The Successful Presenter

Communicate When It Counts

Shauna Overcomes Her Slide Addiction




I had a fascinating experience last fall that underscored everything I’ve believed about how using slides kills interactivity and audience engagement—and that by simply shutting off the projector you can reverse those negative outcomes.

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I was the scheduled keynote speaker at an evening forum for aspiring professional engineers sponsored by a chapter of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). After my hour, a speaker from PEO headquarters was scheduled to spend about 40 minutes talking about the steps required to achieve the professional engineering (P.Eng.) designation.

The title of my presentation was: Cognitive Science + Common Sense = Effective Presentations. Once I showed a short video during the first part of my presentation—to demonstrate that humans cannot read and listen at the same time—I shut the projector off.

During the lull between my presentation and the next one, the speaker (we’ll call her Shauna) started up the projector, attached her laptop, and began loading her presentation.

Watching this on-screen, one of the participants commented: “Wow, look at all the slides! Didn’t you hear anything Eric said during the past hour?”

He said it quietly and politely, but his point was well made. Shauna looked a little lost, so I walked over and quietly said to her: “If you need your slides as notes, use them. But shut the projector off.”

She did shut it off and, shortly after she started her presentation, an interesting thing happened. The group began asking questions. And they didn’t just ask questions, they fired them at her.

“I’ve just changed jobs,” one person said. “What information do I need from my previous employer? Is there anything different I need from my current employer?”

“I’ve just been laid off,” another said. “How will that affect my path to becoming licensed? Can I get an extension if I need it?”

On it went. Shauna was easily asked more than 50 or 60 questions, which helped audience members shape the licensing information to their particular circumstance, which is when communication actually works.

After the presentation, I asked Shauna if this was more questions than she normally receives. “Definitely,” she replied. “In fact, it’s more questions in one evening than I’ve received in the dozens of times I’ve delivered this presentation combined.”

I also talked to a few aspiring engineers at the end of the evening. They told me they got great value from the presentation. They already knew the path to licensure. The interaction gave them the opportunity to relate that path to their specific circumstances.

And that is when face-to-face communication actually works.

So, if you want to improve your next presentation, why not learn from Shauna’s experience? Shut off the projector and use your slides as your notes.

Create an interactive exchange that has structure for you, but ultimately provides more value to them.

After all, aren’t they the most important people in the room?

What do audiences expect?

When it comes to audience expectations for presentations to which they are exposed, I suspect they would like to receive information that meets their need to understand. They want value from that information, the why and the how of it. Why is this important to us? How will this help us?

They want a presenter who understands them — someone who not only understands who they are on the outside, but who has insight into their beliefs, attitudes and opinions. They want the information for their presentation to be tailored to their specific needs.

Audiences want presenters to get to the point as soon as possible. They want to know how they should apply the information (informative presentation) or take action on it (persuasive presentation) early in the process. Knowing the outcome up front helps them relate the information to their personal cognitive framework. That’s when communication works.

Audiences do not attend a presentation thinking: “I hope the slides are entertaining” or “I wonder which seductive font they’ll use.” If written information is needed to move ideas along, smart audiences want to see it in advance.

In the future, my hope is that audiences will raise their expectations to the level of a structured conversation. They will want the speaker to be well prepared. They will want visuals only where needed. They will want their handouts in advance or after the presentation.

But they will also want the opportunity to probe and ask questions. During precious “face time,” they will want information put into perspective, not have data driven down their throats.

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