Sunday, October 31, 2010

How NOT to Make a Presentation: Using a Mnemonic As The Foundation Can Render a Presentation Hollow!

Last week, while I was in Dehra Dun, an Indian city located in the Himalayan foothills, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of my high school, The Doon School, I listened to a one-hour presentation on leadership by a Dr. Sanjiv Chopra of Harvard Medical School. What a disappointment! The only positive comment I can make about that presentation is the speaker’s delivery: a strong voice with excellent enunciation. But the content? An overwhelming, rapid-fire barrage of slides that lasted more then twice the allotted time and created severe listener indigestion.

I believe my analysis of why the presentation was completely ineffective, and why it did not leave any long-term impact on the numerous members of the audience I have spoken to since, will give you specific ideas on how to make your next presentation really worthwhile for the listener, especially if it's going to be on some abstract issue such as leadership.

So, where did the speaker go wrong? First, he made the common mistake of bundling his content into a mnemonic—in this case the word “L E A D E R S H I P” itself. Thus, he had L stand for “listening” as a key skill, E for “empathy,” A for attitude, and so on. Invariably, when speakers try to fit a complex subject into a mnemonic, they end up oversimplifying the matter and leaving the audience with a distorted takeaway. Let me elaborate.

Take for instance “communication” and “vision”—unquestionably two of the most important ingredients of leadership. Because the letters C and V do not appear in the word LEADERSHIP, what does a speaker do, if he is trying to force fit everything into the letters L E A D…..? Either he will crudely and feebly tie these two qualities to other letters in the mnemonic or just make a passing reference to them. Result: the audience does not get a sharp, crystalline view of what it takes to be a strong and highly successful leader. And when the mnemonic happens to be a relatively long word, as is the 10-character “LEADERSHIP,” it will invariably end up exaggerating some minor qualities or aspects.

The second big mistake Dr. Chopra made was that for each quality represented by one of the characters in the word LEADERSHIP, he had a fusillade of slides, with each such slide featuring a comment by or about a famous leader. Thus, the presentation turned into an onslaught of several dozen such slides, producing severe overload and listener indigestion. At the end of the long, insufferable peroration, all that was left in our minds was a blur.

Since “leadership” is a particularly sexy subject for a presentation, thanks to its universal appeal, my next post offers an approach for making a cogent and indelible presentation on that topic.

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