Handcuffed to an Awful Presentation? 5 Things You Can Do

A nHandcuffsew client came to me with a common problem: she was assigned to deliver a PowerPoint presentation that was created by someone else in her company but that she knew was no good. The slides were data-heavy and the script was boring and not audience-focused.

All the recommendations I would normally give were non-starters:

  • Can you change the slides? No.
  • Can you cut slides? No.
  • Can you add slides? No.
  • Can you do it without the slides? No.

We did, however, find one important loophole:

  • Will they be monitoring what you say? No.

And that is the magic spot where you can begin to make someone else’s bad presentation your own, give it some life, and not feel so embarrassed about delivering it. If you’re ever in this position, here are five things you can do to turn a  proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse.

1. Add Framing and Context

This particular presentation was about a study the company had done. Some of the findings were interesting, but others were not all that surprising or newsworthy. Obediently presenting them according to the script would insult the audience’s intelligence.

Here is where a little “framing” can help. The simple addition of a few words like this can go a long way toward preserving your credibility:

I know this point isn’t ‘new news’ to many of us, but I found it to be useful reinforcement of something we’ve long talked about — it’s good to have the data to back up what we know to be true.

Or you might say something like:

This may be common knowledge to most of us, but it’s important to remember that others we talk to don’t come from the same perspective.

One thing you don’t want to do is denigrate the content or the people who created it. That may be a tempting option, but it sells out your colleagues and makes you look untrustworthy and unprofessional.

2. Offer a Single Insight or Takeaway

Let’s say you have a lot of data on a slide, or perhaps a series of unremarkable bullet points. Here is where you call upon your wealth of experience to cut through the clutter and provide meaning. Lead off with something like:

  • “Here’s what I found interesting about this …”
  • “There’s a lot of data here, but I want to call your attention to this detail …”
  • “If you remember nothing else about this slide, remember this …”

Imagine you’re the tour guide using your expertise to help them navigate the thicket of information presented.

3. Deliver Color Commentary

In any sports broadcast you have at least two people in the booth: the play-by-play announcer and the “color commentator” (usually a retired player) who draws on their insider experience to provide additional insight and “texture.”

In a situation like this, you want to be the color guy, bringing the information to life with your own observations, examples and stories. Here are a few thought-starters along these lines:

  • “This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a supplier …”
  • “I know when I’m talking with a customer, the first thing they want to know is …”
  • “I surveyed my own team on this point and found …”

Remember: stories are the most compelling and memorable part of a presentation anyway. Use them liberally.

4. Get the Audience Involved

Rather than forcing your audience to be passive consumers of a big information dump, make them active participants in the presentation. Here are a few ways to accomplish that:

  • Before presenting a data point, poll them first and compare their response to the finding you’re presenting.
  • After presenting it, ask if anyone disagrees with an assertion or is surprised by a finding.
  • Ask them about their own experience with a particular point.
  • Assign them to work together in teams to discuss solutions to a problem raised by the content.
  • Do a role-playing exercise if appropriate.

Activating the audience will energize them, make the content more relevant and bring to light unexpected insights.

5. End Early

If you’re cutting a lot of boring content, you may find you have extra time on your hands. If it can’t be filled with interaction and exercises, there’s nothing wrong with ending a little early. Most people will welcome the extra time to catch up on email, network with colleagues or simply have a break.

Of course, if your session is part of a larger agenda you’ll want to coordinate with the organizers ahead of time so it’s not a surprise or disruption. Many meetings run long anyway, so an abbreviated session may be welcomed.

Break Free and Make it Your Own

This advice goes beyond delivering presentations, by the way. All of us at some point are asked (or ordered) to say or do something that conflicts with our beliefs or personal style.

Sometimes we can take a stand and refuse. Sometimes we have to suck it up and do it anyway. But I’ve found a middle road that offers a practical path for preserving my dignity and values.

To be honest, that may involve some amount of rationalization. But often it’s about getting to the same result through a different process — one that makes sense and feels right to me.

It’s about finding  a way to do it my way — to make it my own — so I can carry out the program or policy or tactic but still look myself in the mirror and like what I see.

[Photo Credit: Patrick Walter, Lawyer Flickr via Compfight cc]

2 thoughts on “Handcuffed to an Awful Presentation? 5 Things You Can Do

  1. Fantastic ideas Rob. And listing specific things the speaker could say makes this especially helpful.

    I really like the point about not denigrating the deck, or its designer, because that’d put the speaker in a very bad light.

    I even try to avoid saying things like “There’s a lot of data here…”. Having been in talks where the speaker said similar (and even though the audience can see it’s true), I don’t think it helps to draw attention to it. I much prefer your suggestion to say “If you remember nothing else…”, as it’s far more subtle, and it actually helps the audience.

    Let’s hope the slides were static (rather than using builds or animation), so people didn’t have to sit through a whole series of clicks just to get through each one!

    I also love your idea of asking if anyone disagrees with, or is surprised by, a point. That puts the audience on a par with the speaker, rather than treating them simply as passive receivers of “wisdom”.

    Recently I wrote about the importance of making a talk conversational like that. But I’d not thought of asking for contrasting viewpoints, so thanks for the tip.

  2. Thank you, Craig, as always, for your insightful comments. Happy New Year!

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