Presentations: Control your environment.

18 February 2006

My subject line here could be boiled down to one word: Prepare.

When you give a presentation, take responsibility for everything in your audience’s environment. Are the lights right? Can people see the screen clearly? Are your handouts legible? Is the room freezing, or broiling? Can you hear too much racket from the meeting room/corridor/kitchen next door? Can you be heard by your listeners?

I’m thinking about all of this because of a two-hour seminar I sat through a couple of days ago. I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before (all too common for me) and I had been fighting off a headache all day (very uncommon for me). The seminar was scheduled from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (mistake #1) and when I got into the room the environment was anything but friendly to a person fighting off a headache. The meeting room in question is the largest one in my company–the one where we hold our all-hands meetings. It has many banks of lights that can operate independently to provide you with whatever pattern of lighting you need. But in this case, only the area lights were on, and they had been dimmed partway. This created three problems:
1. The entire room was lit at the same level, which didn’t work given the type of stand-and-deliver seminar it was.
2. The light was too dim for audience members to read the handouts clearly.
3. This particular bank of lights emits an awful buzzing hum when it is dimmed partway.
On top of this, no one had shut the big door at the back of the room that leads to the break room outside, so conversations and other racket from outside rattled into our room. (We finally did shut the door, but belatedly.)

So, in short, it was too dark and too noisy, and there was a headache-promoting background buzz throughout TWO HOURS of a presentation. It’s not just that this was bad–it was completely avoidable. A minute or two of experimentation with the lights combined with the simple foresight to shut all the doors all the way would have made life easier for everybody. I know this because I’ve been in a hundred other meetings in the same room where the lights and noise were no trouble.

The good news, in this case, is that the room has a deluxe built-in projection system, so there were no technical troubles on that end. The two presenters were quite polished, and clearly used to working off of each other in a back-and-forth presentation mode. But some of their slides featured dark-colored graphics that looked dramatic on the screen . . . but washed out to black on the handouts. Again, a simple lack of foresight undermined their presentation. This was more annoying because the date printed at the bottom of each handout page made it clear that they were working from a template they had prepared three years ago. They’ve had tons of time to get these handouts right, or simply to prepare a version of the handouts with the fancy graphics removed . . . but they never thought of it, I guess.

These shortcomings hit home for me all the more because earlier in the week I had listened to Guy Kawasaki’s podcast on “The Art of Pitching,” which is full of savvy advice on how to give killer presentations when it counts–that is, when you’re asking for a lot of money. In one section, Kawasaki puts the burden on presenters to take responsibility for everything that goes into the presentation. I don’t have his text in front of me (the podcast is a chapter of G.K.’s book The Art of the Start), but in paraphrase:
–If the projector doesn’t work, it’s your fault.
–If the projector won’t cooperate with your laptop, it’s your fault.
–If the projector bulb goes out, it’s your fault.
Kawasaki encourages you to bring your own projector, not one but two laptops loaded with your presentation, a USB key loaded with another copy of the presentation, and then printouts of your whole presentation in case all Hell breaks loose with the technology.

I love this because it means taking full responsibility for all parts of the communication process, which I think is what distinguishes great communicators from lesser ones.

Two modest examples in this vein from my own little speaking career: I can remember a slide show I gave to the Rotary Club in Perth (Scotland) when I was on a Rotary scholarship. The old-fashioned slide projector got jammed partway through my presentation, but fortunately I had drilled on the material so thoroughly that I could ad lib and keep the audience’s attention for the minute it took to untangle the machine. Then recently I gave a presentation on short notice in an office that didn’t have a room with a projector: it gave me the chance to revise my whole presentation in a way that made sense as a handout. The talk was fresher than it would be, because the process of revising it made me rethink it for the new audience and the new format.

The two ladies who gave the seminar at my office this week were very nice and generally well prepared. Clearly they knew their material, and when the seminar turned interactive (only after 80 minutes of sit-and-listen) it was really valuable. But it would have been ten times better more effective if they had showed more commitment to taking charge of their environment on behalf of their audience.

For presenters, there is no such thing as being overprepared.

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