Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences working in local, regional and global life sciences communications to offer some quick tips for profiting from a career at big business. This article makes the case for encouraging and supporting presenters to make the most of their expertise.
Has this happened to you too? You have been invited to make a presentation. You prepare. You repeat. You consider the background of the audience, the questions they may ask, and what you want them to take away from your speech, or what decisions you need from them. You put your heart into starting strong and captivating the audience.
Then someone interrupts slide two. It can be an appropriate comment or a perfectly legitimate question. But it confuses you slightly. Of course, as an expert speaker, you will (must) answer any question you are asked without hesitation. However, as soon as you’ve done that and come back to where you left off, the next participant interrupts you with “just another quick question…”
Presentation success is a “team sport”
You’re still on your second slide as a longer dispute brews over a sentence some people disagree with. You specify why you chose this terminology rather than the established convention and what meaning you wanted to convey. More people are adding points of view – some in favor, some in opposition. Before you know it, your presentation is completely off track.
Despite the fact that you only brought a few slides to allow time for discussion and answering questions, you start to panic: how are you going to stop this futile chatter and get it back on track, so that the group knows a positive result and to allow you to continue your work which depends on today’s decision?
You politely ask the participants to allow you to go through the full case so that everyone in the room can discuss and decide based on the full picture. You agree that if a question remains unanswered today, you will respond immediately after the meeting.
However, your confidence crumbles with each new interruption. Further attempts to come back to your topic seem more and more like a plea. When the window is up, you haven’t been able to present your full case, let alone seek the desired decision or support you came for.
Does your topic require a presentation?
I don’t invent anything. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a presenter come in specifically to present a “critical” strategic update, according to their manager. It took eight (8!) seconds before the same boss interrupted the speaker, still on the first slide. What ensued was a ten-minute haggle over a word, before someone suggested we “let them walk the bridge before we continue to argue.” For the remainder of the six-slide deck, the director and leader of the assembled group continued to shake their heads briskly as the presenter hurried toward the end of the presentation.
I wonder: if we discourage presenters before they can properly state their case, and throughout the presentation, why are we inviting them in the first place?
True – by far not all decision-making topics and processes require a formal presentation. It should be carefully decided whether yours does, and if so, what the goals of the conversation are. In most cases where a presentation is necessary, a successful outcome will benefit everyone involved, not just the presenter. So why not work together to ensure clear and comprehensive communication, transparent dialogue and constructive feedback?
An inattentive and disinterested audience can be as disruptive as constant intrusions. When people are constantly fiddling with mobile devices or their eyes are glued to the laptop screen to respond to emails, how does that make a presenter successful?
Again – if the topic isn’t relevant to everyone in the room, why host it in the first place and waste everyone’s time, including the presenter? Consider other ways to provide partially relevant information for a group.
But when it’s decided and you are in front of a presenter, even if his subject seems uninteresting to you at the time, give him your full attention. Actively listen, maintain eye contact, nod occasionally, smile. Show that you are with them and not against them. In nine out of ten cases, presenters who feel the audience is on their side give a better and clearer presentation than those who face disinterest or opposition. At a minimum, you’ll save time listening to them, because you can ask better questions at the end based on the full picture – or swallow them if they’ve already been answered during the talk.
And, who knows, you might just gain some new knowledge that will prove invaluable, if you give it a chance. After all, there’s usually a reason the speaker was asked to inject the meeting with details about the chosen topic. This is often because they are the subject matter experts while you are not.
Embrace cross-cultural diversity
In global organizations, one of the worst blunders of incompetent management is ignoring the diversity of cultural norms when it comes to receiving a presentation. What can be a difficult challenge to handle for someone in the audience asking a disruptive question in Western countries, can amount to an outright insult to a trained speaker, for example, in an Asian country where the convention is d hear a speaker before the first. a question or comment is made.
Not only will this demoralize people, but it will stifle innovation and business results, as colleagues will be less willing to engage if leadership disrespects them.
It’s more than courtesy. In many cultures, from an early age, children and students are trained to “present” a case starting at the very beginning, explaining the extent of the background to gradually building up to the key point. or current affairs. Whereas in other parts of the world we’ve learned to ‘hook’ an audience with what’s key or current first and then chart the path that got us here, more info and how it all started .
They are essentially different approaches to building a story or presentation plot, rooted in our cultural fabric and upbringing. By collaborating with international colleagues and learning from them, we can develop a better understanding of diverse cultural needs and expectations in order to be able to adapt our own approach. However, if you see value in true innovation based on mixed experiences and ideas, I recommend that you first open our minds to respect the fact that on the planet we have all been socialized and raised differently, and that it is important to accept these styles are diverse. To make the most of this diversity, we need to listen carefully and encourage presenters; not to complicate things, disrupt them and demoralize them – especially in an international context.
To take notes
Note taking is a simple matter – or is it? Sometimes I see attendees scribbling frantically as if their raison d’etre was to make accurate transcriptions of every presentation they listen to. But, I wonder, how can one integrate content and make solid contributions when their exclusive goal is to capture every spoken word and write it down at rocket speed?
For a long time now, I have resorted to taking note of a few select points per speech only, which are either new to me or essential to remember. In addition, I note new actions and ideas resulting for me from this interview; and I usually jot down any questions or additions that cross my mind as I listen, only to bring them up at the end or cross them off my list if they’re already covered.
For me, this form of capturing crucial information – not all of it – is far more effective than anything I’ve tried. When I exaggerate the notes, I tend to stop listening and as a result, I won’t remember anything that was said. If I don’t take notes, given the sheer number of meetings and presentations we typically attend in the corporate world, I won’t remember much either. The same thing happens when I rely on elaborate meeting minutes or the original PowerPoint presentation released after the meeting. If I don’t capture my own brief, focused notes, I might as well not bother to attend.
To be present
To be clear: not all meetings, topics or decisions require a formal presentation. Many alternatives are available which may be superior to facilitate the desired results.
But when it is decided that a presentation is the method of choice, everyone in the room should do their best to help the presenter succeed in getting their case across clearly and unambiguously. This does not mean that everyone will have to agree with the speaker or approve of their requests. It just means having the patience and discipline to hear the full argument before you start commenting, raising questions, or dissecting the case. If not, how will you be able to make a good, informed decision?
By the way, it’s usually okay to leave the meeting for a while if this presentation really isn’t about you. But when you are there, be present!
- Consider other ways to share information partially relevant to a group
- Set a time and/or slide limit for presenters
- Allow extra time for discussion
- In these windows, allow speakers to complete their presentation
- Write down questions/comments so you don’t interrupt
- Give your full attention to the presenter; Show that you are with them and not against them
- Actively listen, maintain eye contact, nod occasionally, smile
- Do not disrupt by handling your mobile device or responding to emails
- Leave the meeting for a while if a presentation isn’t relevant to you
- Be present when you are at the meeting/presentation
- Respect and embrace diversity and cultural norms
- Develop an understanding and appreciation of the value of various styles
- Write down crucial points, actions and ideas – not all – resulting from the discussion
About the Author
Olivier Stohlmann is a communications leader with over 20 years of experience working locally, regionally and globally for many of the world’s leading life science companies. Most recently, he was Global Head of External Innovation Communications at Johnson & Johnson.