Tony Shepherd LL.M.(SYD),A.S.D.A.,A.T.C.L.


"Of course I do - everybody does!". Well, if that's the case, why are so many countless hours lost while we as meeting participants have our time wasted by people "presenting" under the guise of trawling through and randomly commenting upon data projected documents, reports, financial statements, spreadsheets and the like?

Having spent a lifetime as a communication advisor and meeting participants from the boardrooms of Switzerland and USA, to business pitches and tenders in China and India to employee town halls everywhere else, I've narrowed it down to one primary conceptual problem.

The majority of people who have to present ideas, findings, directions, competence, strategies and recommendations face to face groups seem to think that - "If I have a written document as a base, especially if it also includes graphics, PowerPoint or other visual representations - such as a report, submissions, financial statements, corporate results, technical paper, tender, etc - I also have a ready made presentation, because all I have to do is data project this document to the group and then "present" or comment upon the key issues the document raises".

The problem is obvious. A document can, and indeed, should be a detailed logical and sequential record and analysis of a given set of facts providing background, analysis, key issue identification, scenarios, options, recommendations and the like. Most importantly, it has to have sufficient detail and independence so that it can stand alone, be read and make sense to the lone and often distant reader. The question is, if you have such a document, do you also automatically have a presentation ready for delivery to a group of people in a meeting or web conference?

The answer - of course not. A face to face presentation is delivered to "value add" to more detailed documentary sources. What's the value add if the presenter merely replicates the document, reading it back to the audience or just randomly comments upon bits of information contained therein? A presentation is an entirely different animal.

The value addition of the presentation is that the presenter sees the audience as consumers, whom they can serve and benefit by rising above more detailed documentary sources and outlining a brief and efficient road map to save the audience time by:-

  • Highlighting the key issues and related themes or messages raised;
  • Providing an overview of the situation and possible solutions which will provide a context and framework for subsequent and more detailed review, discussion and decision making. How often are we frustrated by audience members drilling down after Slide 2 before the presentation landscape and key themes have been made clear?; and
  • Allowing the presenter to story tell, personalise and focus the decision making framework. A quick example - I recently sat through a long, national sales meeting of a manufacturer with a state by state analysis of sales, results, expenses, strategy, etc. Chart after chart was projected. The group were basically asleep. In addition, all this information had already been provided before the meeting to the team, yet the Sales Manager and the CFO droned on.

What subsequently emerged was that there was one current hot issue - the recent emergence of an international competitor with a single generic product line in one state of operation, potentially moving into other states. Surely a far more vibrant and productive meeting/exchange could have been had by assuming the regular reports had been reviewed and getting straight to presentation of the new competitor challenge, the implications and the response?

Mark Twain once wrote in correspondence, "I've written you this long letter because I didn't have time to write you a short one...". An amazing insight... and even more applicable to modern business presentation!

The truth is it actually takes more time to review a detailed document and then extract and distill a value adding presentation - providing a framework, themes and personalisation which then lay the basis for a more interactive and productive group discussion. More commonly, most presenters are time poor and lazy, so it's easier to data project the document in whole or part and then:-

  • Speak to text and visuals that are often illegible ("I know you can't read this but....");
  • The audience speed reads ahead and tunes out the presenter;
  • The presenter annoys and detains the audience by assuming their documentary visuals will prompt what they want to say, but, of course, they don't. They start randomly commenting on bits of information displayed, as opposed to having a pre-prepared clear, succinct message framework; and
  • Most tragically, go way over time, inconsiderately detaining their audience who could have been spending their time productively elsewhere.

And let's be honest, while all of us can be guilty of the above presentation sins, my experience is that the worst offenders are often the most senior managers and executives. Why? Because they fail to see their audiences as consumers, rather than captives. It is the leader's obligation to pre-prepare and distill key messages that assist their team members and deliver them efficiently, as opposed to droning on and detaining them with packaged, sanitised displays.

I recently saw a senior hospitality industry executive present in some detail to hotel workers (room maintenance, cleaners, food & beverage, porters, etc) about EBITDA targets - without appropriate translation!

So, what frameworks do effective business presenters operate within? While not definitive, what I see and recommend is:-

  • While a detailed document is generally a necessary and appropriate part of the communication process, the presentation of key issues, themes and messages is a separate exercise requiring consideration, rehearsal and extraction;
  • These overview presentations should (ideally) not exceed 15 minutes. Roughly the length of a TED talk. The group discussion following them can then go as long as the group is engaged and participative. In this way the presenter evolves into a facilitator, as opposed to remaining a teacher with a class of students;
  • This style of presentation, because they are shorter, should not be punctuated with premature analysis and debate - "I know we'll need to work through these matters, so just let me literally take 10 minutes up front to highlight the key issues we'll need to discuss and decide...". As opposed to "I've got a fair bit to cover in this presentation, so just stop me at any time if you have questions or comments....";
  • A good presenter should (indicatively) avoid using more than five visual images or slides which can be extracted from the document, but should be as diagrammatic/pictorial as possible. Also, divergent sentences, paragraphs and slabs of writing which might be necessary in the document should be taken out of the presentation visuals. The good news is you're often not designing a completely different visual aid, just taking out words, which are redundant because they have you as the presenter anyway; and
  • Because modern audiences are more often consumers to be benefited, not students to be taught, good presenters share and settle the communication process with the audience - "Given I want to be as efficient as possible, I'm going to try and pull out the key issues for us. Of course, if we need to expand upon or drill down into key areas, let me know and we can do that as a group once I've hopefully framed this for us..."

Keep these thoughts in mind the next time someone says - "Can you email me your presentation on...?". My bet is they're asking for a document, capable of standing alone and being read independently. As I said at the outset, people do get confused!

Tony Shepherd is an Australian lawyer, management and communication advisor who has spent over 20 years working globally as a corporate communication coach, advisor and trainer. His contact no is 61 412 004 011 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


First published in LinkedIn on 10 September 2016 -