3 common excuses

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When trying to explain that there is a better way to do presentations, people often agree - only to find excuses why they are not doing it that way (yet). The 3 most common excuses I keep hearing are:

  1. I don't have the time
  2. I can't use photos for this topic
  3. My audience wants numbers

"I don't have the time"

I realize that everyone is short on time these days. But to put it bluntly: If you don't have the time to prepare a good presentation, the audience may not have the time to listen to it. Since time is such a scarce resource, they may decide that listening to a mediocre presentation is just not worth their time. Which means that you not only wasted everybody's time (including yours) but also an opportunity to help your cause.

If your presentation is important (and if it isn't, why are you giving it?) then it should be worth being done properly. Also, don't think of the extra time as only being invested into the presentation. There will be all sorts of side benefits, like getting new insights into a topic that you thought you know everything about already, and being able to explain your core points more succinctly and more convincingly. Proper preparation will also help you outside of the short-term scope of giving a presentation; think meeting someone in the hallway and being able to quickly explain your point to them (aka Elevator Pitch).

"I can't use photos for this topic"

This is a common misunderstanding of the Presentation Zen approach. It is not about using photos. It is about giving the audience what they need. If there's a graph that best explains what you're talking about, then you should of course use it. If it can best be explained with a piece of source code then use that. And so on.

What you have to do, though, is to make it as easy as possible for your audience to understand whatever it is that you're trying to tell them. So the graph should be clear and free from clutter. Your code should be stripped down to the essentials (and in a readable size).

For more abstract concepts, using photos works best. Associating a photo with a topic will help your audience remember it better - certainly better then when all they have to go with is a blob of text on a slide.

"My audience wants numbers"

Do they really? I mean, all of them? We often tend to include all the numbers we can find, just to be on the safe side and to show that we did our homework. That's certainly commendable and I don't want you to stop from looking for facts and numbers to back up your message. But you don't need to put all of them in your slides!

In fact, numbers can easily be found on the web these days. What most audiences really need is someone who explains the meaning of those numbers to them. Think about why you really want to include all those numbers in your talk. Are they really necessary? Or is it mainly because you're afraid not to appear credible otherwise?

There are certainly audiences that will insist on seeing the numbers, e.g. scientists. But even then, you can usually "get away" with showing the trend or the main point with only a few numbers on a slide - so that it's clear what you're talking about - and provide the detailed numbers in a handout. Also, an audience that's interested in numbers is probably knowledgeable enough to look them up themselves if you provide them with your sources. All this won't save you from analysing the numbers yourself of course. In fact, your job as the presenter is to do the processing beforehand and then present your findings in as clear a way as possible. Have your sources ready for those who question your results.

Conclusion

There's really no excuse for doing old-style boring presentations any more. You will have to put a little more time and effort into preparation, but the results, i.e. an engaged audience that gets more out of your presentation, will speak for themselves.

(Photo: "Not enough time" by Caitlin Regan, from Flickr)

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