Look around your own business – you may have a challenge around control where a fear of change from the top down impacts the creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking that is such an important part of engaging presentations. Equally, your organisation may be driven by a desire to try each new and exciting presentation technology as soon as it becomes available. And of course, there is the challenge of silos within larger organisations where islands of knowledge create duplication and widespread internal protectionism adds no value at all.
No matter what form the presentation culture challenges take within your organisation, the impact will be horribly consistent and familiar – a lack of focus and investment in the most important stakeholder of any presentation, i.e., the audience. The result of this disengagement is easy to spot – disinterested audiences, wasted opportunities and, put bluntly, a complete waste of everyone’s time.
With stakes this high, where do you start to manage your business' presentations to address the shortcomings that come with a bad presentation culture?
Focus 1 – audience, audience, audience
I have been accused, quite fairly, of being obsessed with presentation audiences. It’s a fair cop – I’m of the opinion that, as obsessions go, this is a pretty healthy one for two simple reasons. Not only are audiences the arbiter of whether a presentation was a success or not (it really doesn’t matter how happy your presenter feels, success should always be measured on the level of value your audience has taken from the presentation), but they are also the ones giving that most precious of assets; their time. As such, presenters need to respect audiences above all else – keep presentations short, snappy and engaging while also obsessing about giving them something of value to take away.
Focus 2 – less is more
I implore organisations to recognise that producing fewer presentations will lead to an increase in quality. In many of the large organisations that our company has had the privilege of working with, our first recommendation has paradoxically been to present less. Many large organisations thrive on meetings, informal get-togethers and conference calls, all being driven by a seemingly relentless tsunami of PowerPoint decks. Internal or external doesn’t appear to matter – the one constant is PowerPoint.
“Success should always be measured on the level of value your audience has taken from the presentation.”
If this sounds horribly familiar, ask yourself ‘why’?! The ‘slide documents’ add little to no value in terms of communication or efficiency – they’re simply a bad habit that is slowly strangling the quality of engagement between presenter and audience.
Focus 3 – benevolent control
One of the many upsides to producing fewer PowerPoint slides is an improved management of collateral, thereby increasing the efficiency and control of presentations across your organisation. Providing ease of access to the good content and managing the ever present ‘black market’ of PowerPoint slides ensures that the entire process is more efficient. This means that more time can be invested in engaging audiences and focusing attention on crafting presentations that deliver a result for all involved.
Focus 4 – know what good looks like
The management of your business presentation cultures can be made easier to sustain by promoting and reinforcing best practice. But please don’t fall into the trap of assuming this means placing legions of people on Advanced PowerPoint Training courses. Granted, the ability to make PowerPoint presentation designs do clever things is now seen as prerequisite in many organisations, however I can assure you that fancy software skills do not deliver great presentations – people do.
Look to other reference points for presentation best practise such as regular references to best-in-class TED Talks (note: choose wisely – despite the hype, not all TED Talks are examples of best practice) or other online presentation materials. Look at sharing best practise through books such as my own The Presentation Lab, Nancy Duarte’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations or Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen.
In terms of training and coaching, look beyond the obvious soft skills topics and instead focus on the art of corporate storytelling. Gaining an understanding of techniques such as Audience Heatmapping, recognising a range of different story structures and being able to work with concepts like “blended presenting” are examples of best practice that deliver real value when shared across an organisation.
Focus 5 – best practice is everyone’s responsibility
The responsibility for demonstrating and reinforcing the value brought by this best practice needs to be shared by everyone. Expecting a new presentation culture to emerge and then sustain from high profile pockets of the organisation will not work. I’ve seen initiatives burn brightly at the start and then fade away because they were seen as a marketing, sales or c-suite campaign rather than a true cultural shift.
Great presentation culture needs to run deep and become a habit – your aim should be to make your business ‘unconsciously competent’ in great communication through presentations.
Over to you
By way of conclusion, presentation culture is something we all have to manage. The frustrations felt by individuals trying to ‘do things better’ and then being ultimately crushed by their organisation’s paranoia or protectionism must stop. As business people, we need to recognise that our presentations play an incredibly important part in communication and that the culture that surrounds them is fundamental to an organisation’s success. Who knows, it may all start with you.