Presentation Skills – Keeping the Blackberries at Bay

Question: How do you know if an engineer is an extrovert?

Answer: He looks at your shoes when he talks to you! I am allowed to say that, coming from a family of engineers, but it’s exactly to the point of this month’s column on the art of successful presentation design and delivery. At the heart of all successful presentations is a presenter who maintains proper eye-contact with members of the audience at all times.

Microsoft estimates that with over 300 million copies of PowerPoint installed world-wide, something like 3 million presentations are given every day. What they don’t say is that roughly 2.9 million of those are completely ineffective in achieving true knowledge transfer, what presentations are supposed to be about in the first place.

Knowledge transfer occurs, for the most part, when you are able to keep every member of the audience on the same page throughout the entire presentation. Unlike a written report, where the intended audience has the luxury of acquiring the embedded knowledge at his or her own pace, a presentation is actually an event where knowledge transfer is a rather ethereal event; information appears on the screen and is discussed for a fleeting moment in time, and then disappears.

To understand the relationship between an on-screen presentation and a written report (or worse – the presentation printed as a hand-out), think billboard versus magazine ad.

Look me in the eye

To keep the audience together, you first must start with a presentation that allows you to stay engaged with the audience, as opposed to either the screen or your notes. When you lose engagement in business presentations today, you invite audience members to wander, and that’s when the Blackberries blossom.

A key element to successful engagement involves learning proper eye contact, which requires you to hold contact with individuals for anywhere between 3-7 seconds, or until you have completed one thought. At which point, you pause and move to another person and do the same. Most presenters look at one person no more than ½ to 1 second at a time, if that, and then only when they’re not looking up at the ceiling or down at the floor. Or, with extroverted engineers, your shoes.

Modern presentation theory teaches a conversational approach to presenting, because that’s the way to maximize both comfort and trust between you and the audience. By practicing some fairly simple eye contact techniques, you can deliver to a group of 500 without ever feeling more anxiety than you would when discussing your job to friends around a lunch table. Most people find that hard to believe until they’ve received some training, but when you get it down, it’s rather powerful stuff!

People like to talk about themselves, about what they do, and about what they know. Your presentations should be like that. Use the screen to keep yourself in a pre-set direction, use it to list all the points you want to be sure to make, but deliver the presentation itself from the heart. People care somewhat about content, but what moves them to interest is hearing how you feel about it. To get across emotion, you want to be conversational.

Reading is NOT fundamental

Your job as presentation designer, therefore, is to create visuals that further this process rather than hamper it. Your slides need to contain only as much information as is necessary to start the conversation, and allow you to continue it while engaging individuals in the audience with your eyes. You are not there to read slides – the audience could do that quite easily for themselves, thank you. If you’re reading from the screen, you’re not engaging the audience. If your eyes are anywhere but in contact with a listener, the audience is actually dis-engaged.

The other problem with trying to deliver a presentation that contains lengthy streams of prose is that the people who came to hear you speak can read words about 40% faster than you can speak them – 250 words per minute for them vs. 150 wpm for you. It is the equivalent of having a minivan that waits until the last minute to pull out into the road in front of you, and then proceeds to drive 40% slower than the speed limit you were pleasantly exceeding.

When there is too much information on the screen, especially in the form of sentences, not only does the reading process rob the audience of their precious time, it also leads to breaking the essential bond between you and the audience that occurs only with constant eye contact. When you project up TMI, you are forced, by design, to turn your back to the audience as you read from the screen.

As practitioners of the conversational approach know, nothing works more to bind you with the audience than the proper use of eye contact, summed up with this rule:

If eyes aren’t locked then your jaw must be.

With a visual so complex that it forces you to read from the screen, this all-important component to proper presenting is lost, attention erodes, and the only contact your audience seeks is with people at the other end of their wireless devices.

Absorb, Align, and Address:

The solution, then, is to restrict the volume of information at each exposure to that which can be absorbed by both you and the audience in just a few seconds – 10 at the most. The proper procedure for achieving transfer of information from the screen to the audience involves a process we call Absorb, Align, and Address, but that is a the subject of an article all its own.

Presenting Yourself in Public – What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You

Everyone tells you “should not” worry about how you present yourself and what others will think of you. Not worry about your self-presentation? Nonsense! It is both adaptive and essential that you be concerned about the impressions you make in not only social situations but also in your business. First impressions are what influence others to want to interact with you. This means you need to be aware of it and motivated to make them represent the best of you to your audience.

What can help you create ongoing best impressions?

You need to know and follow the norms for any particular context and the role you occupy in it. They may have different assigned behaviors and expectations. If they are new to you, learn about them ahead of time rather than just assuming you know what to do. Not meeting them is like talking on a cell phone during a funeral which will get you labeled as a “tacky,” “dumb,” or “ignorant.”

You need always to present yourself positively and confidently but with a touch of modesty. While you can disclose and refer to yourself, you need to keep the focus on the other person. You are listening to learn about the other person’s concerns and to find any similarities. Similarities enhance attractiveness. When you are seen as similar in some areas, the other person will assume there are many more areas of positive similarity. Similarities are important for creating rapport.

When you get people to talk about themselves, you can use what they say to tailor your presentation to focus on the perceived values and preferences of the other person. You are looking for areas for connecting and bonding. Remember: Even if the person is putting you to sleep, you need to practice civil attention by appearing involved and attentive. Appearing the least bit inattentive or disinterested in the conversation or topic erases any good feelings you have already created.

Your self-presentation needs to be consistent with your beliefs and attitudes and consistent across situations. It is necessary to share yourself as you are rather than as a chameleon. Taking on the attitudes and beliefs of whoever your audience is at the moment smacks of deception and manipulation. Such behavior immediately squelches trust. Likewise, fabrication of anything in your self-presentation, whether in speaking or in writing, however minor, makes it nearly impossible to recover your trustworthiness.

Your self-presentation helps you define a positive relationship between you and your audience. It enables your public to confidently know you in advance, feel comfortable with you, and know what to expect of you in further interactions.

Do You Dream in the Past, Present, Or Future?

Many psychologists believe that dreams are all about a coalescing of the day’s events, moving the information from short-term to long-term memory in a defragging information sort of way. Whereas, it appears to be true that some of the dreams we have are about that, I would submit to you that some are forward thinking. In fact, I would say that dreams are without time; past, present, and future.

However as I say that, I can tell you that there are people who disagree with me, including some very famous professors, theorists, and famous dead white men whose names we must memorize if we are to study psychology. If you have a few moments I’d like to discuss this with you. The reason I say that dreams are in the past, present, and future is through actual observations. We know that if you are sleeping, and there are events going on around you while you are sleeping, fragments will end up in your dreams.

This is simply because the auditory part of the brain is always on. Perhaps it was a survival tool that survived the evolutionary process. After all, when humans are sleeping they might be attacked by a vicious animal, but if they heard the animal coming, they would wake up and could defend themselves. That’s a theory as well. Thus, dreams can be set forth in the present, and involve what’s going on in real-time.

In 1983 A. Phillips stated that “Dreams are always in the past,” but that seems rather absolute, how can we know that for sure, in fact, I think I disagree, rather strongly actually. Not only for the reasons I cited above, and I will give Phillips some credit, because dreams do include the past, but they are not “always” in the past.

Further, it is possible to dream into the future, it may not be the actual future that occurs later, but the mind has an interesting way willing events to occur, using Inherent tools perhaps similar to psycho-cybernetics, which is what athletes use to envision victory before the sporting event. Lastly, dreams seem to be no different at a subconscious level, then at the conscious level with regards to time. Just as we cannot live in the future, we can set ourselves up and project ourselves into that future, just as we can in dreams.

We can also use our memory of the past to relive the past in our conscious mind and in our thoughts. Just as we do in our dreams. Now then, I ask you this simple question, and before you answer to yourself, I’d like you to please consider this; do you dream in the past, present, or future? Please think on it.