Sink or Swim

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I recently received a link to a blog by renowned and esteemed communications coach T. J. Walker entitled: “How Every Manager Can Eliminate Awful Presentations and Speeches from Employees in 2015”.

With his very witty and dry sense of humor, Mr. Walker advises managers to institute a a new policy: instead of sending PowerPoint decks to their manager in advance of a presentation, reports will need to send, at least 24 hours in advance, a video of a practice session of the final version of their presentation.

In the sample memo he cautions:

“Do not send me a video of your presentation until you are happy with the style and substance of the presentation and you are personally convinced that you are communicating the ideas of your presentation in the best possible manner. If, after looking at a video of your presentation, you find your speech incredibly dull and boring and you can’t stand watching it, then please assume that is exactly how everyone in a real audience would react. Change/improve your speech and record it again. Do as many times as needed until you are satisfied with it and you are convinced your audience will be satisfied. Then, send me the video file for final review.”

I found Mr. Walker’s simple and direct missive first funny at first but then rather upsetting. I initially imagined a slew of horrified business people actually taking advantage of the new policy. I saw them practicing their presentation for the first time, being appalled at what they see and scrambling to whip their presentation and performance into acceptable shape. Mr. Walker’s strategy would work well for those “naturals” who can spot the issues, tighten up their presentation, add a few relevant anecdotes and pick up the overall energy level.

Then I thought about the other 85% of presenters who, even when made aware that their presentation is not interesting, not focused enough and delivered without much attention to the audience, will not know what to do change it. They would be made accountable for their presentation on a new level, but would not have the tools to do anything about it. Great strategy for increasing self-awareness, but also great for creating anxiety.

It makes me think of the old “sink or swim” method. You throw a child into the pool assuming he or she will figure out how to swim. With the exception of a few naturally gifted swimmers, this is not an effective method either.

If an average child manages, without instruction, to stay afloat, he or she will not be moving through water gracefully or efficiently, and will be operating under extreme duress.

Unless you’re willing to permanently traumatize this child and risk utter failure (in this case life-threatening) you will need to teach the child some basic skills. With a solid foundation upon which to practice, a child can work to become a good, technically proficient swimmer.

Presenters need similar basic tools to be able to transform their presentations from “incredibly dull and boring” to interesting and motivating. They need to learn to have what I call a “point of view” or an overall message for the presentation. They need to know how to reach their particular audience, how to ask for what they want and how to express to their audience why they should do it. They need to know how to determine which points are important to supporting their point of view, and how to provide appropriate and interesting supporting information to support those points. They need to learn how to connect with their audience on a human level, and to use both a larger scale narrative and smaller anecdotes to bring their points to life.

I think Mr. Walker’s idea is a great one: Issue a simple directive that makes employees accountable for giving good presentations. But for most employees, I think managers will have to provide some basic instruction both to ensure presenters accomplish this task and to avert a company-wide panic attack.


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