Presentations

Get Rid of Waste in Presentations

Look for subtle signals that you’re wasting the audience’s time.

At presentations, I’m usually the one in the front of the room, but today I attended a presentation as an audience member. The best thing I can say about the presentation was that it got me to start thinking about the tremendous amount of waste that is a part of so many talks.

I’m using waste—or muda—in its formal “lean principles” definition as any activity that uses resources but does not add value to the end customer. When this lens is applied on the factory floor, a surprising amount of it can be found almost everywhere you look. While I was sitting in the audience this morning I began applying that lens and here are some of the examples I saw:

  • Unnecessary slides: this presentation was supposed to be an abridged version of a much longer presentation, but the presenter didn’t take the time to cut the deck down to its essence. I suspect that some of the  slides would have been superfluous even in the longer version.
  • Way too many words on the slides: this would have been bad enough in the original presentation, but it was disastrous for the abridged version, because once the words were on the screen, the presenter had to make sure he read each one (accompanied by a laser pointer to make sure that we knew where to look).
  • Overly busy slide background which included the company logo and a stock photo of a group of people supposed to represent something. Studies show that irrelevant graphics detract from retention and transfer.
  • Gratuitous questions of the audience: questions asked of audience members gave the impression that they were being asked only because the facilitator’s guide called for them at that point.
  • Interesting but irrelevant stories: besides taking up time, these usually subtract value because they tend to be the only parts the listeners remember.
  • Exceedingly wordy replies apparently designed to disguise the lack of an actual answer.

I could go on, but by now you get the picture, and any more detail would be muda.

How to get rid of presentation waste

Know your audience. Value should be defined by your audience. What do they want out of the presentation, and how much do they know about the topic going in? How will they use the information you provide? In your presentation journey, this is Point A.

Have a clear theme. The theme clearly spells out Point B. Before you start dumping words onto a screen, figure out the core message that you want the audience to leave the presentation with. The theme is where your purpose and the audience’s needs meet. What do you want them to do or to know, and why should they want to do it?

Have a clear structure. This helps you organize your thoughts in a way that will get you most efficiently and effectively from Point A to Point B. anything that does not clearly lead to the destination will be easier to spot and to remove. Clarity of structure also helps your listeners organize the incoming information in their minds so that they are much more likely to understand and remember.

Break some of these bad habits. The bad habits I observed this morning should not be fresh revelations to any experienced presenter, but we can tend to fall into these patterns through habit and laziness.

Pay attention to the audience. If you’re wasting their time, you will know and will be able to adjust.

Start with the bottom line up front. This applies to most presentations, but it’s particularly important when answering questions. Even if you have to give a nuanced answer, give the general conclusion first and then add caveats and context as necessary.

I guess today wasn’t a complete waste—it gave me an idea for a blog post!

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