Good Presentations Gone Bad

By Travis Atkinson, MA-LPC

Good presentations do not happen naturally.

Recently, I attended a training that promised to be highly enjoyable and engaging. The topic area was fascinating, and both presenters were subject matter experts that I was familiar with and greatly admired.

The training was offered in the gymnasium of a 150-year-old hospital in the middle of summer. As I entered the gym, I noticed the 30-foot-high ceilings and massive industrial fans desperately trying to circulate air through the room to the 100+ attendees. The folding chairs set up in rows of 10 seemed nearly as old as the building they resided in. Still, none of these factors seemed like they would interfere with the success of the presentation.

I grabbed a pastry and an orange juice, excitedly introduced myself to the closest person I could make eye contact with, and eagerly awaited the start of the training. A few minutes later, the presenters welcomed the group and introduced themselves.

This is when the red flags went up. Awkward silences accompanied several technical difficulties, one of which was a sound system equipped to meet the needs of the room but was not turned up loud enough. The presenter asked a very rhetorical “Can everyone hear me?” question without listening for the audience’s response. Instead of using a lavalier microphone or a podium with an attached microphone stand, a handheld microphone sat on a vertical microphone stand, restraining the speakers’ ability to naturally engage the audience with hand movements or walking around the room. The drone of the industrial ceiling fans emanated an overpowering white noise, leaving me to naively decide between temperature control and presentation audio, knowing this was neither a choice that an attendee should have to make nor a choice that I was in control of.

The speakers traded 45-minute presentations over the course of the morning. Their slides were unremarkable, vacillating between bulleted, small-font type and no graphics to images with no words or context to the overall presentation. The presenters infused some stories into their presentation but didn’t make efforts to engage the audience by asking questions or polling the group. There was no flow or coherency to their segments. I could tell they knew more than Wikipedia about their subject, but they struggled to convert their knowledge into palatable information.

One presenter was consistently on the verge of being too far away from the microphone. The people seated near me and I (and probably most other attendees) strained to hear his words. Just when one of us couldn’t take it anymore and raised our hands to acknowledge that we couldn’t hear, the speaker would self-correct and move closer to the microphone. This process repeated multiple times throughout the morning. One by one, attendees began pulling their cell phones out, the ominous sign that the presenters had lost their audience.

The training was scheduled for the entire day, but I knew I couldn’t bear to repeat the morning’s happenings again in the afternoon. So I left at lunchtime, longing for more content (but not more of what I’d just witnessed).

This is a cautionary tale for presenters and trainers who do not give proper attention to details around a presentation. Good presentations do not happen naturally. They are the by-product of strong content knowledge, sound preparation, understanding of audience make-up and preferences, and vigilant awareness.

Here are some tips to ensuring your presentation hits the mark:

1. Act like you know what you’re talking about.

Executing quality training or speech requires a compelling delivery. Most audiences don’t know who you are, and you must work from the moment you begin speaking to form their perception of you. Use notecards, if you must, for certain details, but internalize the key elements of your message, make eye contact with people while you are speaking, and deliver your message in an inviting manner.

2. Be knowledgeable.

Understand the reason you are being brought to speak on a topic, and why they chose you. Arrive early to your speaking event and find out what people are doing prior to your talk so you can give the audience context to your speech. Casually ask one or two attendees about their experience to gauge the tenor of the room.

3. Be effective.

It is not sufficient to be a subject matter expert or to have completed extensive research in a certain field. If you can’t deliver what you know in a way that people can internalize it and make it relevant to their work, you’ve probably lost them. Engage the audience with Q&A opportunities, use live polling software or bring a volunteer up to participate in an activity. And one additional suggestion about questions: don’t wait until the end to entertain all questions. Often people with a lingering question will perseverate on their question until it’s answered, losing their engagement while they wait until Q&A time. If they have a question, chances are high that other participants have a similar question, too.

4. Test your material on people inside and outside of your industry.

Spouses and co-workers make for good guinea pigs, as do parents, neighbors, and friends. You might find yourself backtracking and explaining every nuance to someone who has no prior knowledge of this topic. You will have the most familiarity with your material, but that sometimes causes blind spots. It’s better to flesh out these parts while rehearsing your presentation than to find yourself improvising with your audience.

5. Leave the excuses and apologies at the door.

Imagine if you sat down at a local theatre show, and prior to the curtain being drawn, a voice came over the intercom saying, “We apologize, but the show you are about to see is not as good as it could have been. Due to a number of factors—illness, lack of discipline, and procrastination—you probably won’t get your money’s worth.” Your presentation should be at the highest and most professional level you can possibly prepare prior to the training. If it’s not, remain professional by keeping that information to yourself. On rare occasions when unexpected issues arise that are outside of your control, then feel free to acknowledge the experience and use it to relate to your audience. It seems like every time I want to show someone a video on YouTube, my internet connection decides to stall and I’m left with a buffering circle on my screen. I’m sure others can relate. Create a shared experience to keep your audience engaged and acknowledge that many things in life are out of our control, but we still have a choice in how we handle the adversity.