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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip 11: The Humor Paradox

One of my professional friends had a major problem: A major cases of humor-impairment. Though bright and articulate he absolutely could not deliver a joke in front of an audience. 

This created a problem for him. He had to teach a class on fraud. I dug up a seventies-era photo of one of the subjects the most famous fraudsters of the 1960s–Texas wheeler-dealer Billie Sol Estes.  My friend accompanied this slide with a mildly sarcastic reference to the subject’s “leisure suit.”  It was a remarkably garish garment, even by the standards of the 70s.  Though this joke wasn’t exactly the peak of wit, my friend never failed to get a laugh using this photo as a prop.  Even better, knowing that his joke was a pretty much a guaranteed winner increased his confidence, making him more effective with the rest of the presentation. 

Why is effective humor a key to successful presentations? We’ll start with a question:

Which of these statements is correct?

  • Presenters should never tell a joke just to be telling a joke.
  • Nearly every presentation can be improved by using humor.

Though these statements may appear inconsistent at first glance, they are both correct. Humor is a great way of connecting with an audience—but it is usually a mistake to include a joke just so you will have a joke.

The difference is critical: If you tell a “joke,” and no one laughs, you look like a dummy, and worse, a dummy who just wasted everyone’s time.  By contrast, if your would-be “humorous” material advances the substantive point you want to make, it doesn’t matter if the joke falls flat.  You haven’t wasted anyone’s time.  You’ve still advanced the ball.

Distinguishing between “canned” humor and “organic” humor is a key to resolving the apparent inconsistency.  Canned humor is something artificial grafted onto your substantive ideas.  Organic humor flows from your substantive ideas and helps advance them.

Of course, getting a laugh is even better, and one of the little-understood truths is that organic humor does not have to be very funny to get a laugh.  Look for chances to introduce humor that naturally arises from your substantive material.  It the humor advances the substantive point you are trying to make, so much the better.

Graphics are an easy way for even the humor-impaired to add humor to a presentation.  Show the audience a picture that relates to your topic.  Sometimes the picture itself will be the “punch line.”  More often, you will deliver the punch line orally.

A beauty of the organic humor approach is that even if no one had laughed, it would not be a problem.  The speaker had not gone “off topic” in a time-wasting unsuccessful attempt to get a laugh.

Want to know more about the use of humor in presentations? “Humor Consultant” Harold Kushner’s book Successful Presentations for Dummies remains the best reference I know on this topic.

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip # 10: Cuomo & Powerpoint

Andrew Cuomo is having a moment. The New York governor is attracting tremendous attention for his COVID-19 briefings, which are typically telecast live by national networks. 

Cuomo’s approach contrasts favorably with President Trump’s typical briefing approach. Cuomo has many strengths as a presenter, including his understanding of MS Powerpoint.

The text and links in a recent Fast Company article demonstrate why Cuomo’s presentations have touched a nerve.

“We can’t be stupid” was the blunt message to a key demographic that was not complying with quarantine recommendations from the deck that ran alongside New York a recent Cuomo briefing:

Effective use of PowerPoint will be a key theme of this Presentation Tips series. The potential benefits of slide shows like those created in MS Powerpoint are consistently underrated. We will be using Cuomo as an example in a number of posts, but for the time being will only quote a section of a Business Insider article that explains some of the Cuomo-style slide show benefits:

Cuomo’s PowerPoints read like an iPhone notes app list of everything he woke up worrying about in the middle of the night. It’s the text a dad sends with his assorted list of worries. They convey a sense of authenticity, of someone who is sharing his thought process (often bluntly and in ALL CAPS) in real time. Much like how a comedy PowerPoint gives you a peek into the thought process of a comedian, Cuomo’s PowerPoints seem like his a projection of his id: They’re from a loud, bullet-pointed heart.

Much more on this topic later, but the key point for now is:

Slide Shows can have enormous benefits–for those who know how to use them.

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip 9: Lightening Talks

Are you tired of speakers who drone on and on? Maybe a compressed format would be right for you. Compressed presentation formats known as lightening talks can provide a welcome alternative.

  • Pecha Kucha (Japanese for “chit chat”) is known as the 20×20 format. Each presenter shows 20 images, each for 20 seconds.
  • Ignite gives each speaker gets 5 minutes and must use 20 slides with each slide advancing automatically after 15 seconds. This forces speakers to get the point quickly. 

These formats are constraining but so the rules for sonnets. Lightening talks may be just right for your next conference.

Any of these formats require more preparation than a conventional speech. Olivia Mitchell has some advice on preparing an Ignite presentation.

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip 9: Benefits of Using Question Forms

One of my favorite presentation techniques is using forms for audience members to ask questions. Left to my own devices, I would never have realized the value of this technique, but having seen it used very effectively in several CLE programs I did for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute, I became a believer. I now use the technique for the reasons PBI used it, and have found multiple other benefits. A sample question form appears at left.

The PBI programs I did drew large audiences, many of whom were eager to ask questions. PBI staff circulated among the audience collecting the forms and delivered them to the panel moderator. While one panelist was answering a question, the other panelists, led by the moderator, would quickly study other written questions, decide which ones had the most intructional value, who would address them, and prepare their answers.  

 Why Use Forms?

Rambling, disjointed answers are one of the most annoying presentation flaws. The use of question forms facilitates large improvements:

Giving panelists time to think about their answers and decide which panelist(s) could answer most effectively results in enormously more concise and useful answers.

This was only the beginning of the benefits, however. Audience members sometimes use questions not to seek knowledge, but to advance personal agendas. The use of question forms gives the speaker or moderator (if a panel) better control over the situation. If there is not enough time to answer all questions, those questions motivated by personal agendas get the lowest priority.

There are many other benefits to using question forms. It’s more democratic, as the audience members with the most instructive questions may not be the most assertive in getting the moderator’s attention. Experience over a decade using this technique has convinced me that written questions tend to be more thoughtful than spoken questions. 

Especially where I will be teaching similar classes in the future, I find it invaluable to keep a record of the audience’s concerns. The questions frequently stimulate my thinking on the topic, causing me to add modules to future training programs or use the ideas in other ways.  Many of the best ideas I’ve used in writing books and magazine articles were prompted by questions asked during various seminars.

Optional or Mandatory?

Should you answer only questions submitted on written forms? In large groups or where there is heavy audience interest in the topic, this may be the best way.

Post-Presentation Questions

Some speakers might like audience question forms because they enable the speaker to avoid unwelcome subjects. In some situations, this might be appropriate, but it’s not the way I use question forms.  I normally volunteer to take additional questions from the floor as well. I also usually tell the audience that I will distribute answers to all remaining unanswered questions after the conference. I answer all the questions, but in a way that gives me better control. 

Of course, the best way to answer post-conference questions is via a website or blog that you control and want to expose to audiences. This is called “killing two birds with one stone.”

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip 8: How Bad is PowerPoint?

Bashing Powerpoint is nothing new. Yale professor Edward Tufte devoted a pamphlet setting out his gripes. Tufte even cites it as a key factor in the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.

Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint from Amazon meetings.

Peter Norvig’s mocking vision of the Gettysburg Address translated into a slide show is hilarious.

Others believe it “may be the worst business tool ever created.”

These criticisms are close enough to sting, but the truth is more complicated. Strong presenters tend to use Powerpoint effectively. The difference between effective users and the typical poor users is less technical knowledge and more basic presentation skills. If you take slide shows away from poor speakers they will typically be even worse.

We’ll be looking this issue more closely in our Presentation Tips series, but for now, we’ll only make one point:

Powerpoint can be a fantastic tool–if you know how to use it.

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip Number 7: Should You Have Handouts?

A simple question deserves a simple answer:

YES, nearly always.

There are many reasons for this.  The simplest is that at least a few audience members, perhaps many, will consider the failure to provide some written accompaniment to be evidence of apathy and/or laziness.  Apathetic slacker is not the image most of us want to project.

However, handouts are not merely an appearance issue.  Well-done handouts enhance audience understanding and increase the chance they will retain your message.  They are also a basic courtesy for the audience, freeing them from the frantic scramble to write down every important thing you say.  (You will be saying important things, right?).

Excuses for Lack of Handouts

Excuse 1: I want the audience to be paying attention to me while I’m speaking, not a handout.

I call this the narcissist excuse.  Few presenters are capable of constructing such enthralling handouts, but even if you are one of this talented group, is it really so bad if people learn the material from your handout instead of your eloquent voice? 

In any event, if you think your handouts are really that extraordinary, why not distribute them after your talk, instead of at the beginning?  If you take this approach, be sure to let the audience know at the beginning of your remarks, so they won’t feel a need to take duplicative notes.

Excuse 2: Handouts will dilute the value of my jokes or other surprises. 

This excuse has a silver lining of sorts: At least the presenter is trying to keep the audience engaged and believes their material is good enough to deserve protection.

However, in this situation it is possible to have the best of both worlds:

Again, there’s no law against distributing your handouts at the end of your talk.  Be sure to alert the audience when you begin speaking that you will have handouts, so they don’t feel obligated to write down every word you say.

Another approach is to distribute an edited version of the material at the beginning. Good slideshow software facilitates preparing a redacted version of your remarks.  You can create a separate version of your slide show that omits the surprise-killing slides.  This still requires a little extra work, but it’s worth it if you have high quality jokes or other surprises.

Excuse 3: Distributing handouts will make the audience remember the presentation better, so I can’t use the same material next year.

Wow!  This is my absolute favorite excuse.  There’s so much wrong with it that I don’t know where to start. 

Isn’t helping the audience remember what you are saying the whole point?  This excuse tacitly admits that handouts increase audience retention of the material.  Isn’t that’s a good thing, instead of a bad thing?

Audiences receiving compliance-oriented training should not have to suffer the same canned presentations every year.  This approach is no more attractive by delivering the material in a quasi-stealth manner, withholding handouts that might help the audiences remember the material. 

A key objective of this series of Presention Tips is to empower presenters so that coming up with fresh, engaging material each year does not seem like an overwhelming challenge.  We will be distributing our ideas in future columns, and we solicit your suggestions in the Comments section below.

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Presentation Tip 6: Lessons from Movie New Year’s Eve

New Year's Eve Poster.jpg

We begin the new year seeking inspiration from an oldie-but-goodie 2011 movie, New Year’s Eve. Despite its star-studded cast that included Robert DeNiro, Hillary Swank, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Halle Berry, Ashton Krutcher and many others, this movie met with critical disdain (including a pathetic 7% rating at Rotten Tomatoes) and limited success at the box office. A romantic comedy in the Love, Actually and Valentine’s Day mode, it was less successful than those films.

One part of the movie met with success, at least in this quarter. Near the middle of the movie, the machinery that raises and lowers the ball for the iconic Times Square ball drop turns balky. The assembled crowd is worried that their fun will be spoiled.

The character portrayed by Hillary Swank is asked to take the microphone and give the crowd an update. Everyone is expecting reassurance. The Swank character provides more: Inspiration. She goes beyond the immediate crisis to exhort the audience to approach the holiday in the right way. The audience received not just reassurance but vision:

And as you all can see, the ball has stopped half way to its perch. it’s suspended there to remind us before we pop the champagne and celebrate the new year, to stop, and reflect on the year that has gone by, to remember both our triumphs and our missteps, our promises made and broken, the times we opened ourselves up to great adventures… or closed ourselves down for fear of getting hurt, because that’s what new year’s all about , getting another chance, a chance to forgive. to do better, to do more, to give more, to love more, and to stop worrying about what if… and start embracing what will be. so when that ball drops at midnight, and it will drop, let’s remember to be nice to each other, kind to each other, and not just tonight but all year long.

IMDB.com

Let’s resolve that during the coming year, we’ll all try to give our audiences more. Let’s resolve to give students engaging material that will not just inform but inspire.

We will be doing the best we can to support you in this effort by providing useful resources through this Training Tips column.

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Presentation Tips

Presentation Tip 5: What Not to Do (The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation)

Peter Norvig’s clever demonstration of how computer slideshow software would have mangled the Gettysburg Address provides more than its share of laughs, but there is also much to learn from it.

In an accompanying essay, Norvig seems to suggest that Powerpoint presentations are always bad.  Antipathy toward slide shows is understandable: A large majority of the ones I’ve seen have been poorly done. 

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective.  Slide shows are merely tools.  They can produce good results or bad results, depending on the skill of the workman. 

One of the goals of Training Tips is to help trainers make sure their presentation skills are workmanlike.  We will be devoting multiple columns toward helping you come up with high quality audiovisual aids, including slide shows. 

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Presentation Tip 4: Mobile Learning Options

Fueled by the widespread adoption of smartphones, iPods and similar devices, Mobile Learning, aka MLearning, has become a major educational trend. Such training is frequently delivered in the form of “MP3” files, delivered through a mechanism known as “podcasts.” While Apple iPods, wonderful devices since discontinued) nearly any smartphone (iPhone, Droid, etc.) or personal computer can also play podcasts with the help of earphones or speakers. Podcast Insights has a section explaining the basics.

Many organizations are taking advantage of this new training vehicle. For example, the Legal Talk Network distributes podcasts of interest to lawyers, and legal technology guru Dennis Kennedy has an article about the value of listening to podcasts. Many other respected organizations use podcasts or MP3 files:

The latest POGO example is a lecture by the Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) Adam Miles, who reviews OSC’s interaction with federal whistleblowers. This training was originally part of a series POGO provides to educate congressional staffers. Other podcasts from the same series are available.

The Office of Government Ethics has also at least put its toe into the water, having prepared a podcast of “the Senate-confirmed nominations process and video clips that provide scenarios for discussion during training sessions on ethics restrictions on seeking employment.”

We see the biggest value of podcasts as a low-cost, low-hassle supplement to the rest of your ethics program, including a way of reaching certain “high value targets” like senior managers, many of whom are into multi-tasking. With so many prestigious organizations using them successfully for other training, this appears to be an area with enormous untapped potential.

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Presentation Tip 3: Never Complain, Never Explain?

Have you observed trainers doing things like this?

Before beginning her presentation, a trainer tells the audience, “I had planned to show you this wonderful video with actors from The Office singing this song “Let’s Get Ethical,” to the tune of “Let’s Get Physical.”  Unfortunately, I can’t get the DVD to work, so I can’t show it, but let me tell you, it would be really funny if you could see it.”

Yes, I actually saw a trainer do just this a few years ago. This example brings to mind the “Never complain, never explain” rule.  I’ve seen this pithy saying variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Ford and Katherine Hepburn.  Regardless of the originator, it always struck me as a little dubious.  “Never?”  Isn’t that a recipe for being a jerk?

However, with a little adjustment for rhetorical excess, this saying does describe a sound principle for instructors.  It’s nearly always a mistake to apologize to the audience.  In the example described, the trainer was smart to try to use a training aid, but when that did not pan out, she unwisely demonstrated to the audience not just her incompetence with technology, but her poor judgment. If she had never apologized for failing to get the DVD to work, the audience would never have known of her failure.  Experienced presenters understand that in many cases the audience will never know if the speaker made a mistake unless he or she draws attention to the error by apologizing.

The same principle applies to other mistakes made during your presentation, explains speech expert Richard Zeoli:

When you make a mistake, no one cares but you:  Even the most accomplished public speaker will make mistakes. Yet it is important to remember that the only one who cares about any given mistake is the one doing the speaking.

People’s attention spans constantly wander.  In fact, most people only absorb about 20 percent of a speaker’s message.  The other 80 percent is internalized visually.  This ratio is true in nearly everything: a football game, a favorite television show, and even a heart-to-heart conversation.  The point is that when you make a mistake, the audience rarely even notices.  The most important thing a speaker can do after making a mistake is to keep going.  Don’t stop and – unless the mistake was truly earth shattering – never apologize to the audience for a minor slip.  Unless they are reading the speech during your delivery, the audience won’t know if you left out a word, said the wrong name, or skipped a page.

“Never” apologize?  Probably a mistake.  “Almost never” apologize?  Sounds about right.