Why Do Most Meetings and Presentations Stink? And How Can We Make Them Better?


IMG_6450The reasons that people hate meetings and presentations are often similar:

  • they are boring,
  • they don’t present new information,
  • they run over time,
  • people read out loud to you when you could read silently in a fraction of the time.

Part of the reason that these problems persist is that we all know what we hate about meetings and presentations and therefore what not to do, but rarely do we explicitly think about what to do.  If you are running a meeting or preparing a presentation, make sure to generally account for the following:

  • Be animated and engaged.
  • Provide information that the people present need.
  • Don’t read out loud–either provide stuff for people to read ahead of time or give them a few minutes to read quickly & silently.
  • Prepare and practice enough to control for time.  

In a recent post, I noted that one key to productivity (as recommended by Neil Patel on Inc.com) is to avoid meetings. Most of us don’t have the luxury of declining to attend all meetings, but if you’re ever in the driver’s seat or have an opportunity to council someone who is, here are some specific tips for making meetings better: 

Ask yourself: do we have to have a meeting to accomplish this? What do we have to accomplish by meeting’s end? There are a lot of good reasons to have face-to-face meetings: to ensure that everyone is “on the same page,”  provide a time to delegate tasks with the feeling of full accountability to one’s peers, and they provide a natural time frame for completing tasks (by the next meeting!).

Make sure you have a good reason & have identified those things you have to accomplish by meeting’s end. Then call a meeting.

Invite only those people who need to be there. Otherwise you waste people’s time and they’ll waste everyone else’s with distractions if they don’t really need to be present.

Provide an agenda. An agenda-less meeting is hard to control if you are the leader and hard to follow if you are a participant.

Don’t read out loud. Ever. At all.  If you send materials ahead, let people know they’ll be expected to read them before the meeting. If you bring written materials to the meeting, give a short amount of time for silent reading instead of taking up the whole meeting reading out loud to a presumably literate audience.

Limit “ice breakers.” Ice breakers can be a great way for everyone to get to know each other and relax at a meeting, but they can take up a lot of time—especially if everyone present already knows each other or a few participants get long-winded with what they are sharing. Limit ice breakers to the very first time any group meets.

Prevent hijackings. Don’t let participants hijack the meeting by going off topic, skipping around the agenda, or distracting other participants with highly emotional content.  This is easy to control if the person leading the meeting says something like “I’ll put that on the agenda for our next meeting,” “We’ll get to that in a few minutes when that item comes up on the agenda,” or “You and I can talk about that [emotional content] one-on-one at a later time.” Make sure everyone knows how long they will have to report and then hold them to those time limits. If ten people each talk for ten minutes, your meeting is closing in on two hours.

Make sure everyone knows what they have to do by the next meeting. What work has to get done? How does that work have to be presented at the next meeting? How do we handle any questions that should arise before the next meeting?

Don’t let the meeting continue virtually.   Meetings are good precisely to handle the kinds of things that are badly handled by technology: large-group conversations, consensus-building, and decision-making.  Email is a horrible venue for a group of people to have discussions, make decisions that can truly be acted upon, or vote. And when emails or texts related to meeting content continue to fly between meetings, participants start to wonder why there even are meetings if the conversation constantly bleeds over into other communications.

If you are presenting (including at a meeting!), here are my top three tips for taking control so that you maximize time and value for all present: 

1-Practice, practice, practice

Ideally, practice to an audience—a house mate, friend, colleague–anyone who is willing. If it makes you nervous to practice in front of real person, that is good! Get the nervous out when the stakes are low; the stakes will be much higher on the day of the real presentation.

If practicing in front of others is just not how you operate, then practice alone in front of a mirror or computer monitor. You should be able to present without having to refer to notes more than 3 times total.

Do not read out loud. It is not okay to read aloud—regardless of the kind of presentation. I know professors do this all the time: read lecture notes out loud to you. They are not operating in the professional work place. The ivory tower is called the ivory tower for a reason—it isolates. It is different than the world outside its walls. Outside its walls, it is not okay to read out loud to anyone over the age of 10 (unless you are a best-selling author—then read away!)

Think about a time that you have been an audience member at a presentation and the presenter read out loud to you from a paper. Don’t you think, “you could have emailed me that as an attachment and I could have read it in a fraction of the time!”? 

Even worse is the PowerPoint equivalent: handouts are distributed, then the same slides are displayed on the big screen at the front of the room. The presenter proceeds to…read aloud from the slides—the very same slides you have copies of in your hands—the handout you have probably already read to yourself in its entirety while you were waiting for their author to start reading them out loud to you!

When have you practiced enough? You have practiced enough when you can present with some level of naturalness and spontaneity. You want to sound like the expert who knows this information so well that you are relaxed and enjoy talking about it to others.  It should look like it’s the most natural thing in the world (because you’ve practiced making it feel natural).  See great advice from communication coach Carmine Gallo here.

Warning! You have practiced too much if you just recite a memorized script (that’s really the same thing as reading out loud). Aim for the perfect middle ground.

Practice it!

A note on PowerPoint: a good rule of thumb is to allow at least 2 minutes for every slide. A 10 minute presentation should only include 5 slides. If you have 50 slides, they you better hope that there’s a 90 minute presentation slot!

2- Time Yourself

Get out a timer (there’s probably an app on your phone) and time yourself. Do this every time you practice until you can consistently present within the time allotted for the real presentation. Do not skip this!

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that this is silly to pay attention to time limits. I have spent my adult life wondering how other adults misunderstand or underestimate time limits.

Is it that the automatic human brain response to “10 minute presentation” is:

ten minutes! That’s a long time! How will I ever fill ten whole minutes?! I will have to pad that presentation to get ten whole minutes out of it.

Sometimes I think the brain screams “Only ten minutes! That must be for the boring presenters. Interesting presenters like me must get as much time as they want.” 

When one presentation goes way over time, it almost always cuts in to the time allotted for other presenters. And I’m not sure if that’s worse than the alternative: the preamble to the presentation drags on and on and on so when the moderator flashes the “2 minutes left” sign, the presenter nods and starts to pick up the pace. When the “1 minute left” sign is flashed, the presenter starts to click madly through what seems like infinite PowerPoint slides and the presentation becomes “I’m going to skip that,” “I’m going to skip that too.” The heart of the presentation gets cut out.

How long is 10 minutes? 10 minutes is 10 minutes. There is nothing easier. It’s not complicated. There’s no gray area. You don’t have to wonder. There’s plenty of that to deal with when you get to the level of content, format, requirements, and audience. Timing is the easy part.

Time yourself.

3- Get Feedback

If you practice, practice, practice in front of someone else, get feedback from that person. Give them specific points on which you want feedback:

Maybe you get nervous and talk too fast or too quietly.

Maybe you look down instead of out at your audience. Ask your practice audience to monitor you for those quirks.

If your practice audience can’t follow your presentation, the real audience won’t be able to either so ask for specific feedback:

  • Were you confused by any part of my presentation?
  • Was there a part that required more explanation or details / examples?
  • Was there a part with too many details or where it seemed to be a tangent?
  • When did you zone out during my talk?
  • How long did the presentation take? 

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
 
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