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CLASSIC! Breaking “The Law of Dull”

Is there some law, somewhere, that dictates that business presentations must be dull?

Is there a Law of Dull?

Given the number of dull presentations I see both inside and outside of the business school, I suspect there must be. This dullness seeps into the consciousness, numbs us, and begins to legitimize itself by dint of its universality.

It’s everywhere . . . thus, we think, it must be legitimate. It perpetuates itself, like some kind of awful oral tradition.

Here’s what I mean

You see a dull business presentation that some people praise as . . . well, pretty good. It looks like this . . .   Some Vice President from a visiting company stands in front of you hiding behind a lectern, and he reads a few slides with  dozens of bullet points taken from a written paper and pasted onto PowerPoint slides. He alternates looking at a computer screen and turning to look at a projection screen behind him. 

I saw this abomination myself at a west coast conference, with a representative from the Export-Import Bank intoning mercilessly as he stood to the side of a screen filled with a tightly-packed phallanx of tiny type. Unreadable spreadsheets appear on the screen, masses of aimless numbers.  The presenter reads slide-after-slide verbatim, his head turned away from you.  You realize, finally, that he is reading the slides along with everyone in the audience, in unison, and you squint to make them out.

It’s boring.  It’s unintelligible.  The slides are unreadable or irrelevant. You can’t remember a damn thing except the three texts you received during the presentation as you checked your Blackberry between yawns.  You could legitimately ask yourself, “Is this wasteland all there is?”

You scratch your chin and perhaps you think “Hmmm, that’s not hard at all.”

Cobble Something Together

Just cobble something like that together, and you think you have a business presentation.  And why wouldn’t you think that?  It seems to have all the elements:  A speaker-reader of slides (you), a PowerPoint display on the screen with writing on it, some numbers, and a 15-minute time slot to fill with talk.

But what you actually have is something awful – just awful.

You don’t know what you want to accomplish . . . or why.

You really have no idea what you should say . . . or why.

And you certainly don’t view yourself as benefitting from the process in any way. Instead, you see it as something incredibly painful. Because it is painful. It’s painful and awful. Let’s repeat, so there’s no misunderstanding . . .  just awful.

It’s painful because of the way it’s been explained to you. Because the explanations are always incomplete. You never get the whole story. Or, you don’t get the right story. Teaching you how to deliver a cogent, competent, powerful business presentation is always someone else’s job.

I Feel Your Pain

Sure, there are “presentation” courses. Folks who actually provide you some sort of presenting instruction in school are often disconnected from your business courses. They teach you “How to give a speech” or “How to introduce yourself.” You don’t have the opportunity to engage in a complex group presentation.

Oftentimes, these instructors aren’t even in the business school, and they can’t show you how to incorporate business content into your presentations – things like the SWOT, value chain analysis, financial analysis, PEST, Five Forces, and such like. And on occasion, professors in your business courses demonstrate the same malaise that plagues business at-large.

For most of your professors, presenting is secondary. This makes sense, as each faculty has a specialty or functional discipline he or she is charged with teaching. Business “Presenting” is no one’s functional discipline, and so it goes unaddressed, orphaned to expediency and neglect.

It is the same in the corporate world. Your presenting woes are the same woes that scourge the American business landscape. Boring, dull, numbing . . . all of this is equated wrongly with “serious.”

Glimmers of Hope . . . Gigantic Opportunity

Bad presenting is more common than you might imagine. Communications consultant Andy Goodman conducted major research on the issue in 2005, surveying more than 2,500 public interest professionals and asking them to evaluate their presentation viewing experiences.

The average grade public interest professionals gave to the presentations they attended was C-. The average grade given to the visuals that respondents observed in presentations they attended was also C-. When asked to recall presentations they had seen over the last few months, survey respondents said they were more than likely to see a poor presentation is an excellent one.

This is the current state of presentations in corporate America and in business schools. Is it uniformly bleak? No, of course not.

Generalizations are just that – general in nature. I have seen a sufficient number of fine presentations to understand that, somewhere, superb instruction holds sway. Or, at the very least, young people whose early development has trained them for the stage have found their way to the business platform. Good for them.

But for the most part, it is as I have described here. And this presents you with magnificent opportunity. Now that you understand the situation and why it exists, it’s time for you to join the ranks of superior presenters.

It’s time for your debut. Time to begin breaking the Law of Dull.