You Are Presenting The Wrong Thing

Well, that’s a confrontational title, isn’t it?

The last three presentations I watched all suffered from the same fundamental mistake. It’s very common and there’s a good chance your presentations might feature this design error as well.

Now when I say “design error” I’m not talking about PowerPoint layout or use of graphics or any other visual design aspects. I’m talking about the conceptual design of deciding what you want to share with your audience.

The conceptual error that most presenters make is to think of their task as one of sharing data with the listener. The presentation is primarily a collection of graphs, tables, or lists of reference information on slide after slide. Displaying factual information becomes the purpose of the presentation.

That’s wrong. It’s ALWAYS wrong.

Presentations are the least effective way to make reference information available. White papers, PDF documents, web pages, and textbooks are designed to collect and make information easily accessible. They are mediums that are built around the “whats” in life. The nouns of our existence. “This is a thing that exists. This is another thing that exists.”

A presentation on the other hand is a transient thing. It exists in the world of verbs… a vehicle designed to make people think, feel, or act. “How can you use the information? Why is it important? Who is it appropriate for? Where can you find it?”

Of course you can include data in a presentation. It would be ridiculous for me to say that a graph or table should never appear on a presentation slide. But the point of including the data is never simply to show it. The data must be there to support the way you want to influence the listener. How does learning this information affect them? How does it provide a benefit? If you can’t clearly articulate that, the data doesn’t belong in the presentation. Let it live in a reference location for later study.

You get to choose your role as a presenter. You can offer insights, be a mentor, help to drive behavior changes, encourage new perspectives. Or you can be an audio version of a textbook. I know which I would rather listen to.