Clear thinking - Presentations

How to Listen to A Presentation

The principal focus of Practical Eloquence is how to communicate your ideas persuasively to others and drive decisions favorable to yourself. But in this post I’d like to switch roles and look at things from the point of view of the recipient of persuasive messages.

In business and indeed in daily life we are often compelled to make decisions based on specialized information provided to us by others. These people have their own persuasive intent when they present their material, so it behooves us to apply certain tests when we listen to them.

There are two ways to approach the question. One is to apply your critical thinking skills to evaluate the content of the presentation: the facts, logic, premises and conclusions. This is of course much easier to do when you are very familiar with the material yourself.

Sometimes, though, you are in the position of listening to an “expert” who knows far more about the subject than you do, and it can be very difficult to evaluate claims and statements that deal with unfamiliar and specialized knowledge. You may be in this position as a business leader who has to make a decision based on a presentation by a technical expert. Of course, as a reasonably informed member of society, you face this challenge daily when you read opinion or editorial pieces in the newspaper or magazines.

Since you can’t always have the luxury of educating yourself thoroughly on the subject matter, is there an alternative to taking what they say on faith alone? I believe there is: you can pay attention to how the presenter goes about their argument, and gain some valuable clues that can supplement your gut feel. There are four things that I believe you should listen and look for when someone is delivering a persuasive presentation—that is, when they are trying to make the case for a specific investment or decision.

Empiricism: There are a lot of excellent books on the market that tout the importance of stories and passion in presentations, and I do believe that most business presentations can benefit from more of both—as long as they are not substitutes for solid content. Do they have facts and measurements to back up their statements, or is their presentation a tissue of unsupported assertions? Like all other listeners, I respond to stories and passion, but when these two are present, I make an extra effort to look a little closer just to make sure I’m not getting carried away by the presenter’s enthusiasm.  Stories are great vehicles for presentations, but never forget that the plural of anecdote is not data. Because our minds give disproportionate weight to vivid details, we need to take special care to listen for hard facts when the story is good. And because emotions can be contagious, we also need to take special care when the speaker is especially passionate about their topic. While passion is a very good quality to have, it may also be a sign of emotionalism unsupported by logic.

Precision: This goes hand in hand with empiricism. How well defined are their terms? Can they give real examples? Beware of those who wield long words like decorations, as if to say, “Look how smart I am.”As an example, one of the least precise terms I hear people use a lot during sales presentations is productivity, as in: “My proposal will increase productivity.” What is the precise definition of productivity? It is basically outputs divided by inputs, and therefore is specific to each situation. What outputs will increase or improve, and which inputs will decrease and how will those be measured? In a recent presentation in one of my classes, the salesperson gave real examples of how their customer’s sales force could eliminate specific steps in their processes and accomplish more in every sales call. He showed impressive knowledge of his customer without expressly calling attention to the work that went into acquiring that knowledge.

Humility: I’ve said before in this blog that projecting confidence can have a significant impact on your persuasiveness as a presenter. For that very reason, if you’re on the receiving end of the presentation, you need to be on guard against excessive confidence on the part of the speaker.  Sometimes people are very sure of themselves because they haven’t bothered to pay attention to evidence that contradicts their point of view. Researchers who studied over 2000 corporate executives’ estimates of their own knowledge levels found that over 99% were overconfident[1]. That’s why as a listener, you should also want to see if the presenter’s confidence is tempered with humility. Humility is a badge of intellectual honesty. Those who are open to question, who admit that they don’t have the perfect answers, may just be the ones who have arrived at their conclusions after deep questioning and looking at opposing points of view.

Completeness: Your final responsibility as a listener is to think about what the speaker is not saying. Effective presentations are incomplete by design, because good practice dictates that you choose a particular focus and stick to it. So, if you need to make an important decision based on their presentation it’s your responsibility to consider the larger picture. What questions are raised by their presentation? What did they leave out? How does their proposal fit into the bigger picture? If this is an internal presentation, how well does the proposal align with the company’s strategies and initiatives? Have they considered unintended consequences? Have they considered the full range of possible outcomes from worst to best case?

I first started thinking about this article when one of my students asked me for tips on how to listen to a presentation. In this article, I’ve tried to improve that initial inadequate answer I gave him, but in the spirit of humility and completeness, I welcome your suggestions for things to look for while listening to a presentation.


[1] Research by Paul Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo, cited in Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan.

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