On making presentations

Lately, we’ve had lots of food for thought about making presentations. It made me look back at what I was doing, just over a year ago, and wonder whether things have really progressed for me since then.

At INSEAD, I was considered a good presenter – at least, based on feedback from fellow classmates (when made to make impromptu speeches in class) and by my Communications professor. The key was in knowing the subject and the context, and speaking succinctly about it – because there were many other clever classmates competing for the professor’s attention as well.
How were we taught to fine-tune our presentation skills at INSEAD? We had an ‘Art of Communication module’ where we formed groups and picked a presentation topic. We did thorough research, including looking through financial reports as a basis for the main thrust of our argument. We scripted and rehearsed our presentation multiple times, ensuring that the storyline flowed well and the final message was strong. Everyone in the team had a chance to present the part of the argument that they felt most strongly about.
On hindsight, I’d say things went well because at the very start, the brief was clear, and we had mutual respect for each other’s capabilities. I made full use of my design background to present our ideas in a visually impactful way, and the team gave constructive feedback so the slides kept looking better.
And the important thing was: We all agreed on SIMPLICITY.
– The fewer words, the better. “No ‘German slides'”, was the inside joke in school. This was after another professor showed us an engineering slide that was full of technical jargon and formulas (which happened to be in German).
– Fewer words, but more images. We all knew what type of images we needed to move our audience to action. We chose each picture carefully. Each picture we chose portrayed a diffe
rent part of the dire situation that called for change.
At the end of our presentation, we received full points for this module. That was nice, but the crowning glory that set us apart from the other full-pointers was that my professor asked if he could use the slides I had designed, as a model for future classes. He would credit my name in return. I agreed.
Later on, another student informed me that my slides had indeed been used for her class. Earlier this year a junior messaged me on Facebook, after realising I was the Vanessa Tan who had produced the model slides. It was, in a way, a vindication of how much I could contribute, if given a clear brief, constructive feedback and creative leeway in choosing the best imagery to evoke the right emotions in the audience. And of course, proper planning and respect for all team members’ opinions so that a cohesive storyline could be worked out.
However, when mired in the reality of work, with the pressures of deadlines and in the hurry to execute suggestions based on someone else’s interpretation at a meeting, all the good experiences and lessons learned sometimes come to almost naught. When there is uncertainty with the brief, conflicting instructions are given and this dilutes the impact. The information and imagery required may be stored in corporate silos, with the presenter uncertain whether he even has permission to refer to them. In the end, the presentation is compromised.
But I’m not the ultimate expert on the subject. Let’s look at how Steve Jobs does it, instead. He does not show complex frameworks or use big words to impress people. His slides show a single word or phrase, or a beautiful photograph. Above all, he speaks with passion and knows his stuff, inside out. He is confidence personified. He is also a perfectionist and I cannot imagine the sheer effort put in by his team to ensure that nothing less than an amazing presentation is given. The message is clear; it is then spread via word of mouth, creating buzz, translating to more sales, and eventually attaining cult status.
All is not lost. I do believe mindsets can be changed – once the mind is opened to new possibilities, at least. What I’ve done, as a kind of ‘soft influence’, is to display relevant books beside my new office cubicle. Currently I have [Change by Design](http://www.ideo.com/by-ideo/change-by-design?cbd) by IDEO CEO Steve Brown, and [The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0071636080?ie=UTF8&tag=vantan-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=1789&creativeASIN=0071636080). These are concepts I’ve been interested in for many years, not just recently. It is heartening to see more people getting genuinely interested in this as well (not just because it’s being mandated by their boss!).
My parting mantra?
– Do not be impressed by sheer technical knowledge when that cannot be articulated in simple words to the audience.
– Do not use copious amounts of text, slides or speech when the message can be expressed more briefly.
– Respect the presenter who can express a complex concept simply and impactfully, such that, later on, the audience can still recall what his key message was – and even better, spread the word to their friends.
– The people who are truly confident and know their work inside out, will be bold enough to keep things concise, because they can stand on their own feet and not on mounds of data.
– So, please, don’t be insecure 🙂