What presenter species are you?

Throughout my career I have attended many public and private events, listened to many business, technology and product presentations, and seen many good and even more not-so-good storytellers in action.

In Dutch language, we have an expression that says “elke vogel zingt zoals hij gebekt is,” which translates literally to “every bird sings the way it is beaked.” The same counts without any doubt for public presenters, as each individual speaker has its particular style to get his or her message across.

bird_guide

Here’s a list with presenter types I have frequently spotted in the field: the Engineer, the Kindergarten Teacher, the Actor, the Philosopher, the Consultant, the Salesman and the Conversationalist. Note that, although I am describing the male specimens, all the species below have a female variant too ― but some of them, e.g. female Engineers or Consultants are quite rare birds.

  • The Engineer is great in delivering technical content and in educating people. He loves projecting huge PowerPoint files with lots of detail about architectures and product features. He is seldom a good listener and tends to care more about his own solution than about the audience’s problem. As such the Engineer’s presentations are often lacking a clear (commercial) message that goes beyond “look how good I am/we are” and “isn’t it wonderful what I/we have built.”
  • The Kindergarten Teacher is somewhat the opposite of the Engineer. He doesn’t pay attention to (or maybe doesn’t know about…) the details. His performance has all the elements that you may expect from a good storyteller, complete with protagonists/antagonists, a well-built tension and a moral lesson at the end. A kindergarten-style presentation is always nice to listen to, but usually has a bit too little meat on the bone, and at the end of the talk you still feel hungry for the real stuff.
  • The Actor’s main goal it to deliver a dazzling show. A well written story, attractive visuals, and a thoroughly rehearsed speech are key to the success of his performance. We all know that practice makes perfect, but over-rehearsal can also kill your presentation. Overall, the Actor is a great performer on stage, but he’s frequently lacking spontaneity, and will often make a poor appearance when the audience starts asking questions.
  • The Philosopher tends to introduce high-level concepts, ideas or solution schemes. His visuals contain lots of boxes, arrows and clouds. Although his content may be called abstract, holistic or even esoteric, and his talks are frequently lacking a clear structure ― the Engineer would rather call them fluffy ― a Philosopher’s presentation is often well received by corporate strategists. If you have these in your audience, they might be looking for visionary material and food for thought, rather than for the Engineer’s precooked product and solution bites.
  • The Consultant also puts up lots of slides with boxes, arrows and clouds, but that’s mainly because these graphic elements are prescribed by his employer’s PowerPoint template. And you can bet on it that he’s added lots of numbers, tables and charts too, to make his proposition (look) concrete. Don’t expect him to come up with an entertaining story, because being perceived as a storyteller is exactly what (most) Consultants try to avoid at all times.
  • The Salesman doesn’t really care about the story ― and, unfortunately, sometimes not even about the accuracy of the content. Real business is done before and after — not during — a presentation. His slides are generally “off the shelf”, his messages pushy, and his tone not adapted to the audience’s expectations and needs. As they are rather centered on offer than on demand, Salesmen tend to be bad listeners too. As an example, rewatch the video sketch that I included in my “One mouth and two ears” post on this blog.
  • The Conversationalist’s presentation thrives on interaction with the people in the room. You may recognize one when a speaker starts his talk with an open question or a personal anecdote, and has his Twitter ID or his LinkedIn URL mentioned on the title slide. The Conversationalist welcomes interruptions, but then unfortunately regularly enters into discussion with (a few members of) his audience, gets carried away from his presentation topic or story line, and will probably not manage to finish his speech on time. And of course, a Conversationalist loves to continue the conversation during the break.

The list above is neither intended to be exhaustive nor prescriptive. If you have encountered a storyteller with a presentation style that does not match one of the types (or a combination thereof) in the list, or if you are a unique-beaked species yourself, please share it with the readers of this blog through the “leave a reply” box below…

Trust me, I’m an engineer

Last week I delivered a presentation skills training to a group of Bell Labs researchers. As a computer scientist who started his own career in R&I, I know that it’s not obvious for an engineer to present a complex research topic, and to cover the necessary technical details while keeping the undivided attention of an (often mixed) audience. Therefore, I can only agree with what Sean Buvala is saying about storytelling techniques for IT and research departments:

“The more esoteric your work is, the more you need to use storytelling in your job.”

Believe me, it is certainly possible to tell compelling –and even exciting—stories about science and technology.  If you want to see some good examples of hi-tech storytelling, take a look at one or more episodes of “Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections” on the National Geographic Channel.

richard_hammond

In this TV show, Hammond (also known as one of the BBC’s Top Gear hosts) discovers how inventions of the past, along with the forces of nature, are helping designers and engineers today. The series explores exceptional technical achievements like the building of the Airbus A380, the Taipei 101 skyscraper, the Millau viaduct over the river Tarn in France, the Wembley soccer stadium and the Sydney Opera House.

Here are a few tips for preparing your next technical presentation:

  • Always comply with the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid
  • The AIDA structure also works for content that may be hard to present
  • Focus on the possible applications, rather than on the technical details
  • Talk about the why, the what, and the how
  • Make it interesting for all (not everybody in the room is an expert)
  • Don’t try to list the details of a full year’s work in 30 minutes
  • Avoid (if you can’t: explain) acronyms and technical jargon
  • Illustrate your points with everyday examples
  • Facts and figures are OK, but don’t overload your listeners
  • You are the expert. You know the problem. You have a solution – PROVE IT!
  • Don’t feed the chameleons

And, as I explained in my post on “How to write a paper”, once you’ve got your presentation act together, it’s fairly easy to (re)create a paper or magazine article from it.