The recent solar eclipse prompted me to do a bit of symbolic thinking about smaller, less important things getting in the way of larger, more important things.
In the early days of my teaching business presentations, my mentors stressed the importance of watching out for little presentation details, such as using the hands for precise gesturing or counting the number of times each presenter said “um” or “ya know.” Therefore, I emphasized these matters in my classes, and my students would then concentrate on using more gestures and controlling their normal speech patterns as they gave their presentations. Unfortunately, the students’ gestures were often awkward and unnatural—suggesting that even more emphasis was needed. It was a vicious cycle.
Finally, after a few years, I realized that I may have been doing more harm than good in giving feedback of this type. I concluded that if my students were concentrating on these secondary matters while giving their presentations, they were thinking about the wrong things. The hand gestures and filler words were eclipsing the more important message and audience issues that should have been their primary focus.
So what should we be thinking about as we present? First, we should constantly think about the purpose of our presentation—what we are trying to achieve by giving the presentation. This can be brought into sharp focus with an action statement like, “As a result of my presentation, I want the audience to . . .” This might include what we want them to understand, or feel, or do. Every informative and persuasive element should align with the central purpose of the message. Each element should move the audience from where they were when we started the presentation to where we want them to be when the presentation ends. Further, nothing should either distract or detract from that purpose.
Second, we should think about connecting with the audience. If we have performed a careful audience and context analysis during the planning phase, we’ll understand the audience demographics and psychographics. We’ll know of their challenges and concerns. We’ll know what parts of our presentation will be readily accepted and which ones might not. And we’ll continuously focus on building and strengthening the audience members’ connection with us and with the content we are presenting.
Third, we should constantly analyze the audience feedback as we present. Because most of this feedback comes in nonverbal form, we should assess the audience energy level, receptivity level, eye contact, facial expressions, and general responsiveness. We should then take impromptu corrective action when audience feedback tells us that the message isn’t getting across as well as it should.
Finally, we should remain aware of the element of time, making sure we pace our presentation so we don’t speak too long. As appropriate, we should omit some of the less important planned information, without negatively affecting overall message clarity, impact, or coherence. Less-important content should never push aside more important content.
So what about the “ums,” the “ya knows,” and the awkward gestures that I once thought were so important to teach? My experience has taught me that as students prepare content they are excited about, rehearse thoroughly so they are comfortable with the subject matter, and focus on connecting with the audience, these language and gesture issues mostly take care of themselves. The appropriate voice energy and gestures occur automatically. Better yet, they are normal and natural, not forced and awkward.
With this change of focus, the less-important secondary elements of presenting no longer eclipse that which is most important—the message and the audience!
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.