By Singapore Teaching Centre, British Council

21 November 2022 - 10:00

Presentations: Nightmare or opportunity?

Jon was excited to start his new job, but he didn’t expect to be presenting four days later. Jon’s new role was more senior but working for a consulting competitor. On his first day, Shirly, his boss, asked Jon to attend a conference and present in her place. She assured him that, Rebecca, one of his staff had already prepared the slides. Eager to prove himself, he agreed. Also, he wanted to understand how his new company positioned themselves in the market and what messaging they used.

After a full day of meetings, it was gone 5 p.m. when Jon finally opened the slide deck. Whatever his expectations, they were not met – it was a nightmare! The slides were overly detailed and text heavy. They appeared to be recycled from other presentations without flow or consistency. The companies positioning and added value was missing. But worst of all – there was no consideration of the conference theme, his audience, or key take away messages

If he used the existing presentation, it would be a huge waste of everyone’s time. To make matters worse, Shirly had just forwarded him an email from the conference organisers chasing for the handouts.  

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What would you do in this situation? 

Realistically, Jon had three choices: 

  • He could refuse, but what impression would that give Shirly?
  • He could ask Rebecca to re-do it, but he didn’t know what guidance she had been given, her subject knowledge or current workload.
  • He could find a way to make it work.

He read about the two-day conference, its theme, and reflected on how his topic fits into the wider context. Crucially, he asked himself what the attendees would want to learn. Jon decided that his presentation slide deck would be very different from his handouts.

He mapped out where he wanted to take his audience in 90 minutes and identified the key stages and messages. As his presentation was on the first morning, he could introduce the big picture and lay the foundation for later speakers. He also identified some of the organiser’s research and data to incorporate into a spotlight story highlighting his company’s approach and added value. 

With a framework in place, he reordered Rebecca’s slides, edited, and selected about half for handouts. These were emailed to the organisers in the morning. Over the remaining three days he refined his own slides and speaker’s’ notes. He built in some attention grabbers and incorporated some personal anecdotes to bond with the audience.

The feedback was very positive. Several of the later presenters even referenced Jon’s presentation. A lot of late nights had stopped the presentation from becoming a nightmare, but how could he prevent the same thing from happening again?

The next week Jon and Rebecca met for coffee. He asked about her role, current projects and how she prepared the presentation slides. He learned that her subject knowledge was excellent, but she was delivery focused. She hadn’t given any presentations and feared public speaking. So, he started coaching her through some common problems.

'What happens when a slide is text heavy?' he asked.

'I don’t know. I personally like lots of detail,' she replied. So, Jon found another presenter’s handout and actual slide and showed it to her. Immediately she started reading it. He then started describing the surroundings to see when she would pay attention. 

After about a minute, Rebecca asked, 'Why are you talking about trees?' Jon smiled and explained that our brains can’t listen and read at the same time. So, if slides are text heavy, people stop listening. Ironically, some presenters give permission to be ignored.

Rebecca nodded then stopped and said, 'Sorry, I guess my slides weren’t much help then.'

Jon reassured Rebecca that they made great handouts but if she was interested, he would share his final slide deck with her. She agreed and was curious about the difference. Hearing her interest, he added that his old firm had arranged for presentation skills training for the team to build on and develop fundamental skills. He learned a lot from it and if she was interested, he would support her to attend a course. 

Learn more on Professional skills full-day workshops

The British Council’s professional skills training and development programmes, including our Presentation Skills 1 (SkillsFuture Credit-eligible) workshop, can give you the tools you need to become a confident and effective public speaker. For further tips and ideas, you might also like to read our blog posts ‘Improve your public speaking skills’ and ‘Why business English presentation skills will help advance your career’.