A few years ago I attended a business fair in Manhattan. There was a speaker giving a talk titled, “How to Make Effective Presentations.” She began by saying that she had a bone to pick with men and women. That was fine. It appeared to be the introduction to some light-humored banter. And, as long as you are going to insult everyone in the room, no one will complain.
Things, as you might have guessed, got interesting. First she took on the men. Her complaint was that when men stand up to speak, we button are jackets. This, she claimed, was because we had gained weight since purchasing our jackets and we are trying to hide our bellies.
Every man in the room looked at each other with a puzzled expression on their faces. First, the reason that we button our jackets is because – and this happened to every one of us – when we got our first “big boy suit,” and stepped on the stool for the tailor to work his magic, he leaned over and buttoned the jacket explaining, “That’s how big boys were their suit jackets.”
Second, if you have put on weight since you purchased your jacket, the last thing you want to do is to button it. The strain will be apparent – and, worst case scenario, a button could fly off!
Next she turned to the women. The complaint this time was that when women get up to speak they fix their neck lines; they fidget with their blouses. Same reaction as with the men. The women all looked at each other with a sense of bewilderment. None of us knew what she was talking about, but we all knew that she did not check her facts.
Some people left. I would have, but I was sitting in the front row and did not want to appear rude. But with authority I can say, because I was front row center, only two or three people handed her back the form she had distributed if anyone wanted to sign-up for her newsletter.
She had forgotten the first C of effective presentations: credibility. She had none.
The second C is comedy. I am not a joke teller. Every time I have tried to tell a joke in public, I have failed. I can’t even blame the jokes. It’s just not what I do. But I can tell a funny story and an amusing anecdote – usually of the self-deprecating kind. Getting an audience to laugh is a way of breaking the ice and being engaging. The problem is that sometimes, forget about jokes, what you consider to be funny someone in the audience might find offensive. That is why it is so critical to speak with the event planner to get a good idea about your audience. The worst example was a talk I heard about 9/11 – still an open wound in New York City. The speaker had made a very good presentation, but he ended with a joke about first responders. There were no questions. Everyone immediately started to leave. No one shook his hand.
And that brings me to the third C, compassion. You have to bond with your audience. I always arrive early, speak to the first-arrivals, and get some idea of who they are and why they came. At the beginning of the talk I take a poll to see what people want me to focus on. I throw out a couple of options, and I follow their lead. That way, they have bought into the presentation, so to speak. To be honest, I used to lose a few people at the start of my presentations, but since I started polling, walk-outs are few and far between.
Credibility, comedy and compassion. Remember them and your presentations will always be effective.