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How to Break Your Presentation with Conversation

This post is #5 in a longer series of articles based on a presentation I gave to the Public Relations Insitute of Australia on “How To Make Your Audience Listen Better.” The Introduction to the series is here.

This post also originates from an earlier one (“Want To Show How Intelligent You Are?”) although that purpose was slightly different. There, my point was that presentations should be clear, succinct or prioritized – not an elaborate display of brain power, or an unending litany of details, facts and charts.


Related to that post, my point here is that lecture-based presentations – that is, when you do (nearly) all the talking – are often not effective at helping the audience listen.  You might be able to carry the burden of the speech for 10 minutes or so, but if your presentation stretches longer, say to an hour … well, even your mother wouldn’t find you that interesting.

There are several ways to break from the lecture and build rapport through discussion.

    • Ask questions

    • Conduct exercises, or

    • Lead discussion and debate

Ask Questions

Asking questions seems to be the default response by presenters to engage the audience.  That’s great, but asking questions is an art.  The trick is not to begin with deciding the questions, but to begin by thinking what answers you want.

    • Do you want answers which demonstrate how much the audience has remembered?  This means your presentation needs to be outlined so that key information is clear.  You’ve made it memorable, you’ve not just read it to them from the slide.  Handouts or workbooks are important.  More questions tend to be closed questions – which are acceptable, not great – so what open questions will spur thought and consideration?  Also, unless you’re a trainer or facilitator, your presentation now has a whiff of the classroom.  Is that OK?

    • Do you want answers which naturally spring-board you into the next section of the presentation?  That assumes your presentation has a logical flow.  Otherwise, if the audience’s answers go in a different direction, are you flexible enough to change?  If you can’t, you’ll look insensitive or out-of-touch.

    • Do you want answers which encourage or challenge your audience to consider the information’s relevancy or practical application?  This assumes you have time.  If you want considered answers, you need to give them reasonable time to think – either independently or in groups.  Some people will think faster than others.  Others will take time, and very likely they won’t want to share publicly their views with the group. How do you balance the dominating people vs. the quiet ones?  Also, if you have groups, can you moderate several teams at once?  Do you need co-facilitators?

    • Do you want answers which tell you how you’re doing ‘professionally’?  That’s confrontational, and good for you for trying.  First, why are you asking?  To build up your confidence?  The audience will see through that.  Ask because you’re concerned on their behalf.

Of all the questions I’ve used and heard over the years, this question from an old mentor is most useful.  At a reasonable distance into the presentation – perhaps at the end of the first chunk of information, ask:  “Ok, I’ve been speaking now for 30 minutes about Topic X.  I’d like to hear the one relevant or interesting point you’ve taken away so far for yourself.  Whatever’s top of mind is fine.  I don’t mind if you repeat someone’s answer.  No answer is wrong.  And if nothing stands out so far, you won’t hurt my feelings.”   If you say it with sincerity, it’s interesting to stand back and listen.  One question/statement does the work of all five points listed above.

Conducting Exercises

Another way to break from lecture is to lead an exercise.  I could write a whole post – or a book – on this topic alone.  Much depends upon the topic and the type of exercise, but a few headlines to consider here.

    • Be prepared for trial and error.  If there’s one hard lesson I’ve learnt from running workshops and the schooling I’ve taken to construct workshop exercises, it’s this:  your participants will always surprise you with their thinking.  You must be ready for the group – or an individual – to twist your information into something new, to get frustrated if it doesn’t work as you say it will, tell you (LOUDLY) you are wrong, or experiment with it and fail – and sometimes very publicly.  It’s like being a parent for 15 minutes.  You have to stand at the perimeter and guide, gently without doing the work for them.  You need asbestos skin as well as a sense of humour.  You need to protect egos.  You need to find something intelligent in a dog’s breakfast.

    • Exercises always take longer than you plan.  Even if your instructions are crystal clear (so you think), someone won’t get it, bless their heart.  Or, one group will work at break-neck speed (because they’re smart? because they’re trying to impress the others?).  Another acts like they’re in a team coma (hello? will someone please pick up a marker and start writing?)  This is less like being a parent, and more like running a day care.  You need to be everywhere at once.  If nothing else, test your exercises beforehand.  Or, get an accomplished facilitator to give you advice on your specific plan.

    • Reflection – group and individual – is paramount.  This is sometimes why exercises run too long.  Small group presentations of 2 minutes on 1 flipchart turns into War and Peace.  Once people begin to share their thoughts and experiments, everyone else will want to chip in.  (Look!  The Coma Table is awake!  Welcome!)  You need to find judicious ways to allow everyone their 30 seconds of fame, but not so much that it eats up your agenda.  Even more so, personal time to be quiet and reflect is sometimes most important.  A bit of group silence is the best counterpoint to your lecture.

Lead Discussion and Debate

I just came back from a lecture-workshop where we began with a 45-minute presentation by me to 60 people, then break-out sessions of 6 teams of 10 people for 30 minutes, presentations by each group … and then (God help us) Discussion Time.  If there was ever a time I appreciated my facilitation training, it was at that moment.

I don’t expect most hour-long presentation to be this complex, but there are a few things which you can take away to open up your presentation to discussion.

    • You have to provide the kindling.  Conversations don’t start themselves.  To stop presenting and expect the audience to jump into a discussion is fool-hardy.  You need to provide the group with a topic, a provocative question, or a hypothesis to discuss.  Can you connect it to an internal issue or external perception, perhaps current events or a recent news item?  In particular, this point requires you to have considerable background knowledge of your environment, the audience and their mindset to be able to facilitate a stimulating discussion.

    • You no longer own the information.  Once you free the bird, you can’t control what happens.  But this is exciting too, to see your presentation’s key points brought into full light.  The critical aspect is not to take your information personally.  It’s a professional setting, and it should be treated as such.  Your protective emotion for your hard work is now irrelevant.  You can start defending it (which means you really look like you’re defending your reputation), or you can hel it evolve into something even more important. It’s similar to the creative director who doesn’t like the client criticizing their ads.  You must remember: it’s not about you. It’s about your audience.

    • You need to switch your role to traffic cop.  The better role – indeed, the only role – you now play is facilitator.  You need to follow every rule of facilitation science, balancing dominators with side conversationalists with the mutes.  You need to write key points on flipcharts when necessary, and you need to keep an eye on the clock.  In other words, rise above the discussion, encourage it, and then …

    • You need to find a way to wrap-up pro-actively and concisely.  You must bring the conversation to a natural close.  It’s rare you’ll get total buy-in, but you can get agreement on next steps, roles and responsibilities, outcomes and semi-decisions – even if there’s acrimonious debate.  Even agreement on disagreement is appropriate so you can move on, or turn the floor to the next speaker.

Here are some other writers with a similar point of view.

What is Conversational Presenting? by Juraj Holub.

Tips for Effective Presentations: A Conversational Approach from LHH

Replacing Presentations with Conversations, by Blair Enns

What ways have you turned presentations into conversations?  Please add your thoughts and comments below.

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How to Break Your Presentation with Conversation