I wish that we had a better word for presentations. It’s not just that I get tired of writing the same word over and over and want to squeeze in synonyms like “talk,” “seminar,” or “meeting” for a little variety. I can’t help but feel that the word we use to describe them is key to what’s wrong with a lot of our presentations. Unlike some of the other words we might use to describe an event with a speaker and an audience, “presentation” suggests a one-way flow of information, one person getting up and talking while others sit passively and take it in.
Unfortunately, this is the way most talks actually work. You type up slides with bullet points for what you have to say and then get up in front of a group to regurgitate what you’ve written. The audience slumps in their seats while you pray that they absorb something, anything, from your material. If that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least you hope they don’t snore too loudly. Then you send them off at the end with the benefit of your wisdom and experience.
Besides being boring and ineffective, the presenter has to do all of the work at events like this. Whether the presentation is effective or not is all up to them. They have to find something valuable to say and be entertaining enough to keep the audience paying attention. The speaker has to connect enough dots in the minds of their listeners that they see that the presentation is relevant to them and has been useful enough that they don’t resent the time that they’ve spent there.
What do we expect from the audience? Not much. The audience rarely has a role to play in what happens during the presentation and little stake in how things turn out.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A much more effective approach is to structure your talks as dialogues with the audience rather than a one way flow of information from the speaker to the audience. In order to make your presentations more successful you should try to think of them as relationships between you and your audience that are centered around the topic at hand. Rather than talking at your audience you need to have a conversation with them. The presenter and the audience both need to be paying attention to each other. Presenters need to understand how their audiences feel about what they have to say and tailor their presentation to suit the needs of their audiences.
Thinking about your presentation as a relationship with your audience is something you should be doing from the moment you start planning what you’re going to say. The success or failure of your presentation can only be judged by the impact you have on them— have they paid attention, have you been able to persuade them, have you met their expectations? If not, your presentation isn’t likely to meet your goals— unless your only goal was simply to survive your presentation.
Since your success or failure ultimately depends on what your audience thinks, the first thing you should think about when pulling together your material shouldn’t be “what do I have to say?”, but “what do I have to say to convince this audience?” or “why would they even care about what I have to say?” If you can’t answer those questions it’s time to rethink the idea of giving a talk in the first place.