Presentations the lazy way

31st July, 2003

Make it twice as good with half the effort
Are you feeling lazy? Me too. There are so many good reasons to slack off at the moment. Like Wally in the ‘Dilbert’ cartoon strip, I’m trying to cut down my coffee intake to double figures – which means I’m none too quick on the draw these days. The depressing state of the world doesn’t exactly inspire me to Herculean feats either. But the lassitude is most all embracing when I’m gazing out of the office window at the sunshine. In such times, who can summon the energy to lift a mouse-clicking finger?
Naturally I have been slouching along the path of least resistance over the past few weeks. Coincidentally, I’ve also found myself on the sharp end of a few business presentations. All of them had one thing in common: they would have been twice as good if half as much effort had been lavished on them. This is because most of the preparation which goes into preparing your average business presentation is simply trying to fix what was never broken. Public speaking is a test which only the lazy survive. It’s a Zen thing.
Let me share with you the advice I would have given my hard-working colleagues if I could have been bothered.

First, the top five energy-saving tips.
Don’t write a script. If you’re going to write a script, it has to sound like a real person talking. This is widely recognised to be hard work. Writing something down which sounds like a real person talking is the kind of thing that wins Quentin Tarantino Oscars. If you’re Quentin Tarantino, by all means write your script. Otherwise, cut out the hard work and achieve that elusive effect of sounding like a real person talking by… talking.
Don’t create any slides. We all know that it is important to give the modern audience something interesting to look at, and maybe you fancy yourself Piet Mondrian instead of Tarantino. But unless you really are Mondrian, which I doubt, you don’t stand much change of creating anything worth looking at with a piece of software like PowerPoint. If you really want to emulate an artist, I suggest you make like Marcel Duchamp and adopt an objets trouvé approach to visual aids: just pick up something in the room or something you found on the way there to illustrate your key point. Don’t let an absence of relevant objects dishearten you – more obscure connections keep you on your toes and force you to find imaginative new ways of expounding the subject at hand.
Only make one point. Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think anybody will listen to a lazy nobody like you make two?
Get the audience to do the work. If it’s a small group, ask them questions, start a discussion or group exercise. If it’s a large group then invite them to actively participate in a silent way – for instance, visualise their favourite place, or the best meal they’ve ever had, or something else (if you’re feeling on top of your game, this could be something relevant to your lone point). Sometimes it takes a bit of nerve to get this started, but as any pantomime dame will tell you, if they don’t do what you ask them first time, all you have to do is ask them again. Audiences love this and it’s less work for you.
Keep it brief. When was the last time that a speaker left you wanting more?

By now you can see that too much preparation simply creates trouble for speaker and audience alike. But it would be irresponsible of me to suggest that you step out in front of an audience completely unprepared. There are a couple of areas where your efforts aren’t totally counterproductive, and I recommend that you concentrate on these:
Prepare the first five seconds and the last five seconds. If you start well and finish well, everybody will assume that the middle bit was excellent, too. This sounds flippant – and flippant it is – but it is amazing how far you can get on a good introduction. It doesn’t hurt to end on a high either.
Produce quality not quantity. Dig up a single good one-liner, an excellent analogy or example, and perhaps one striking new piece of information. (Here’s an idea – put one of them in your first five seconds and one more in your last five seconds.) If you must have slides, then create just one useful one rather than twenty useless ones. (Lazy tip: press ‘B’ when you’re not speaking and the PowerPoint slideshow will go blank. That way you don’t need to wallpaper your whole talk with bullet points.)
Don’t ever forget to find out who your audience is. How many people will there be? What do they know? What do they expect of you? What do they care about? What will they laugh at? What won’t they laugh at?
The lazy speaker knows full well that if you do this last one right, you can comfortably forget the rest.

A shorter version of this piece was published in the Financial Times on 1 August 2003.

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