“The brain can absorb only what the rear end can endure.” ~Mark Twain
Think back to all the presentations or briefings you’ve attended. Have you ever heard anyone complain that they were too short? That they wanted the speaker to keep on going, piling PowerPoint slide on top of PowerPoint slide until nearly every head nodded in bored weariness or to look down at a watch without being too obvious? Not bloody likely.
But then have you ever sat through a briefing by a presentation skills practitioner that actually was too short? That left you thirsting for more information? I can’t think of one, and the reason is compellingly simple: A concise, pithy briefing works because those experts at presentation skills care about informing and entertaining their audience, about getting to the point with a minimum of technological back-up and a few key points jotted on a whiteboard or flip chart.
Just as importantly — as I keep insisting to participants in my business communications seminars — they want to turn the event into a conversation, not a lecture. They want to stimulate a lively Q&A where, if things really get revved up, the presenter pivots off the back-and-forth to bring out the best in the audience. The ones most adept at presentation skills leave room for what should be the high point of their time up there – you and your ideas and questions. Isn’t that more stimulating than a speaker viewing you as a passive receptacle for a look-at-me lecture?
It’s a matter of respect. The best briefers don’t act as if they hold a monopoly on all the relevant wisdom in the room. At the same time, they keep ideas or information in reserve because they know at least some of you will ask the questions or make the points that transform one speaker and 30 or 40 listeners into a lively learning experience.
One last thing, calling on Mark Twain above: pretend your audience is sitting on hard wooden pews. The best sermons, I’ve been told, rarely exceed 15 minutes.
Hall of Shame
I’ve gotten many comments on my inaugural entries in the Language Hall of Shame, for which I’m grateful. So herewith:
o “Out of the box.” I thought this sucker would be gone by now, consigned to some ash heap like “this particular point in time” subbing for “now,” but I’ve been hearing it far too often lately. If you’re really thinking outside the box, should you be using tired phrases like “outside the box?” And if everyone thinks outside that ubiquitous cardboard container, maybe the “most unique” course for you would be to climb back inside and hunker down in lonely, risk-free splendor.
o “Taking it to the next level.” Okay, I know this is a sports cliché, and I know we can blame it on a host of ex-jocks in broadcast booths across America. But I’ve been hearing it creep into consultant-speak and what passes for business communications. One thought: In the workplace, writing skills are most effective if they’re precise. So the “next level” doesn’t have to be a glorious ascension, does it? It could be a step downward, couldn’t it?
o “Step up to the plate.” Sports again. This one’s achieving critical mess (that’s not a typo). And it’s an absurd example of what occurs when copycat, mindless writing masquerades as effective business communication. Do you know what happens to the top 20 or 30 baseball hitters when they “step up to the plate?” Nearly seven times out of ten, they strike out, hit a grounder, a foul pop-up, an infield pop-up, a line drive to an infielder or a fly ball to an outfielder. In other words, they fail.