If you don't check your alignment, you may be in for a rough ride.
Most of us have had the experience of being in a car with tires badly out of alignment. As a result the ride was rough, unpleasant, and distracting. This analogy holds true for presentations as well. If the presenter is not aligned with the audience, the presenter will be in for a rough ride and the attendees will find the presentation unpleasant and will quickly become distracted. Therefore, knowing your audience is not enough; you also must make sure that your goals and the goals of the organization and of the audience are all in alignment.
Six critical factors can help align a presentation with the audience's and organization's needs and expectations. They are:
The fit between the topic you are presenting and the other presentations that will be offered.
The experience level of the audience.
The heterogeneous/homogeneous nature of the audience.
The fatigue level of the audience.
The mood of the audience.
The attendees' learning styles.
Find out all you can about the program, plus its theme and schedule before you agree to do your presentation. Several years ago Brad was scheduled to do a presentation on stress management. He felt confident that he could do a good job. He had developed an excellent dynamic interactive presentation and had successfully given the presentation on numerous occasions. Brad was following a luncheon speaker, Sharon Woods. Sharon is the first North American woman to have climbed Mt. Everest.
When Sharon first started her program, she didn't appear to be that dynamic. However, when she projected her first overhead image, it had the name of her expedition, "Everest Light" and Sharon became superwoman. She then played a video, which so graphically illustrated her climb that the audience could feel and hear the howling winds. It was as if Sharon took the audience on the climb with her up to the top of the world's highest mountain. Her presentation was magnificent. Unfortunately, after the break, Brad was slated to make his presentation on stress management. At this point, no one cared about stress management. As a friend of Brad's said, only half jokingly, "Sharon took us up the mountain, and you brought us back down!" Ouch.
Brad learned a lot about alignment from that disaster. If he could have done his presentation on "Peak Performers" it would have fit much better with the tone that Sharon had set. Since that day, he always asks to see a copy of the conference schedule before he agrees to present. If they don't have a complete schedule, he asks to see what they do have. If they don't have a schedule at all, he asks for as much clarification as he can get on the theme of that particular conference.
David learned a similar lesson at the end of a four-day conference.
David: I was the closing keynote speaker, set to go on at 10:30 a.m. as the final speaker of the day. After three solid days, the attendees were tired and ready to head home. All that stood between them and "freedom" was me. Unfortunately, there was a 30-minute break between the first speaker and me. If the first speaker had been dynamic or entertaining, his momentum could carry over through the long break. However, the speaker was neither dynamic nor entertaining, and in just 45 minutes, he proceeded to put the audience into a stupor. Break time came and the audience departed in droves. When it was my turn, less than half the audience remained. The frustrating part of it is that I could do absolutely nothing to prevent it. Thereafter, I always make a point of asking, "Who and what are scheduled on either side of my presentation?" so I can prepare accordingly.
Two unforgivable presentation sins are talking down to your audience and talking over their heads. Therefore, you must do everything in your power to find out the experience level of your potential audience. At times you will be given an audience that has inherently mixed levels of experience and you must develop materials that can be helpful to and enjoyed by participants at various levels. This means that the materials are so well prepared that participants at very junior levels and at very senior levels can benefit at the same time. Another strategy is to divide the group into subgroups and have them work on a project with people at the same level of experience. One of our favorite techniques is to have people at the same level in an organization work on a shared problem. Participants from engineering would work on the problem from an engineering perspective, while sales would work on it from a sales perspective, and manufacturing would work on it from a manufacturing perspective. They can then look at the problem and possible solutions based on each group's perspective.
The following example illustrates the importance of how heterogeneous or homogeneous your audience is.
Brad was once asked to give a presentation on time management at a resort. The group was the Young Presidents Organization and from the presentation description, Brad knew that this would be a difficult presentation to deliver. First, the audience consisted of children ages 9 and older plus their parents. He sensed that if he spoke to the parents, he would lose the children, or if he spoke to the children he would lose their parents.
The second factor that made the presentation difficult was that it was a murder mystery weekend. Now, if you were going to give a "serious" (or even "not so serious") presentation on time management, when would you least want the "murder" to occur: during the presentation or just before you present? As luck would have it, the "murder" took place just before Brad's presentation. It was very realistic. An ambulance came to take the body away and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) came to investigate the crime. Unfortunately, there were several 5-year-olds who thought it was a bit too realistic and promptly became hysterical. The presentation had to be postponed until the 5-year-olds could be taken to a hotel room where they could see that the actress was indeed alive and the blood from the bullet wound was indeed ketchup. After the half-hour delay, they were ready to begin the presentation on time management.
At that point in time, how many people in the room were interested in a presentation on time management? We would venture to guess that no one was really interested. But Brad had a secret weapon. A humorous film titled The Unorganized Manager by John Cleese. The film portrays a manager named Mr. Lewis who is completely unorganized at work and at home. About halfway through the film, Mr. Lewis has a heart attack, dies, and goes to heaven. At the pearly gates, Mr. Lewis rings the doorbell, which plays the "Halleluiah Chorus." St. Peter says that there is no Mr. Lewis due in heaven that day and he must be due at the other place. Mr. Lewis protests that he has always been a good man and has tried to do right. St. Peter shows Mr. Lewis that although he had good intentions, he was so disorganized and managed his time so poorly, both at work and at home, that he could not let Mr. Lewis in. Mr. Lewis begs for a second chance. St. Peter then coaches Mr. Lewis on how to better manage his time.
This well-made and humorous film got the audience's attention. The audience was thinking about time management and not, at least for the time being, about the murder mystery. Brad knew that he was now at a crucial point in his presentation. If he talked to the parents first, he would likely not get the children to participate. So he asked the children to rate from, A to F, Mr. Lewis's ability to manage time. There was a resounding chorus of Fs raising from their sweet voices. One of the boys seemed to be particularly vocal, so Brad asked him to rate his father on time management at home, thinking that he would say A, A-, or B+. Instead he said, "C-." You could have heard a pin drop in the room.
His father, like all the members in the Young Presidents Organization had to have started or become president of his or her own companies before the age of 39. Members also had to employ 50 employees and gross $5 million annually. In front of his peers, this young man had just called his father a ‘C-’ father. Brad learned an important lesson. Never ask a question in public that could potentially embarrass a member of your audience.
After the presentation, Brad walked up to the father to apologize and to state that it was not his intention to embarrass him. The father said that it was all right. He looked Brad in the eye and said that he had just received some very painful but important feedback. He said, "My son is 9 years old and he could easily leave our home by the time he is 18 or 19, and I did not want my son leaving home thinking that he had a ‘C-’ father."
This is an example of salient feedback. Salient feedback is feedback that is so personally meaningful that we actually change our behavior. We live in a feedback-rich world. Effective presenters systematically harvest that feedback, both at home and at work. Subsequent chapters cover techniques to get salient feedback on what we do well and on ways we can improve our ability to present to both homogeneous and heterogeneous audiences. It also points out the crucial importance of knowing how homogeneous or heterogeneous your audience will be and planning your presentation accordingly.
Always try to anticipate the fatigue level of your audience. Take this into account when you are planning your presentation. Brad had more than a couple of hurdles to leap when he was scheduled to speak in front of a potentially fatigued audience in a 4:30 p.m. time slot on a perfect summer day. Worse, he was up against an international buskers (street performers) festival being held in the same city at the same time. Not a pretty picture. Luckily, as one participant said, "The presentation was interactive, humorous, and dynamic. The topic was engaging enough that he won us over."
Suffice to say, you have to take the fatigue level of your audience into account when planning your presentation. Other instances when you are likely to have a fatigued audience is an after-dinner speech—especially if alcohol is served—and the first session in the morning after an evening's partying or banquet. Also, the first slot right after a large lunch can be tough.
The mood of the audience has a major effect on your presentation. Sometimes you will know that there are extenuating circumstances that are beyond your control and you will have to adapt your presentation accordingly. Other times, you will receive no warning as illustrated in the following example.
I was asked to do a workshop on Resiliency and Change Management for a campus of a community college. It turned out that that particular campus was going to be closed and the news had been leaked to the participants the day before the workshop was to take place. Some of the programs were to move to another campus, some of the programs would be closed down because they were available at other community colleges in other parts of the state.
The participants were furious not only with the decision, but how it was made. They had not been consulted and they felt strongly that the programs that were scheduled to be closed were both viable and vital for their community. And I can tell you categorically, they were in no mood for a workshop on Resiliency and Change Management.
The only thing to do was to scrap the workshop. I might lose credibility with the college that hired me and I might not get paid, but I valued my life above both of these things. As the main issue was that they felt that they had not been consulted, I spent the morning working as a facilitator and they decided that the best thing to do was to write a letter to the president of the college expressing their wishes for a more participatory process and developing options on what they could do to prevent these programs from closing. I went from being a villain to a hero and I even got paid for the workshop, because we used resiliency and change management techniques to help the participants gain more control in a situation where they felt they had none.
From that experience and similar ones, we have learned to ask ahead of time whether there is anything going on in the organization that we should be aware of. Often people will clue you in, sometimes they won't, and sometimes there is a last-minute change in circumstances that takes place and you simply have to roll with the punches.
It is especially important to know the learning style of those who are attending your presentation. Knowing the predominant style of the group and how to communicate with attendees whose style is the same as and different from your own is one of the key characteristics of very good presenters. One of the best ways to determine learning style is the TRAP model, which was developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. According to the TRAP model, there are four primary learning styles: theorists, reflectors, activists, and pragmatists. The authors summarize each of these styles:
Theorists. Theorists adapt and integrate their observations into complex but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step logical way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They tend to be perfectionists who won't rest until things are tidy… They like to analyze and synthesize…
[Theorists] are keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models and systems thinking. Questions they frequently ask are: "Does it make sense?" "How does this fit with that?" They tend to be detached, analytical and dedicated to rational objectivity rather than anything subjective or ambiguous… They prefer to maximize certainty and feel uncomfortable with the subjective…
Reflectors. Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experience and observe it from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to [consider] it thoroughly before coming to any conclusions… Their philosophy is to be cautious, to leave no stone unturned. [To] "look before they leap"…
[Reflectors] prefer to take a back seat in meetings and discussions. They [observe and listen] to others [and]…get the drift of the discussion before making their own points. They tend to adopt a low profile and have a slightly distant, tolerant, unruffled air about them. When they act it is as part of a wide picture [that] includes the past, as well as the present and others' observations as well as their own.
Activists. Activists involve themselves fully… They enjoy the here and now and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences. They are open-minded… and enthusiastic… Their philosophy is "I'll try anything once…" Their days are filled with activity [and they love]…short-term crisis fire fighting.
[Activists tend to] tackle problems by brainstorming. As soon as the excitement from one activity has died down they are looking for the next. They tend to thrive on challenge and new experiences but are bored with implementation and longer-term consolidation… [They tend to be]…the life and soul of the party and seek to be the center of attention.
Pragmatists. Pragmatists are keen on trying out ideas, theories, and techniques to see if they work in practice… [They]…search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications. They…return from courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice.
[Pragmatists] like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them. They don't like "beating around the bush" and tend to be impatient with ruminating and open-ended discussions. They are practical, down to earth people who like making practical decisions and solving problems. They respond to problems [as opportunities]. Their philosophy is: "There is always a better way" and "If it works, it's good."
How to use the TRAP model to improve the effectiveness of your own training will be demonstrated in the following example.
Some groups will be made up almost entirely of action-oriented pragmatists. If you do not know how to tailor your presentation to this group you may encounter problems similar to Brad's experience in the following situation.
Brad has taught a negotiation course to many groups of truck tire sales staff. If the information being presented was not directly related to how they could sell more tires, he would lose his audience because they could make better use of their time selling "in the real world." For the most part, they had little, if any tolerance for theory, and did not like to reflect. They were action- and results-oriented and if the workshop/seminar did not relate to their needs, they communicated their dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms.
As a result, Brad reduced the theory to almost nil and focused on action-oriented/results-oriented activities. The part of the workshop that they appreciated the most was how to deal with killer clients—those tough clients that you just can't seem to get very far with no matter what you do—and Brad asked them to submit these as case studies. The best case had to do with a potential client who was totally uninterested in trying one workshop participant's truck tires. The participant thought that this was because the potential client was receiving a personal kickback from the competition's sales staff, although he had no direct proof.
The whole class brainstormed creative options for the workshop participant to try. Eventually they came up with two options that had a very good chance of working. Solution 1: One of the other workshop participants knew the owner and would put a bug in his ear. Solution 2: This participant's company bought their gasoline from the potential client's owner's gas stations, and they would make their continued purchase of gasoline dependent on reciprocal purchase of truck tires. In other words, working on real-life case studies appealed to this group's strong preference for an action-oriented practical learning style. It also perfectly illustrates the need to match one's presentation style to each particular group's learning style. When your presentation style is congruent with the group's learning style, you will have gone a long way toward becoming a sharp, very competent presenter.EXERCISE 1-1
Please give a brief example of how you would modify an existing presentation to appeal to each of the four TRAP types:
An even bigger challenge is satisfying all four TRAP types in one presentation. If you conscientiously think about satisfying all four types, you will generally give a much better presentation unless you have a preponderance of one or two of the types in your audience. If that is the case, you will have to modify your presentation. Of course, it is much easier if you obtain this type of information beforehand. If not, you will have to modify on the spot as Brad did the first time he worked with the truck tire sales staff.
The best way to satisfy all four types is to have some generic template-type exercises that you know will work with each type. Keep the exercises short. That way, you will be more likely to have an exercise for each type. In Exercise 1-2, you'll learn how to use TRAP to plan for your next presentation or to redo an existing presentation.EXERCISE 1-2
Make sure that your presentation covers all of the elements to satisfy all four of the TRAP types. A second useful technique is to ask a friend or colleague to "TRAP proof" or verify that your presentation relates to all four types. Solicit feedback from your participants to see if they are satisfied that you adequately cover all four of the TRAP learning styles: Theorists, Reflectors, Activists, and Pragmatists. Remember, most of us are much better at reaching some of the types than others. In addition, just because you are good at one or more of the types, ask for feedback on how you can improve your skills and abilities to reach the other types as well. Lastly, you can mind-map your presentation on a piece of paper or flip chart. Then using four different colors, color everything in red that would appeal to Theorists, blue that would appeal to Reflectors, green for Activists, and black for Pragmatists. This way, if any one group is over-represented or under-represented, it will stand out.
In this chapter we covered the importance of knowing your audience and then aligning your presentation to that audience's needs and expectations. Not knowing your audience and aligning your presentation to that audience's needs and expectation will not only waste your time and theirs, it can also lead to embarrassment at best and to career-limiting moves at worst, as the following example from a famous radio and television personality, who requested anonymity, illustrates:
I was asked to emcee a charity event for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and at the last minute they asked if I would also be the auctioneer. While I don't do that for a living, I occasionally serve in that capacity. When the auction started, I rushed up onto the stage. The first item was a package of dinner including a limo ride to and from an exclusive restaurant—for eight people. The bids were pushing a thousand bucks…and I blurt out: "Hey, this is the vintage restaurant, folks, not some Burger King!" A hush fell over the crowd. Who turned out to be sponsoring the event? Yep. Burger King.
Now that you know the importance of and how to know your audience and align your presentation to their expectations and needs, we turn our attention to how premier presenters prepare outstanding content.