Simple ways to support a presenter and benefit from their talk

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post makes a case for encouraging and supporting presenters in order to get the most out of their expertise.

Has this happened to you, too? You’ve been invited to deliver a presentation. You prepare. You rehearse. You consider the audience’s background, what questions they may ask and what you want them to take away from your talk, or decisions you need from them. You put all your heart into starting strong and captivating the audience.

Then, someone interrupts on slide two. It may be an appropriate comment or perfectly legitimate question. But it throws you off thread slightly. Of course, as the expert speaker you will (have to) answer any question coming at you without hesitation. However, as soon as you’ve done that and circled back to where you left off, the next participant interrupts with “just another quick question …”

Presentation success is a ‘team sport’

You’re still on your second slide as a longer dispute is brewing over a phrase that some people disagree with. You clarify why you picked this terminology over the established convention and what meaning you meant to convey. More people add views – some in support, some in opposition. Before you know it, your presentation is completely off the rails.

Despite the fact you only brought few slides to leave time for discussion and answering questions – you’re beginning to panic: How are you going to stop this futile banter and bring it back on track, for the group to experience a successful outcome and for you to get on with your work that depends on today’s decision?

Politely, you ask attendees to allow you to get through the complete case so that everyone in the room can discuss and decide based on the full picture. You pledge that if any question remains unanswered today, you’ll respond immediately after the meeting.

However, your confidence chips away with every new interruption. Further attempts at getting back to your topic increasingly sound like pleading. When the slot is up, you haven’t been able to lay out your complete case, let alone solicit the desired decision or support that you came for.

Does your topic require a presentation?

I’m not making this up. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a presenter specially flown in to present a ‘critical’ strategy update, according to their manager. It took eight (8!) seconds before the same boss interrupted the speaker, still on the first slide. What ensued was a ten-minute haggle over a word, before someone suggested we “let them get through the deck before we continue discussing”. For the remainder of the six-slide deck, the manager and leader of the assembled group kept vividly shaking their head while the presenter hastened to the end of the talk.

I wonder: If we discourage presenters before they’ve been able to properly lay out their case, and throughout the presentation, why do we invite them in the first place?

True – by far not every topic and decision-making process requires a formal presentation. It should be carefully decided whether yours does, and if so, what the objectives are of the talk. In most cases where presentation is needed, a successful outcome will benefit everyone involved, not just the presenter. Therefore, why not work together to ensure clear, complete communication, transparent dialogue and constructive feedback?

Active listening

An inattentive, disinterested audience can be as disruptive as constant intrusions. When people fiddle with mobile devices constantly, or their eyes are glued to the laptop screen answering emails, how does this set up a presenter for success?

Again – if the topic isn’t of relevance to everyone in the room, why host it in the first place and waste everyone’s time, including the presenter’s? Consider alternative ways of delivering information of partial relevance for a group.

But when it’s decided and you’re faced with a presenter, even if their topic seems of little interest to you at the minute, give them your full attention. Listen actively, keep eye contact, nod occasionally, smile. Show that you’re with them not against them. In nine out of ten cases, presenters who feel the audience is with them deliver a better and clearer presentation than those confronting disinterest or opposition. At minimum, you’ll be saving on your own time by hearing them out, as you’ll be able to ask better questions at the end based on the full picture – or swallow them if they have already been answered in the course of the talk.

And, who knows, you might just gain new insights that prove valuable, if you give it a chance. After all, there’s usually a reason that speaker has been asked to inject the meeting with details on the chosen topic. It’s often because they are the expert on the matter, while you’re not.

Embracing inter-cultural diversity

In global organisations, one of the worst blunders of incompetent management is to ignore the diversity of cultural norms when it comes to receiving a presentation. What may be a difficult to manage challenge by someone in the audience asking a disruptive question in Western nations, may equal an outright insult to a speaker educated in, for instance, an Asian country where the convention is to hear out a speaker before the first question or comment is made.

Not only will this demoralise people, it stifles innovation and business results as colleagues will be less willing to engage if leadership disrespects them.

It’s more than courtesy. In many cultures, from early on children and students are trained to ‘present’ a case starting at the very beginning, explaining the breadth of background to gradually build to the key point or current news. While, in other parts of the world, we’ve learned to ‘hook’ an audience with what’s key or current first – then lay out the path that got us here, more background and how it all started.

These are essentially different approaches to building a story or presentation plot, ingrained in our cultural fabric and education. By collaborating with international colleagues and learning from them, we may develop a better understanding of diverse cultural needs and expectations to be able to adapt our own approach. However, if you see value in true innovation based on mixed experiences and ideas, I recommend we first open our minds to respect the fact that across the planet we’ve all been socialised and educated differently, and that there is value in accepting that styles are diverse. To get most out of this diversity, we need to listen with intent and encourage presenters; not make it hard, disrupt and demoralise them – especially in an international setting.

Taking notes

Note-taking is a simple matter – or is it? At times, I see participants scribble away frantically as if their reason to exist were to make exact transcriptions of every presentation they listen to. But, I wonder, how can one take in the content and make robust contributions while their exclusive focus lies on catching every spoken word to write it down in rocket speed?

For a long time now, I have resorted to taking note of few select points per talk only, that are either new to me or otherwise critical to remember. In addition, I note actions and new ideas resulting for me from that talk; and I typically scribble down questions or additions crossing my mind while listening, to raise them at the end or strike them off my list if already covered.

For me, this form of capturing crucial – not all – information is far more effective than anything else I’ve tried. When overdoing the notes, I tend to stop listening and, therefore, won’t remember anything that was said. If not taking any notes, given the sheer amount of meetings and presentations we typically wade through in the corporate realm, I won’t remember much, either. The same happens when I rely on elaborate meeting minutes or the original PowerPoint deck circulated after the meeting. If I don’t capture my own brief, focused notes, I might just as well not bother attending.

Be present

To be clear: not every meeting, topic or decision requires formal presentation. Many alternatives are available that may be superior in facilitating the desired results.

But when it’s decided a presentation is the method of choice, everyone in the room should do their best to help the presenter succeed in getting their case across with clarity and unambiguity. That doesn’t mean everyone will have to agree with the speaker or approve of their asks. All it means is to have the patience and discipline to hear out the complete argument before starting to comment, raise questions or dissect the case. Or how else will you be able to make an informed, good decision?

By the way, it’s usually okay to leave the meeting for a while if really that one presentation isn’t relevant to you. But when you’re there – be present!

  • Consider alternative ways of sharing information of partial relevance for a group
  • Set a time and/or slide limit for presenters
  • Build in additional time for discussion
  • Within these windows, allow speakers to get through their presentation
  • Note down questions/comments to not interrupt
  • Give the presenter your full attention; show you’re with them not against them
  • Listen actively, keep eye contact, nod occasionally, smile
  • Don’t disrupt by fiddling with your mobile device or answering emails
  • Leave the meeting for a while if a presentation isn’t relevant to you
  • Be present when you’re in the meeting/presentation
  • Respect and embrace cultural diversity and norms
  • Develop an understanding and appreciation for the value of diverse styles
  • Note crucial – not all – points, actions and ideas resulting from the talk

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.