I’m a scientist at heart (a social scientist – my PhD looked at the possible environmental causes of leukaemia in children) so it seems odd to me to start training with something based upon personal belief and observation, rather than rigorous scientific investigation like the rest of the material, but here goes. I believe that:
- reports should change something
- the most common mistake made by presenters is that they don’t know what the presentation is for (they just know what it’s about)
- the second biggest problem with presentations is that they’re written defensively in a (fearful?) attempt to avoid it being horrible, rather than it being the best it can be.
The result of these three things acting together – and so reinforcing each other – is that most reports etc are mediocre at best. They’re something to be ‘got through’ by the presenter and consequently by the audience, too. The result is all too often a waste of time. So where do we start with designing communications that aren’t as bad as this?
Start at the very beginning
As the song goes, it’s a very good place to start.
Consider changing the whole point of your presentations from being ‘about’ something to being ‘to do’ something. In other words, they should be to change something.
When you make this very simple change a lot of other things fall into place. Firstly, you’ve got a metric that you can use to measure how successful your presentation is – did it make the changes you hoped for? Secondly, you now have a baseline against which you can measure the content of your presentation all the time: simply ask yourself “Does including this slide/picture/story/bullet-point make it more likely that the changes I’m aiming for will be achieved?”. If the answer is not unambiguously “yes” then it needs to be removed.
As an aside, consider looking into the speech by Olympic Gold Medalist Ben Hunt-Davis: it’s called “Will it make the boat go faster?” https://www.youtube.com/embed/g1RVgjrRoqg
If the answer was yes, such as 70 minutes on a rowing machine they did it. If it wouldn’t, such as going to the pub, they didn’t. Think of the same attitude to your presentations: will it make the presentation more successful?
A note especially about presentations! Compare your presentation to a report you write for your boss. You’d not write a report without knowing what it was supposed to achieve, and what the outcomes are supposed to be.
Similarly, you’d not judge the success of the report by how nicely bound it was… by how pretty the font looked… by how good your page-turning technique was. Of course you wouldn’t – and yet we do those very things to presentations. So before you start any presentation ask yourself two simple questions:
- what am I trying to change?
- how will I know when I’ve made enough change?
Consider the idea that there are three types of presentation or report…
Covering your back
Passing on information
Making a change
|Some presentations are, frankly, just given because they need to be… your boss has said it has to happen and it would be a ‘career-limiting move’ to tell your boss that this is a waste of time.|
My advice here is to concentrate on not messing up and to do a brutal cost/benefit analysis of how much effort you should put into designing your presentation. In my experience the result of doing that is generally that it’s not worth too much of your time and if that’s the case, simply decide how much time you’re prepared to dedicate to the issue, put that time in your diary and get on with it, safe in the knowledge that you’re wasting your time – and everyone else’s – because that is what it takes to tick the box.
||Presentations which are about passing on information – perhaps about a new policy, for example – are best termed ‘briefings’.|
When it comes to passing on information, fact, figures and hard data, there are much better ways of doing it than a presentation. Written documents, video and emails all have a reasonably high rate of information retention, compared to presentations. If your aim is just to pass on information, consider just writing a briefing note instead and save yourself the hassle.
||This is where presentations come into their own!|
Briefing papers and emails can’t change people’s behaviours nearly as well as a good presentation.
Here’s a simple, but important exercise:
think about your last presentation and ask yourself:
Now go back over that exercise and do it again. I mean no offence by this when I say that more-or-less everyone skips over it superficially the first time.
How will you know if your presentation was a success?
Once you’ve figured out what it is you need to change in your presentation, you need to know if you’ve been successful. In short, I suggest a three step process:
- think about what it is you’re actually trying to change
- figure out what criteria you’ll use to recognise that change
- then think about the exact values of those criteria.
Here’s a bit of an odd example to show you what I mean. Suppose you’ve just designed a new road layout for a small town but everyone is zooming around the town with the inevitably consequence of accidents and injuries. The answer to the first question is pretty clearly that what you’re trying to change is the dangerous behaviour of ‘zooming around’.
How do you measure ‘zooming’? By how fast the vehicles are going – miles per hour. Once you know that you’re trying to reduce miles-per-hour you then decide what the safe top speed is for any given road.
Yes, it feels a little artificial – particularly at first – but it’s worth it for the sake of clarity. When you’ve done it a few times it’ll become second nature.
The main reasons you do it in this step-by-step process is to make sure you don’t jump in with both feet measuring the wrong thing. Concentrate on measuring changes in process, not outcomes – particularly if lots of other things can affect outcomes! In the example above, what was measured was the speed of the vehicles, not the number of accidents because lots of other things have an impact (pun intended) on the number of accidents.
It’s also important to do things step-by-step so that you think carefully about what’s practical. In the UK we use a maximum speed limit of 30 MPH for most urban roads and 20 MPH for some residential side roads only. Clearly 20MPH everywhere would be safer, but it’s not practical… there’s a tradeoff to be made. When you write your report or design your presentation, think about what’s practical. You might want everyone to instantly adopt new working policies but that’s unlikely to happen, so ask yourself what is a reasonable success. Will it be a success if half of the people make the change immediately, and you can then talk to the others later, personally?
If it’s something with numbers involved, so much the better as you can do a ‘break even’ point for your presentation: give your presentation a cost and see how many people need to change to meet that cost. If it’s less quantifiable, you’ll need to use your common sense!
If that convoluted example hasn’t confused you, (well done!) have a look at this video and see if that befuddles you! 😉 The password is Effort
Writing a report or delivering a presentations is about changing something, not just saying something. The trick is to figure out what you’re trying to change, then look at exactly what you need to do to change it. Simple. But like losing weight, simple doesn’t equate to easy. (After all, all you need to do loose weight is ‘eat less; move more’ – simple but not easy!).
And don’t worry about your reports and presentations not being a work of art. Making it a work of art makes it more likely to be effective but for now, let’s just concentrate on the basics: to cite Chuck Close…
Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.