Planning Your Presentation: Stand It On Its Head

One of the main reasons that most presentations are bad, boring and ineffective is because we learn from bad examples. We see lots of slides full of text, so we create some of our own. We’re bored by talks that don’t try very hard to be interesting, so we don’t try very hard ourselves. And we sit through so many meetings where everyone just tries to make themselves look good that our own presentations start to lose touch with reality.

Sometimes what you need to do to make your talks and meetings truly interesting, memorable and effective is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Take the routine, typical presentation that everyone expects you to give and stand it on its head.

Have you ever had this experience?

You’re sitting in one of those big status meetings where everyone goes around the table and talks about all the projects that they’re working on. And every project, it seems, is a smashing success. Ahead of schedule, under budget, beloved by all.

But you know better. You were just talking to the guy from Accounting about how their new expense system was going to have to be totally rewritten. The Human Resources people had been in a panic the day before because of an open rebellion over changes to the electronic time card used by every employee, and the people who run your network are frantically banging on their laptops throughout the whole meeting because the link between your Seattle and Portland offices is down. But somehow none of this is mentioned. Everything, you’re told, is going great!

This is one of the main reasons that people hate sitting through meetings and presentations so much. These meetings aren’t just a waste of time, they’re dishonest. Instead of talking about issues so they can be solved, everyone uses meetings like this to make themselves look good.

My friend Marti and I had an experience like this at a conference where we heard one speaker after another talk about how smoothly all of their projects were going. We were working on the exact same kind of initiatives and in our experience they were always much more complicated and, well, painful than what we were being told. After hearing over and over again how great everything is you start to think that either you are a total idiot or what you’re hearing is less an honest appraisal of a project and more resume polishing. Marti and I chose to believe the later. Call us crazy, but we want to get something useful out of a presentation when we’ve paid conference fees and struggled out of bed to get to the session after the disco party the night before.

So Marti and I decided that it would be easier to learn from peoples’ failures than their successes. We wound up proposing a conference session the next year called The Worst Mistake I Ever Made. The idea was that we’d have a panel that would talk about the worst project each speaker had ever been responsible for and what they’d learned from the experience. If nothing else, hearing stories about disasters would be more entertaining than listening to people talk about how great they were.

Not everyone was as excited about the idea as we were. The conference organizers didn’t put our session on the schedule the first year we proposed it. Or the second. The third year they finally found a slot for us though, worried that the topic was too “negative,” they changed the title to “Lessons Learned.” And they gave us what may be the worst time slot for any conference–the very last one. After a week of sitting in ballrooms all day and carousing all night, people tend to be ready to head home or to spend the afternoon by the pool. We figured we needed to do something out of the ordinary if we were going to get anyone’s attention.

So we handed every audience member a questionnaire as they entered the room asking  about their biggest professional disaster. After we had shared our own traumatic and hilarious stories of our biggest mistakes and what we had learned from them, we asked people in the audience to share their own stories. You’d think that people might be unwilling to tell 80 other people about their failures, but we had more than enough volunteers to fill the time we’d been given. The stories were great, everyone laughed, and our session received the best audience evaluations of the whole conference.

Why did it work?

  • Each of the stories had a clear “lesson learned,” even if that wasn’t my first choice of a title. The logical next step from “what went wrong?” is “what could we have done better?”
  • It was easy for everyone there to recognize mistakes of their own in the stories told by other people. We all tend to commit the same errors, so it’s useful to learn from each other.
  • The stories tended to be really entertaining and funny in the same way it can be to watch someone else fall down once you know that they aren’t really getting hurt. Entertaining an audience is the surest way to win them over.
  • Having people share their own stories made the whole audience feel like they were involved in the presentation themselves.
  • The stories were clearly honest.
  • The presenters were fantastic!

But more than anything, I think the session worked because it was different from all the other talks that people had already sat through that week. No one else built their whole session around things going wrong. No one else asked them to fill out a survey as they entered the room. And certainly no one asked them to stand up and share their biggest, most embarrassing mistake with a room full of their peers.

Next time you have to give a talk, try to do something different to grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes the best thing you can do is exactly the opposite of what people expect. Think about what that would look like in your environment and try to do something that will catch people by surprise and make a real impact.

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