even worse than emails, I nearly lose my mind when some instant messenger chat pop-up comes across the screen. Again, how is it that you are so important that you can’t focus on the audience completely! I realize that comes across as a question, but it’s not. That is a pure statement of fact. You are not more important than your audience and the lack of attention to detail here shows them how much you don’t care.

Last but not least, what about that pop-up reminder about your next meeting that’s happening in 15 minutes. You’ve just told the audience that you aren’t afraid to show them you are more important than giving them your complete focus and time. Yes, you can have back-to-back appointments, that’s expected in many cases, but you NEVER show the audience that are going to up and walk out on them.

What’s the big deal?

Maybe you read the last section and thought; “This insane person is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Having a pop-up isn’t a big deal. Quit trying to push your sanctimonious beliefs about professionalism onto me.” I get it, and if that’s all the information I presented you with, I would agree that it sounds like I’m high and mighty. Give me a minute to present my case though.

Before I give you a list of justifications, let me ask you one more thing. As an audience member, would you ever be upset with me for making you the center of attention in my presentation? No! In fact, as an audience member, you’ll value and respect me for taking the time to focus on you. This subtle act of making you the focus may only happen on a subconscious level, but I guarantee that you won’t wonder if my mind is somewhere else as I’m in the middle of my presentation.

Ok, time to let you in on the secret of why this is a big deal. Beyond the unprofessional atmosphere these distractions create, you’re also at risk of showing something you didn’t mean for them to see. I cannot control, nor do I want to, what other people do. If you’re selling a product, have you ever received an email with another customer name in the subject? Do you want your audience to see that customer? You may be thinking,
Hey, it’s no big deal, that customer is on our website as an extremely valuable resource”. That may be true, but what assurance can you NOW provide to your current audience that their name won’t pop-up when you are talking to someone else? The current audience may not want their name known or displayed, and you’ve just shown them that you are incapable of protecting valuable customer data. And yes, this is a very real situation. Not all customers want their names listed on the company website or have their names publicly known. It’s not because they don’t like what you offer. Usually it’s some kind of legal or security reason, and you need to respect their privacy.

I realize that nobody here uses chat programs with their colleagues for anything beyond extremely professional communication. You’ve never shared a funny picture, a link to something not work related, or said anything that is potentially proprietary or sensitive information through this super convenient communication medium. You also don’t have a single co-worker or contact that has ever done anything like this to you or another either. I envy you. My contacts list is full of various people that don’t always know my schedule. When a chat window appears on my screen, I’m rolling the dice and hoping it doesn’t land on snake eyes. Again, you run the risk of exposing information you didn’t intend for the audience to see. When you expose this information to the audience, they’re wondering what else you may unintentionally be showing to other audiences.

Then there’s the argument about calendar pop-ups or reminders. Again, you may not think it’s a big deal. Maybe you’re right; the stuff I’ve mentioned is paranoia and I’m just crazy. Do you ever put things on your calendar that may not be work related? That’s not unprofessional or outside the boundaries of normal. What I do ask though, are any of those appointments “embarrassing” in any way? Sure, I have a doctor appointment coming up and my calendar is reminding me of that, but in the title, or in the pop-up, it can sometimes show a little more than you might have intended. Do you really want examples of appointments I’ve seen on someone’s screen or pop-up reminders? I’m almost too ashamed to mention that I’ve seen these let alone typing what the appointment was about.

When you have distractions on the screen, people notice. When your screen is clear of distractions, people won’t notice. But again, I’m not asking you to highlight the pieces you are doing correctly. I’m asking you to think about our theme here; It’s not what you DO, it’s what you DON’T do. The removal of distractions is not difficult, but it sends a very clear message to the audience that you have made an effort to put them first.

Proper Preparations

If removing distractions makes sense to you, the next logical question is how do you personally prepare for a presentation? I’m glad you asked. There are quite a few things you can do. I have a few different “levels” of preparation depending on my venue.

If I’m just delivering a virtual meeting, I have a couple of options. The first option is to use the virtual meeting’s capability to ONLY display a single program. Usually, this has the added benefit of not displaying any notifications visually (even if they do occur) which would lead to exposing potentially sensitive information. The second option is to close all programs that could pop-up during the demo. This option can be a pain if you’re forgetful and don’t open the applications back up after the demo. The third option is what I prefer though. In both Windows and MacOS, there are options to set a “Do Not Disturb” mode. This option is great because it will typically silence both the audio and visual notifications. It doesn’t ALWAYS work, but I’ve found it to be a safe bet for my virtual meetings.

If I’m delivering on-site or in-person with a projector, I’ll almost always opt for the fully off route. In fact, with this route, I’ll usually go a step further, as well. I’ll close down everything except what is absolutely necessary. MacOS has a really nice feature, which may be present on Windows with configuration or plug-ins, where plugging in a projector will automatically enable the “Do Not Disturb” mode. If you couple this capability with closing down everything, including internet browsers, that is not critical to the demonstration you will safeguard yourself against unwanted interruptions.

The latter of these methods also provides an “unintentional” benefit. If you need to switch between a slide deck and a visual demonstration of a product, the transition will be much smoother. While your mileage may vary, I find that the screen switching capability has been extremely smooth for me. This method allows me to go from a remote desktop computer to my personal desktop, slide deck, or other window, back and forth with a simple swipe. Other people like using the Alt+Tab method, and that’s not a problem either. The important part here is that you practice and use what works best for your situation. The less open applications you have on your desktop, the less likely you are to open the wrong thing. The demonstration will look a lot smoother and you focused the attention to detail I’ve been blatantly throwing at you.

Conclusion

I have spoken harshly at some points in here because this is an extremely important topic. I realize it may sound like I’m standing on a soap box just for the sake of acting like a pompous know-it-all, but I’m truly speaking out of concern. I want to help people and need to stress the importance of paying attention to detail. I have experienced these distractions first hand and know the effects they can have on your demo. That’s why I’d like to stress the point of the things you DON’T do in a presentation that really make a difference.

I’d like you to help me with this. Would you keep a tally of how many presentations you attend and how many of those include the unforgivable actions I’ve talked about here today? I don’t have exacts either, so I’ll keep a tally too. My guess is that your ratio is going to be 3 out of 4 presentations include some kind of pop-up.

I hope that you practice these techniques this week. If we work together, it’s possible we can influence change in our industry. Let’s get out there and “Demo like a pro!”

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