Strictly speaking, this is post is not necessarily related to the Corona virus outbreak. But articles about the latter certainly increase its relevance a great deal. What I want to write about today is how we should deal with everything we read. Most things will also apply to TV, YouTube and other media, but the narrative will stick to articles for readability.
If you read something it is important to be aware about its nature (e.g. report vs. opinion), the author, and where it got published. These are all factors (and there are more) that have influenced the content, so you need to take them into account. At the end of the day the reason for publishing something is typically either money or politics. People that create content have a goal and they rarely disclose it openly.
For YouTube videos it is often money and in traditional newspapers we typically see an endorsement for a certain political position. And the latter can regularly be seen for TV as well. For me, when I create posts for this blog, it is the fun of writing and the surprise how articles turn direction while I work on them. Because writing is the tool to structure my thoughts and discover a topic. (For those who are more interested in this, please watch the video linked in Larry McEnerney: The Craft of Writing Effectively; it is quite long but really worth it.)
So it is your job to read between the lines, do some research, and develop an overall picture. It is this picture then, that defines the context in which the content has to be seen. And now it gets really interesting. Because you need to watch out for unfounded claims that mask themselves as objective truth. Often these will be thrown in almost casually, but then used to construct a whole chain of cause and effect-relationships. And those will, miraculously, support the author’s opinion. Surprise, surprise.
Once you have come into the habit of doing this, it will open your eyes and you will see many things in much more nuanced way. All of a sudden you identify the weak link in the line of argument. And you can then think about whether this invalidates the author’s position completely for you. Or you still agree with the verdict, but see that no proper argument has been delivered to support it.
With so many people working from home these days, the use of video calls has exploded. I personally think this is a good thing, because it changes the nature of calls dramatically. They move things closer to a personal interaction, which is a huge plus. The downside of this is an increase in the use of network bandwidth. Hence some people suggest to disable your video while not talking.
I would like to propose a slightly more nuanced approach. To me disabling the video while listening can be appropriate for meetings that are about content. If someone is sharing a screen so that people can discuss the current state of some work item, there is indeed little value from six small faces at the bottom of the screen.
But increasingly folks use video calls for social purposes, like the famous virtual morning coffee round. And here things are different in my view. As in the physical equivalent, there are people who dominate the discussion and those who mostly listen. The second group is just as important as the first, and not seeing their faces would be a great loss for the purpose of the call. So for this kind of meeting I recommend to leave video turned on at all times.
Mr McEnerney presents a really good “strategic” approach to writing in a professional context. On the one hand nothing really new, but the way it is presented and details being put into context, make this a wonderful framework for me.
In particular it became even clearer to me why knowing a lot about a subject often makes it more difficult to write about it or discuss things with non-subject-matter-experts. This is also described nicely in the course description for professionals.
And finally I want to direct your attention to this nice blog post about a personal encounter with Larry McEnerney.
“Everybody who loves attending presentations, raise your hand! No one? Hey, come on. …… Still nobody?”
Ok, so why is it that you may get this kind of reaction (although probably not so extreme)? In my view the simple reason is that the majority of presentations is just absolutely poorly done. People prepare at the last minute, if at all, execute lousy on that already weak preparation and then get the appropriate reaction from the audience. Well, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit here, but I am convinced that most presentations fall short of what would have been possible with just a little bit of extra effort.
So here are the absolute basics:
Know your audience in advance: If you have no clue who will be attending the session you are pretty much screwed. If you have prepared a presentation for techies and business people show up, there will obviously be a mismatch between them and what you say. So for those case where you are not sure, have a “plan B” right in your pocket. In practice that means that you have to prepare not one presentation but lets say 1.7. For the case of techies vs. business guys this means that you should also have some business-related content. How much backup you need, depends on the individual scenario.
A presentation is not primarily about slides: These days many guys out there seem to think “presentation = power point slides”. That’s just plain wrong. A presentation is about conveying content (a “message”) to the audience. The slides are a means to facilitate and support that – nothing more, nothing less. You probably know the design principle “form follows function”. For presentations it is “slides follow story line”. Because that’s what you are doing, you are telling a story.
The story line is crucial: All too often we end up in sessions where the presenter is going through a bunch of slides with no “big picture” behind them. This is when the story line is missing and the net-result is just poor. You especially see this when someone is giving a presentation where the slides were created by someone else. They basically tell one slide after another (or even worse just read them) and in the end you don’t know what the overall message was.
I have had a particular experience when the presenter was showing a mixture of self-made and “external” slides. The start was with the external ones and I almost left the room after 10 minutes. Then came a self-made one and I thought “Wow!”. Things immediately improved dramatically and my overall rating went from “This is an insult to the audience” to neutral. With just a little bit of in-advance thinking it would have been a really good session and it’s sad that the opportunity was missed.
People want to be entertained: Think about what makes the difference for you between a good and an outstanding presentation. What was special when you last left the room and thought “This was really good, I’m looking forward to the next session of this guys”. For me the main differentiator has always been humour. Nobody is interested in “content only”. Of course content is really important, but people also want a good show. Don’t be mislead: You are not expected to be a comedian and crack one joke after another. But something amusing at the beginning (a so-called icebreaker) makes all the difference.
What you choose depends very much on your personality because you want to be “authentic” here. It is also important to find a topic that allows you to smoothly proceed to the content side of things. Example: I was once looking for an icebreaker for a presentation about increased agility. A British colleague came up with a fantastic one about formula 1. So both parts were about speed and the transition from icebreaker to content went just naturally.
Not everything on the slides: Sometimes people think that everything they tell must be on the slides. I must confess to you that I once thought so as well and it’s just dead-wrong. The only job the slides have is to support your story line. Now you often want/need to give something to people, either for later reference or because they missed the presentation. That’s a good thing to do but should not cause you to put everything into the slides. The right place for those details are the speaker notes.
A short presentation does not mean little preparation effort: In many cases it is just the opposite. The simple reason is that the less time you have for presenting, the more you must try to come to the point quickly and at the same time avoid loosing the audience because of leaving out a critical detail. My personal record is a 10 minute presentation that took a full four man-days to prepare.
The right level of animation: No animation at all during a presentation is probably just as wrong as having loads of them. To determine where it makes sense to hide things when the slide first comes up, think about the story line again. As it unfolds, so should the elements of the slide. If both sides go hand-in-hand you have the right mixture.
Text on slides: Be very careful with text on your slides because it tends to distract the audience from you. They can easily look at a diagram that supports what you just say and still follow your speech. But as soon as they start reading their focus is on the slide and not you any more. The two reasons why I put text on slides are
quotes (e.g. from analysts) and
visualization for a line of arguments
Face your audience: There is no reason to look at the slides and not towards the people in the room. If you do, you either didn’t prepare well enough and need to look at the slide for remembering what to say; or you put too much text on the slides and even with lots of exercising were not able to memorize things.
Move around: Don’t stand next to your notebook all the time. For switching between slides mankind has invented cordless presenters; get yourself one.
Involve the audience: This is not always possible but makes the whole thing more interactive. Don’t ask people to do things that might “expose” them too much. Unless you know the audience well enough the best thing is probably to ask questions like “Who has done XYZ before, please raise your hand”.
Know thy time: You were (hopefully) given a slot with a certain length. Don’t exceed that time! It is unprofessional and unfair to the other presenters, because you steal their time. A couple of points here:
Practice upfront to get a feeling how much time you need; a rule of thumb is 5 minutes per slide.
Plan in a way that allows you to either leave out things or add some. Your advance planning of time will never be 100% accurate and this buffer will make you much more relaxed.
Take into account that people might ask questions.
There is certainly more but I think if you follow those points you already do a much better job than most people I have seen out there. Good luck!