We certainly don’t do presentations because they’re easy. They’re a huge hassle and most people hate giving them. So there must be a reason.
Sometimes presentations are done to ensure compliance or that people are paying attention. Certain training programs are structured this way– if you work at a big company, it’s why you probably have to go to Sexual Harassment Prevention training every couple of years and make sure that you get your name on the sign-in sheet. (Though this kind of program is increasingly moving online). It’s the only way to make sure that people are actually doing the training and not making their secretaries or assistants do it for them.
But if you’ve ever sat through a boring presentation and completely zoned out, you know that it’s possible to attend a presentation and not really be present. If you want to make sure that people pay attention, you need to create a presentation that will hold their attention.
The great advantage that live presentations have over other forms of communication that we use at work and in our “real” lives is that they allow you to bring a powerful human element into what you want to say. When you think about it, we tend to use live presentations for difficult topics: complex issues with no easy answers; topics that are likely to prompt emotional reactions; situations where we want to manage or “spin” our messages as best we can.
These are situations where written communications are likely to fall flat– business writing isn’t very good at getting peoples’ attention and doesn’t do a very good job of dealing with emotion or complexity. Remember that “Sex and the City” episode where the guy from Office Space (Berger) breaks up with Carrie via a Post-It note? It’s funny because it’s not emotionally appropriate. Email isn’t very good at conveying emotional material, either. And documents that try to address complex issues or answer potential questions from their readers wind up looking like legal contracts. That’s why many emails from your HR people are so long and unsatisfying. (Apologies to the HR people out there). It’s also why so many difficult HR topics are handled with live presentations.
The best reason to have a live presentation is to take advantage of the interaction between the speaker and the audience in order to be persuasive. Actually, if you’re planning a presentation and can’t identify your persuasive element, you should probably reconsider whether you need to have a presentation at all. If all you have to present are facts, a live presentation is probably overkill and likely to bore your audience to sleep. Try an email or memo instead. On the other hand, if you want to change peoples’ minds or get them to do something, a live presentation with an emotional element to persuade them is definitely the way to go. Because facts are seldom enough to change anyone’s mind.
People don’t want facts, they want something to believe in. Once they’ve made up their mind about something– once they’ve fixed on a story about an issue– they’re unlikely to change their minds unless you touch them with another story that makes them feel differently. Have you ever tried to change someone’s opinion about a controversial political figure or issue? It’s almost impossible, and you’re never going to change their minds with facts.
Say you’re talking about global warming. It’s one thing to tell them how much polar ice has disappeared. It’s another to show them a picture of a baby polar bear whose mother swam off to look for food and never returned. Telling a story can lodge your message in their memory and continue working to sway them in a way that facts alone are unlikely to.
The same is true when you’re trying to teach, train, or get someone to adopt a new process. People don’t just change or learn because you tell them to. They learn because you give them a story about why they should. Scare tactics tend to have the most immediate effect (“you need to know how to do this in order to keep your job”) but giving people hope (“knowing how to do this will make you more marketable in today’s job market”) is probably more effective in the long run because it encourages them to keep motivating themselves in order to reach their goal.