Today I’m giving a presentation. We all give presentations every day. We communicate with others for professional and personal reasons all the time. Even if we just focus on professional communication, our days are full of presentations. We are effective in these presentations to the extent that our audience understands what we are trying to get across. Let me make the key point again: We are effective to the extent that our audience understands what we are trying to get across. Effectiveness is not about how flashy our presentation is, how much information we present, or whether or not we used PowerPoint. Effectiveness is about transmitting understanding and that transmission is hard. As Linda Flower says in Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing:
When you think about it, we ask a great deal when we expect people to translate a few words presented on a page into a complex meaning or an image that resembles what we originally intended. As we all know, merely reading a message is not the same thing as understanding, much less remembering, it. (p. 128)
When we ask people to translate fleeting comments and images from real-time presentation the task is even harder. Two articles I came across today highlight the value of focusing on our audience and the process of how they come to understand the ideas we are trying to transmit:
- Michael Schrage’s post for the Harvard Business Review blog,Delivering Your Innovative Ideas, highlights what a presenter can learn from reading (or hearing) how the audience translates his ideas. This is an idea Linda Flower also presents in her work, mentioned above. We can learn a great deal from the interpretations of our presentations, be they reports, slide decks, or verbal.
- FastCompany reports that it is “Say No to PowerPoint Week.” I’m troubled by this one as it places the blame on the technology rather than the presenter. I’ve also heard Edward Tufte talk about PowerPoint and how the templates “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning...” Bert Deckerof Decker Communications provides a more evenhanded view in his 2009 post. He notes that our first step is to “figure out what your message is – what is your Point Of View, what Action do you want people to take and what are the Benefits (for them – not you...)” rather than to sit down and have the technology drive the outline.
Schrage and Decker both keep the audience’s understanding at the forefront of the process. They are both demonstrating systems savvy whereby the technology tools, organizational process, and human dimensions are used in concert to support the specific goal of transmitting an idea such that it is understood by the particular audience. Start with the goal of understanding and then mix your tools and approach to create your message and method. PowerPoint alone is not a cause of weak reasoning. A great idea alone is not the key to a successful presentation. Use your systems savvy to transmit the great idea to the audience in a way that they can use -- that is the key to a successful presentation.