How NOT To Give a Presentation


by David Tsubouchi

Most of the time, we attend lectures and presentations on how the correct way is to do something. In many cases, it relates to our professional lives or work. We have endless facts pulled from best practices and legislation presented to us while we sit on hard chairs that become harder and more uncomfortable in direct proportion to the level of droning by the speaker. At the end of the session how much have we retained? Our attendance may have been mandated so our company can tick off a box for being compliant with some regulation or internal education program. But honestly, what have we really learned?

Because we are people we seem to remember the negative more than the positive. The media thrive on negative stories. That’s what sells newspapers. The headlines are about mistakes made by politicians. The sports headlines are about mistakes made by athletes. Tabloid papers thrive on the negative. We seldom repeat stories that are positive. The juicy stories live on endlessly.

Recently I heard Steve Howse speak. The topic was IT Governance, not a topic that would at the top of most of our lists of lectures to go to. Steve makes an interesting presentation using real life experiences to make a point. He uses “Stupid Steve” to make the point. First of all, Steve Howse himself is a brilliant man and the way he presents the cases and makes the governance connection is attention grabbing and memorable. His cases are about the mistakes that you should not make. When he speaks you are taking notes. Steve is an example of how one should make a presentation.

I am going to use one of the worst presentations I have ever endured as a real example of how NOT to make a presentation. I am one of those people who take lots of notes when I find a seminar, panel discussion or lecture interesting. That’s how I remember. This particular lecture I took one note and that was to write down the title of the presentation.

I also do not have much difficulty with national accents. East Asian, South Asian, European, South American or African accents do not normally present me with much of a challenge. So my being able to actually understand what is being said is not often a problem created by how it is being said.

I am also not going to name the company or presenters because there is nothing positive that can result.

The first rule of any presentation is to be prepared. You must know your material. As the presentation transpired it became apparent that each new slide was greeted by surprise by the presenter. If you are surprised then you will need to pause and read it along with the rest of us. If we read faster than you, we will quickly become impatient. It was evident by the second slide that this was a new presentation because the presenter had not created the slides or he was a last minute substitute. If he was a last minute substitute then if he had said so, the attendees would have been empathetic but no such explanation had been given.

The audience soon became restless because the speaker spoke with the two deadly Q’s of speaking, quietly and quickly. After a few minutes of no one understanding anything, the organizer went up to the speaker and adjusted his microphone. Even after the adjustment the speaker was hard to hear because he seemed to lower the volume of his voice as much as the adjustment had increased it.

There still remained the problem of the speed of delivery. The organizer then walked up to the speaker and presumably asked him to slow down his speech.

Unfortunately when the speed of speech was temporarily reduced it revealed the worst part of listening to this speaker-his cadence. The cadence of his speech was like listening to Captain Kirk on a day that he had too much to drink. The stops and starts in strange places in a sentence caused me to continually check my watch.

As much as Steve Hawse used useful and memorable real cases to make his point, this speaker had made up cases that were so extreme in nature that unless you were a blithering idiot you knew the answer and wondered why you were asked. One of the attendees who was a very senior and experienced executive when asked for his comment on a case responded by saying that he wasn’t going to waste his time responding to such a stupid case. This marked the point in the presentation when the audience started to mutter its displeasure.

On a side note, the presenter used many acronyms that no one understood. I finally said I have no idea what that acronym meant at which point about half the audience agreed with me.

Now that the audience had turned against the speaker, he then wanted people to pair up so that a case could be discussed. We had been sitting in a big “U” formation with the speaker at the front of the room. Instead of saying “please pair up starting here. You two, you two, etc.” he said everyone speak to the person to the left. At this point everyone started laughing.

If your audience starts laughing at you, not with you, pack it up.

Unfortunately the speaker soldiered on for another half hour. A clear indication that you have lost your audience is the steady stream of people who decide to go to the washroom or just leave.

When the ordeal ended, for both the audience and the speaker, it was with a whimper not a bang.

There are several lessons contained in this exercise. Here’s a final thought, giving a speech is like the oil industry-if you don’t hit oil, stop boring!

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