You might have noticed that presentations have got more polished and professional in recent years, but in the same breath, somewhat predictable and samey. Influences like the TED talks, Apple product launches, Barack Obama, Al Gore, have inspired executives to smarten up their act and deliver crisper, rehearsed messages. The aim being to land points fast, backed up by stylish visuals. With all this improvement, and it is certainly an improvement from the days of ‘death by PowerPoint’, we may at times overlook the importance of the audience themselves. Specifically, we mean; what matters to any given audience and what they are listening for, as this is in fact what makes or breaks your presentation.
The key to delivering a breakthrough presentation is to understand the message being received by your audience. Whilst preparing, priority is usually given solely to the message we are transmitting; crafting beautifully the points we want to make. Without meaning to, our presentations can become ego-centric, sharing ultimately what we feel is important and what we want to share. In reality, the audience decide the message they actually hear and the filters in their listening determine the summary of what they take away. As an example, you might announce ‘we are pleased with our performance but due to circumstances out of our control we have fallen below our projected target’. The audience hears ‘our jobs might be at risk’. It is the message received that really counts, not the one you transmit. When preparing a presentation, it probably wouldn’t take much thinking to establish the concerns and care-abouts of any given audience you are facing and to tackle those head on. Failure to do so is to leave it in the hands of the listeners to conclude what you were really saying and to apply your messages free-range to their agenda. When laying out your next presentation, start with what the audience is listening for; what do they want and need to know? Who are they and what is the mind-set you’re are speaking into? This is a great compass for landing points that really resonate and matter to the listeners.
Where professionals have put a lot of their energy in presentation training is in the process. In working the ‘tricks’. In standing still and not scratching their head every 10 seconds. In making three ‘great’ points. This is all excellent advice that has you sounding and looking like you mean business, and ideally that you know what you’re talking about. The trap we then fall into is thinking the job is done. Presentations get created once and then repeated over and over. Like a staged performance on tour, churning out the same show, albeit well practiced, to any given audience. How many times have you repeated a presentation without re-contextualising and adjusting it for the audience? Audiences, to the amateur are a bit like fine artwork to the same. At a distance they’re pretty indistinguishable, but when you know what you’re looking at the differences couldn’t be more obvious. Think of your audience’s context in this way. The context in which they sit before you is everything. The context in which they are working and thinking determines what they think of you and the messages you give, before you’ve even stepped on to the stage. No trick of the trade or smart graphic will help you here.. it’s all about knowing your audience and speaking right to the heart of their concerns. In this vein, it is critically important to tailor and adjust your presentations every time, giving consideration to the mind-set and context of those you wish to compel and convince.
It’s a big relief that (in the most part!) mumbled, wandering monologues accompanied by slides stuffed with size 8 font, are a thing of corporate presentation history. We are truly more entertained, held to attention and wowed with captivating imagery than ever before. Now that we have the speaker primed for performance excellence, a big dose of authenticity and connection to the audience is all that’s needed. Combining the skills of a calm, polished presenter with a deep appreciation for the mind-set and listening of their audience, makes for truly compelling messaging. Connecting speaker with audience so that everyone is thinking from the same hymn sheet to begin with, unlocks the full potential of presentations, turning them into something that in their own right can cause breakthroughs in and for your organization.
Next time you go to prepare a presentation, start with the audience and work your messages back from there, framing what you need to say in a way that they can hear it. Then, not only will you look and sound good, but you’ll actually make a difference too.