More importantly, as we become progressively more online social creatures, simple presentation skills become almost quaint (remember shorthand?) and possessing a wide variety of engagement skills and behaviors becomes far more important.
So, What's This All About?
For most of my career, I've done a lot of traditional presenting.
The evolution of presenting technology during this time period has been interesting, if you'll bear with me for a moment.
When I entered the workforce, it was all about 35mm slides you'd put in a slide projector. Given the time, effort and cost that went into these slide shows, it forced great thought and deliberation as to what actually went on the slides.
I mean, we're talking many thousands of dollars for a decent show -- one typo could ruin your day.
This was gradually supplanted by transparencies. The cost and effort went way down, and -- for the first time -- you could actually print your own. Unfortunately, because the cost and effort of producing a presentation went down, so did the intellectual quality.
You didn't have to put as much effort into getting your story straight, and it showed.As laptops became more practical, there was a huge shift to PowerPoint beamed to a screen. Once again, the cost and effort came down, and quality again suffered. If you don't believe me, check out this hilarious comedy routine.
More and more information was now being thrown at people: irrelevant and confusing detail that got in the way of simple human understanding and communication.
The Presentation Vs. The Presenter
During the same period of time, it seemed that there were more and more people being asked to stand up and give a presentation -- it moved from something you specialized in, to something that just about everyone was expected to do.
Well, anything you do only once in a while doesn't usually lead to proficiency. This inevitably led to a toxic combination -- bad presentations, presented badly. I, for one, was very thankful when blackberries became widespread. And I think the iPad is becoming a godsend in this context.
There was a response -- of sorts -- with all manner of "presentation training" and "presentation coaching". I actually was asked at one time to attend one of those classes as part of some standardized certification program or another. I ended up having a big argument with the course teacher, and walking out.
Part of my frustration had to do with the wrong focus -- it was all about the content, and less about the engagement. Words and pictures on a slide don't usually do a good job of engaging people. People can do a far better job in engaging people -- if they know it's important.
A few years back, I had one of those thunderclap moments. What separated a good session from a bad session was the degree of engagement between the speaker and the audience. If they were disengaged, it sucked. If they were engaged, it rocked.
In smaller formats, this meant back-and-forth discussion that could potentially wander far afield from where we thought we were going. In larger formats, this meant dialing up the personal stories, the jokes, the passionate moments -- all the things that showed you were a real person, rather than a wind-up presenting robot.
And, strangely enough, I felt that the damn slides were getting in the way of all of that.
What I Did
I stopped using materials others had done, and started to create my own.
Simple pictures. Simple words. Simple ideas. Not overproduced or slick either.
And not too many of them, either.
I went from 40 slides, to 20 slides, to 10 slides, to just a few as conversation starters.
Engagements (formerly "presentations") got far better -- not only for me, but for the people I was speaking with. Occasionally, we'd get into some nook or cranny that made me think "gee, I wish I had brought that slide", but not too often.
And then I took the biggest step of all -- no slides.
I can't do it all the time -- some audiences and discussions need a few visuals to get the engagement going -- but about half of my (formerly) presentations are now done with no slides and no visuals whatsoever -- no whiteboards either.
Just me, my words and my hands. The exact same way we communicated thousands of years ago.
Done right, the engagements got even better. More intense. More passionate. More -- well -- engaging. I still crack up when -- a few days later -- I get a note saying "hey, that was great, can you send your presentation along?"
The Social Payoff
The same skills that I am honing in the real world (small format discussions) are directly transferable to the online world. Whether it's blogging, commenting, chatting, twittering -- whatever -- you're really having a discussion, and usually not lecturing people.
Or, hopefully, not lecturing as much :-)
I still think I have a long way to go in honing my online social interaction skills. I'm putting effort into it, and hopefully improving over time. But learning to ditch the slides was a big help in this direction.
What Does All Of This Mean?
I tend to focus on where things are going, and not where they are or where they've been. My interests are around trend lines What can we do now to prepare for -- or accelerate -- the future?
The world is going more social -- both online as well as in the real world. It's much more about transparency, authenticity, empathy and engagement. Nobody really wants to be messaged, they want to be engaged before, during and after. And they're very adept at spotting a fake, so don't try.
Which brings up some interesting questions, like "what are the key engagement skills?" and "how do you teach people how to engage vs. present?" and "how do you improve and/or measure your engagement skills?".
I don't think we'll be seeing a lot of "Learn To Present Effectively!!" courses going forward ...