It is universally accepted that meetings and presentations, especially ones performed virtually, are the worst parts of our day. The credence of this principle only grows as we attend more of these in our professional careers. It has become so common that a simple search for “conference call bingo” returns a plethora of printable cards with overwhelming variations. It is for this reason that I feel compelled to start this journey; Helping people to be engaging and professional.
Almost everyone will tell you what you should do and what you should show in a demo. While this is good material, it often leaves out many painful aspects that are far too common and have become “accepted” as normal. I’m going to start with a different approach. These may sound like pet peeves, and they are, but it’s because they make a very large impact on the intended audience.
I’d like to tell you about a few presentations from a recent conference that I attended. There were many speakers from varied backgrounds, audience members from all over the world, and a range of topics that allowed me to attend what mattered most to my job. The entry fee indicated that this was a highly professional event and the speakers professional job titles implied that they were experts in their fields. My feedback on this event didn’t quite mirror the expectations that were laid out, but it did provide valuable content for the article I’m about to write.
A presentation will usually start in much the same manner; A speaker is introduced or walks on stage and tells you about themselves and their topic. They have slides to show on the projector or virtual meeting and if you’re lucky they also have some type of engaging content. Within the first 5 minutes of a presentation I can usually tell you, with great accuracy, how well the audience is going to retain the content. These first 5 minutes are critical! It is in these first 5 minutes that the pace and tone for the presentation will be set. Spoiler for a future topic: What if you’re not the person talking within the first 5 minutes?
Joe arrives on stage, he hurriedly connects his computer to the projector as he fumbles with the microphone. The first thing that shows up is his email inbox and he has trouble navigating the 17 open windows on his desktop. When the presentation finally displays, it’s the presenter view and not the appropriate full screen slides. He starts to speak and you could swear that your ears are bleeding because the microphone is in his mouth and you can’t understand a single word. STOP! Joe hasn’t been in front of me for 2 minutes and I already want to leave. I should have left, history tells me that things don’t usually go up from here. I stayed through the whole presentation and it was filled with technical errors, user errors, and a complete lack of preparation. I was so excited to hear this content but I can honestly only remember the inability to use the simplest of technologies. I do recall this person having a job title that I’d be ashamed to be associated with too, after this demonstration that is.
One thing I do now, after a presentation is over, is listen to the audience. I am “people watching” to see what their reactions are, what they are talking about, and how the message was received. No surprise here, the dull whispers were all about the presenter. The video didn’t work, the slides were dull, they couldn’t understand him, and much more. There was very little discussion about the content of the presentation and almost nothing about the product he was showing.
This scenario has become so common that audiences have come to accept these things as normal. This is completely unprofessional behavior and I refuse to believe that an audience allows this person to retain credibility, especially if the conference is talking to the technology industry. In my experience, the audience can forgive a minor mistake. The audience might even forgive two minor mistakes. After a speaker makes the third mistake their credibility goes out the window and it’s nearly impossible to recover. The only hope as a speaker is that the audience has, literally, no other choice in product.
Sally arrives on stage. The laptop gets plugged in and the display starts. The first thing shown is the first slide from her deck. She hits the “play slides” button and the giant screens light up with her “Introduction”. She speaks clearly and concisely. The slides are laid out logically and you hear a passionate introduction about the topics you’ll be seeing. Sally switches from the slides to an actual product demo, but you could swear that she never left the slide deck. The product demonstration is well laid out and it looks like exactly what she said we would see. Sally speaks at a level that engages everyone in the audience, almost as if she knows who is in attendance. When it’s time to wrap up there is enough time for questions and the audience is happy to provide quality feedback and questions.
Again, I listened carefully to the audience after the presentation had ended. There was a complete shift in what was being discussed. People were amazed at the product, they wanted to see more, and they were really hoping to get a chance to speak with her at the booth. You know what I didn’t hear? Nobody said that she gave a fantastic presentation. My assessment? My opinion, this was a giant compliment. Hopefully there were others, like myself, that took the time to stop by and tell her what an amazing job she did. But even if they didn’t, the message was clear as her company’s booth was nearly overrun by enthusiastic audience members.
Why did Sally succeed where Joe didn’t? Sally used techniques that focused the audience on the product and message, not on her ability to navigate technology. Sally was prepared to deliver a message… A story… A product. There was nothing to distract you from the content or drive your attention away. She showed the audience that amazing presentations aren’t trying to focus on all the things she did “right” as a speaker. Instead, she showed the audience an amazing presentation focuses on the message, story, and product.
I know we didn’t cover techniques and principles for you to work on in this article. We need to get everyone on the same page, understanding what makes or breaks your demo/presentation. As we progress in this series I will focus on a single topic each time. This will make it easy to absorb and practice. My hope is that you can take the topics we cover in this blog and implement them in your professional interactions. It’s time to deliver a clear message, one demo at a time.