Before reading this, stop for a minute – right now — and make up a list of things that you think are characteristics of an effective document/presentation. You’ll probably miss the most important one.
It seems obvious that effective presentations skills (or just plain effective communication skills) should result in producing an effective presentation or document. So, on the first day of any of Learning Tree’s Business and Reporting Writing class, I ask the participants to describe some of the characteristics of an effective document or presentation. The two characteristics that appear every time are “Terse” and “Easy to understand”. And it’s not just participants in Learning Tree classes who feel this way: The eHow article on effective written communication lists “brevity” and “clarity” as its first two points.
But the most important item never appears these lists (and I bet that it didn’t appear on your list, either): An effective document gets read; an effective presentation is one people pay attention to. No matter what else you do in your document or presentation, nothing matters if no one reads your document or no one pays attention to your presentation. Deploying effective presentation skills means, first and foremost, getting the reader’s (or audience’s) attention.
Why do we leave “getting the reader’s attention” out of our lists? One reason is that we seem to assume that people will read our documents or pay attention during our presentations. We seem to think of ourselves as a Marine sergeant drilling new recruits: Our audience has to listen. And yet, from our own experience, we know that’s we don’t have to listen. There are many documents we were supposed to read that we skipped; many presentations that we attended where we spent all of our time thinking of something else (or fast asleep).
To a certain extent, we do realize that gaining the audience’s attention is important. People always include “terse” on the list because we remember being frustrated waiting for a presenter to get to the point; we remember being annoyed when we were forced to dig through a lot of verbiage to find what mattered to us. When we say “Get to the point” we really mean “Get to what matters to me.”
So, before we start criticizing people who made us wait or buried those nuggets, we should ask, “Why did the author or presenter include all that extra junk?” The short answer is “Because it wasn’t junk to the author or presenter.” Those authors/presenters genuinely believed they were providing value to you. Of course, they were wrong…but only because they made a common mistake: They included material in their presentation that was what was important to them, not the material that was important to you.
So here’s the key point: It could just as easily be you who’s frustrating your audience or burying nuggets in garbage. How do you avoid that?
One Learning Tree instructor gave me some very valuable advice: “When you’re leading a class, assume that what the participants are really doing is planning their next vacation. Your job is to provide those people with something more important than their next vacation.” The only way to do that is to pay attention to your audience when you’re designing your document or presentation. Don’t assume that whatever you think is valuable is going to be valuable to your audience. Instead, begin by figuring out what your audience will think is important.
People are often surprised that Learning Tree’s various communication courses (including Learning Tree’s Public Speaking and Presentations course) all begin by focusing on the audience who will be reading your document or attending your presentation. Even the Technical Writing course starts with an analysis of the audience who will be reading the document. The information you get from thinking about your audience is the critical information you need to decide what to put in and what to leave out of your document or presentation. It even controls how you should organize the information, how you should present it, and what vocabulary you should use. If you know what matters to your audience then you can tie everything you’re talking about back to something your audience cares about. If you don’t do this then your audience is going to go right back to planning their vacation. Really, effective presentation skills begin with the ability to understand your audience.
There’s another benefit to thinking about your audience before doing anything else: If you do fill up your document or presentation with what matters to your audience then your audience will forgive a lot of other mistakes you might make. And, considering all the things you can get wrong, that’s a very good thing–everything else is just “nice to have.”
I realize that this may be great general advice but I haven’t provided much in the specifics of what you need to do in your document or presentation–I’ll be looking at those issues in my upcoming posts.
This post is the first in a six post series that shows how to create presentations that people will pay attention to and documents that people will read:
The next post talks about what you have to do before you start creating your document or presentation in order to get (and keep) the reader’s attention.
The next two posts show how to apply that work in a presentation that people will pay attention to. The first post shows how to start the presentation and the second post discusses how to structure the body of the presentation to keep your audience’s attention.
The last two posts do the same thing to create a document that will get read, beginning with how to get people to pay attention to your document and then going on to discuss how to structure the document’s body so people will continue to read it.