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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Communication vs. Presentation

September 15, 2000

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In an age when everyone, even your grandmother, seems to be creating Microsoft PowerPoint slide shows, your ability to present your ideas has become more important than ever. Whether you are sitting in an interview for your next great job or trying to woo investors for your hot, new Internet startup, your ability to present yourself in the best light could mean the difference between a rising career or one hopelessly stalled.

High-tech mistakes

As someone who writes about the benefits of technology, it might seem odd for me to say this, but technology should be the last consideration when planning any presentation. Like the “ransom note” documents that followed the introduction of desktop publishing software, MS PowerPoint and other presentation software have been responsible for more bad presentations than good. Even though these tools are powerful, they can’t create a good presentation on their own. While visual aids of any sort can enliven a presentation too often they are used to obfuscate or merely have something to project on the video screen.

My guidelines for the use of technology in presentations are very simple. You should be able to give an effective presentation using nothing but your own voice and, perhaps, a drawing board and marker. If your presentation succeeds under such constraints then you can add almost anything else to it, such as outline slides, video clips, pictures and sound without damaging it too much.

There are times you are forced to do presentations under the worst circumstances. I once had to teach a class about the Internet when the only computer available refused to connect to the ISP. Using a drawing board and marker I was still able to send the students away with a basic understanding of the Internet. Communication is the goal. While technology can help in communicating your ideas you should be able to do your presentation with the most limited resources. This is the best protection against technical problems that you can find.

Picking the right player

Nothing can ruin a presentation faster than picking the wrong player to deliver the pitch. Too often seniority and egos can influence the decision when the only thing that matters is skill. You have to overcome this bias and find the best person for the job. Perhaps there is someone in the company who has more experience with presentations. Perhaps there is someone who is more knowledgeable about your product. Most importantly, find the one person who has all of the above and is the most passionate about your product. I don’t care if it is “Mary” in tech support or “John” in shipping; if they can speak clearly and passionately about your product than they are the right choice. Sure, the CEO can introduce them, but then the executives need to make way for those people who can get the message across. Passion, when combined with knowledge is a winning combination for any presentation.

Of course, not all presentations are about companies. In a job interview you don’t have much choice in the presenter. Instead you must make sure you are well-prepared and passionate about yourself. If you are not passionate about yourself, how can you expect anyone to be passionate about hiring you? More importantly, if you are not excited about a job, why are you interviewing for it? Granted, sometimes you must take a job to pay the bills, but when you are looking to make the next step up in your career, your passion will often show which job is really the one for you.

Making yourself understood

It is always the extreme situations that show us how well we communicate. I had an object lesson in this when I visited Europe for the first time last May. My final week was spent visiting my wife’s relatives in Sicily. One evening I found myself working to get their computer connected to the Internet so that they would be able to send and receive email once we returned home. Faced with a Windows computer with menus and buttons in Italian and relatives who spoke maybe 10 words of English between them, I was facing the communication challenge of a lifetime. Still, through persistence, luck and an Italian-American dictionary I was able to get the information I needed from them and explain the basics of getting connected to the Internet. While you might not be faced with a situation like this very often it can be very illuminating.

As I sat sipping my cappuccino afterwards, watching Mount Etna burp smoke rings into the sky, I was proud and amazed at how much we were able to accomplish together. It showed me that presentations, whether to 2 people or 100 are all about communication not technology. Make sure your presentations never stray from this goal. If you fail to communicate your message in a clear fashion then you may find your company and career failing as well.

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