Who says we need our logo on every slide?
Dan Pink: writer, presenter, mensch

Two Questions: Why does it matter? What's your contribution?

Audience_man A lot of the presentations I attend feature a person from a specialized field giving a talk — usually with the help of PowerPoint — to an audience of business people and creatives, etc. who are not at all specialists in the presenter’s technical field. This is not an uncommon type of situation, of course. For example, an expert in the area of, say, biofuel technology may be invited to give a presentation to a local chamber of commerce about the topic and about what their company does, what the average person can do, etc. Recently I attended such an event, and after the hour talk was over I realized that the presentation was a miracle of sorts: Until that day I didn’t think it was possible to actually listen to someone make a PowerPoint presentation in my native language of English and for me to genuinely not understand a single point that was made. Not one. Nada. I understood the individual words, the pronunciation and diction were perfect, but between ubiquitous acronyms — and the darting laser pointer used to underline those acronyms — bulleted lists, and colourfully decorated charts and diagrams, after it was all said and done, I realized that I hadn’t comprehended a single idea. I wanted my hour back.

The wasted hour was not the fault of PowerPoint or even bad slides, however. While I was suffering through this, doing the best that I could to understand, it occurred to me that this presentation would have been greatly improved if the presenter would have kept two good pieces of advice in mind in preparing for the talk. These two bits of advice which I discovered recently have nothing to do with PowerPoint or the art of slide presentations per se, yet they apply well.

Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter?
I mentioned before that I think Brand Gap is one of the best little books on branding that I have ever read. Even people who loathe the very idea of marketing or branding will find something useful in this book. In Brand Gap author Marty Neumeir (read an interview with the author) tells us of a consultant who starts off every meeting with a new client the same way, by asking these three simple questions: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? Sounds simple, and people usually do pretty well with the first one and even the second one, but the third one — why does it (or you) matter? — whoa, this is where people stumble. Yet, that is what people (including most audiences) are hoping and praying that you’ll tell them. Neumeir says that these three questions together provide the litmus test for what makes us different or what gives our company it’s raison d’etre. Neumeir may be talking about branding, but his advice here translates well to other forms of communication as well. We can, more or less, read about what you do and who you are, but why it matters? Why we should care? That’s going to take persuasion, emotion, and empathy. Empathy in the sense that the presenter understands that not everyone will see what to him is obvious or that others may understand well but not see why it should matter to them. Good presenters try to put themselves in the shoes of the audience so to speak. If you have never been in a presentation or a meeting and not asked yourself “why does this matter?” — or “why am I here?” — then you are a very lucky person indeed. Failing to answer the question “Why does it matter?” — or “What’s in it for them (the audience)?” — is often at the heart of a failed presentation.


(By the way, Marty Neumeir has done a pretty cool thing by putting the main narrative of his book into the form of a PowerPoint deck that is especially useful to someone who has already read the book and wants to talk about the ideas with the help of these visuals above. You can find the three essential questions related to focus on slide 50 of 162 in the Slideshare deck above.)

It’s about making contribution
Art_o_possible You may know Benjamin Zander as the talented conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, but he is also one of the truly gifted presenters of our time. He’s so good in fact — so inspiring and so informative — that he could spend all his time just talking to companies and organizations about leadership and transformation. I just bought his book — The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life
— and I can’t wait to one day witness one of his talks live. Until then you and I can get a feel for his passion and his wisdom from a few short clips on YouTube. Half way through this clip (shown below, go to the 3:30 mark) Zander says something quite remarkable to a group of musicians. He may be talking in the context of musicianship, but his words can be applied to most of our presentation contexts too:

“This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now. Which is: We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

                                                            — Benjamin Zander


Not every presentation situation is about contribution, perhaps, but most are. Certainly when we are asked to share our expertise with a group who are on the whole not specialists in our field, we have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation we always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of our knowledge, it’s about sharing something of lasting value.

Lost_me_hello Getting back to my wasted hour. (Actually, it was a wasted hour for everyone involved.) The presenter, who was a smart, accomplished professional, failed before he even started. The slides looked like they where the same ones used in previous presentations to more technical audiences, an indication that he had not thought first and foremost about his audience on that day. And what about the fact that no one really understood what he said? He seemed not to notice that in the least (also not a good sign). His presentation would be utterly forgettable except for the fact that it was an absolute triumph of self-indulgence for the presenter and confusion for the audience. He failed to answer the important question, “Why does it matter?” But since he could not make it clear even “what he does” it would be impossible to answer why it mattered. He also would have been well advised in the preparation stage to remember that presentation opportunities like this are about contributing something, leaving something important behind for the audience. It does not necessarily matter what it is — information, knowledge, inspiration — just as long as it is for the audience

When assessing presenters, then, you may want to measure them against these four question (among others): Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter to us? What did you contribute? If these answers are clear and the contribution was beyond expectation, then chances are the hour was not a wasted one.

LINKS  
• Ben Zander on transformation and leadership (Google video)
• Ben Zander wisdom (very short YouTube clip).

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