Caution: Cliff Ahead

By Heather Baldwin

Have you ever watched a cartoon character walk off a cliff? As long as he plows ahead, keeps walking and doesn’t acknowledge there’s a problem, he remains in midair. But as soon as he stops, looks down and realizes he just walked off a cliff, he plummets to the bottom. Many presenters do the same thing, says Malcolm Kushner, author of Presentations for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2004). Even when the audience is giving plenty of clues the presentation isn’t working – in other words, the presenter is walking off the cliff – the presenter just keeps going, thinking everything will be all right in the end, just like the cartoon character.

Believing that things will turn out well when the presentation is over, regardless of audience clues to the contrary is one of the most common presentation mistakes, says Kushner. It happens because presenters put so much time into preparing a presentation and know it so well that they can’t summon the flexibility to change direction – and it’s that inflexibility that sends them off the cliff.

To avoid getting anywhere near the cliff in the first place, Kushner recommends you begin your presentation by outlining what you’ll be discussing, in what order and for how long. That way, you and the audience know at the outset whether you’re going to be addressing their needs. If you are, great. If not, then better to know in the beginning that you’re missing the mark and adapt accordingly.

During the presentation, pay close attention to audience feedback. Is the key decision maker staring out the window? Does the purchasing manager keep taking calls on her cell phone? If so, don’t blame it on a rude audience, blame it on a poor presentation and figure out how you can turn things around. Wake them up with a dramatic statistic. Ask a question to get them reinvolved. Ask them point blank whether you’re on target or whether they had different expectations. If someone keeps asking about a point you plan to cover later, skip ahead to it. “Don’t treat your presentation like it’s set in cement. It’s not,” says Kushner.

In other words, go into your presentation ready to abandon it entirely. Get a sense of what the audience wants, and then give it to them. That way, you’ll remain on terra firma throughout the presentation.