A surprising lack of urgency

Nov 01, 2018
After a project, there is often a presentation. Why do we spend days on one and mere minutes on the other when they are both as equally important? Barry Brophy explains how an ordinary presentation can be lifted with a little bit of urgency.

There is often a surprising lack of urgency in presentations. People will spend weeks writing a document – a business plan, a funding proposal, a prospectus – but when it comes to the presentation, they will say things like, ‘I fly in the night before, so I’ll have time to pull some slides together on the plane.’ In regard to all the things that make presentations work – visuals, stories, graphs, analogies, videos, examples, demonstrations, interaction – how will you generate these on a cramped ninety-minute flight to Brussels? All you get from this kind of ‘preparation’ is bullet points, which are really just notes-to-self.

As we saw in previous articles, you have to take time to scope out a presentation, analyse your audience, create and select ideas, fine-tune them, practice them, get stuff ready for the day, get yourself ready for the day, and get there early on the day. Although a presentation is essentially just you talking, it still has to be ‘produced’. People often cut corners on this preparation in a way they wouldn’t with any other elements of their job.

People give poor presentations and then apologise for doing so. They will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for going over time,’ or ‘I’m sorry the slides were hard to read and some of the graphs were a bit blurry.’ This is no different from shipping soiled goods to a customer. Or the presenter gives no thought to the particular audience and rolls out a stock customer presentation, which is akin to sending a customer the wrong goods entirely. You wouldn’t do that, so why do it in a presentation?

Lifeless delivery

As well as lazy preparation, people also demonstrate a lack of urgency in delivery. At one point in a presentation I attended last year, a senior manager looked down at his sheet of paper and in a monotone read out the words “I really care about...” He certainly didn’t sound like he ‘really cared about...’. Reading from a script is a great way to kill the energy of your delivery and demoralise the audience. And people often talk down their content with comments like, “You’ve probably heard a lot of this before…” or “This presentation is a bit dry but I’ll try to get through it as quickly as I can…”, which is really no different from the owner of a restaurant leaning over your table and saying, “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.”

The world is a competitive place. Whatever you’re trying to do there’s always someone doing it already, or on a bigger scale, or with a slicker website, or longer opening hours, or offices in more countries, or more active social media, or younger, better looking staff. But, despite the dizzying, accelerating pace of modern living, one thing you won’t need to be intimidated by is the standard of other people’s presentations. Many of them are lacklustre and this is largely down to a lack of basic urgency. 

Fear is nothing to be afraid of

Many people think that fear is what ruins your presentations but fear actually makes you better. Fear gives you energy, wakes you up and leads you to ask important questions about your preparation. However, it can make you self-absorbed and inward looking. You focus on how you feel, not on what the audience gets from the presentation. What you really need to do is put your own needs and feelings to one side and think about the content that will be genuinely useful and interesting to the audience. Serve the customer, not yourself.

In all presentations: prepare with urgency and deliver with urgency. Analyse your audience and figure out what valuable insight you can give them. Then set an aim and use the communication tools we mentioned in previous articles – stories, examples, analogies, demonstrations, images, graphs and videos – to reach that aim. Finally, prepare thoroughly, and try to engage your audience on the day.

Done well, there is no richer form of communication than a live presentation. It is interactive, three-dimensional, visual and emotional, and the core skills you use are simply the ones you would draw on when chatting with a friend.