I’ve heard many different presentations, lectures, seminars and general talks, amounting to hours of arguments, explanations, persuasion, debate, facts, figures, methods and madness.
But after all my hearing, how much did I actually learn?
The answer is probably not that much.
Let me explain. It is easy to sit and listen to what people have to say. But all too often ‘it goes in one ear and out of the other.’ We hear the words but they don’t engage with our mind; they just pass through.
What was it that made me listen and learn?
I think the most influential factor was the presenter, rather than the subject material.
Some years ago I was undertaking some presentation training. I remember one trainer having a coloured star that they threw on the floor before we gave a talk. We were to stand on the star and then give our presentation. It all seemed a bit bizarre at the time, but their strap line was ‘You are the star, you are the presentation.’ They were saying, what we deliver is influenced by who we are and how much we can engage with the material we present: how much of ourselves we put into the presentation. We need interest and passion to stimulate our hearers and to engage them in our ‘story’.
I think this is true to a point, but I think there is another essential quality we overlook and that is the ability to engage with our audience; who they are and where they are at.
We’ve probably all listened to experts in various fields giving talks on their pet subjects and areas of speciality. The content of their talk is rarely in question. However, their ability to connect with what they are saying often is. No matter how passionate, knowledgeable and interested they are in their subject, unless they can express things in terms, methods or pictures which we, their audience can engage, their valuable knowledge will either ‘go in one ear and out of the other’ or even ‘float straight over the audience’s heads’.
Sometimes we will be introducing new ideas so it is not easy for our audience to understand, but we still need to give them the best chance of engaging with what we are saying and so they can apply it for themselves.
It’s not something we learn once and then we’ve got it made. Like any skill, we need to refine it, hone it and practice it.
I recently learned the hard way on exactly this point.
I was to give a talk to a group of people which was to be interesting and engaging. I was given a profile of the audience and put together my talk accordingly. I decided I’d try something a bit different and rather than simply giving them a ‘this is how you do it’ type of presentation, I decided that I’d give them something that they could use in their own lives to enhance what they do and how much they enjoy life. I spent hours preparing the talk (mainly because it was some time since I’d done anything like this). I gave the talk and received good applause at the end.
I then did something which was very risky; I asked for feedback on my presentation. This was done low key and one-to-one by the organiser. The feedback showed that many had interpreted my style as rather egotistical (I had been giving examples from my own life story where I had made mistakes and looked at how I could have avoided these), that there seemed to be a lot of theory and that on the whole, although it was interesting they didn’t feel as if they had learnt anything.
I found this feedback interesting and a bit ironic, as part of my theme had been ‘unless we try something we’ll never know whether it succeeds’! But whose fault was this? It certainly wasn’t my audience. Despite my research and care in preparing my talk, I had missed the mark; I had failed to measure my audience and in so doing, had largely wasted their time.
Thankfully I hadn’t wasted mine; I made a mistake and learned from it.
So, if you give talks and presentations, give them with enthusiasm and passion, but never forget to gauge your audience so what you know can be passed on and they can both hear what you’re saying and learn from it.
Until next time …