Are your presentations any good?

and how the hell do you know?

Let’s talk about success in presentations, and whether yours are any good.  Because, let’s face it, one of the reasons we don’t like making presentation is the fear of being thought of as rubbish. That, in turn can make the situation worse, as we start to think, and act, defensively.

This post is going to be half my opinion and half science. I’ll label them so you know which bit to ignore 😉

First, the opinion bit.

My experience of presentations is that the single main reason they fail (not the reason people think they fail!) is that they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing with the presentation in the first place. Presentations aren’t about something – they’re to do, something. They’re successful if they achieve that objective and failures if they don’t. It’s as simple as that. And yet people insist on spending all their mental energy on judging “how it went”. Did it feel good?  Did people like it?  Did everything work?

Let me ask you a question: do you judge your business reports by how pretty they look?  Or by whether people act on them. Thought so – you’re about the action, the results. Yes, looking good is important and so on, but delivering a pretty report or a pretty presentation is a means, not an end. It’s more likely that people will act on the presentation-or-report if it looks good but making them look good for their own sake is vanity and ego. Yes, you heard me – deal with it! 😉

No one cares if your report is in a beautiful font if that font makes it harder to read, to understand and ultimately to act on. Your presentation is the same. Beauty is a means, not an end. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important – it is… because people respond to beauty in positive ways, making it more likely that they’re going to agree with your report or act on it. So it’s important – but not for the reasons you think. Similarly, no one cares if your report is riddled with spelling errors, except that people are less likely to agree with you if it is. Your presentation is the same… getting everything right adn masking shure their aren’t no typpos is a first step, not an end in itself.

And once you realise that you realise something else. You don’t need to add half the ‘bells and whistles’ that you do. The trick is to know what you’re trying to do in the first place and do everything you can to make that more likely; and nothing that makes it less.

That’s so simply it’s painful to write it, but all too often I see people making pretty presentations ‘about’ something, not ‘for’ something.

… and now for the science

hamster wheel - what if ignorance really is bliss?It’s called the Dunning- Kruger effect. I’m going to call it the DK effect to save typing. And what it means is this: the better you are at something, the less confident of that you are. Conversely, the less you know about something, the better you tend to think you are at it. Back in 2003 (Dunning, David; Kerri Johnson, Joyce Ehrlinger and Justin Kruger (2003). “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence”. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12 (3): 8387), the researchers published some depressing findings. In short (and simplifying a bit)

  • people generally estimate how good they are at something rather optimistically
  • people who are poor at something over-estimate their ability, skill, knowledge etc. by a considerable margin
  • people who are relatively good at things tend to slightly underestimate how good they are.
[jcolumns] Dunning and Kruger suggest that there are two explanations for their effect, which have an impact at different ends of the skills-spectrum. People at the bottom of the spectrum don’t have the skills to carry out whatever they’re being asked to do and therefore, by definition, they don’t have the skills to accurately assess whether they’re doing it well or not. The example they give is of people with poor grammar skills: in order to know you’re not good at grammar you need, by definition, to know what the correct grammar is in for any given sentence.

On the other hand, people at the top end of the spectrum, the ones who slightly underestimate their performance, do so because they are more acutely aware of what’s going on. The effects at the top end of the spectrum aren’t nearly so marked as at the bottom however.

But finally here’s the good news for those of us who believe we’re rubbish at presentations. It could well be that we’re better than we think and the reason we think we’re not as good as we are is that we’re sufficiently aware of what’s going on to notice the mistakes and know that it could (always) be better.

[jcol/] To be rude about it, people who make rubbish presentations are sometimes so bad at it they don’t know they’re bad. What’s worse, there’s other research that suggests that people who think they’re good at something are more likely to be rated as good at it by other people, too. Optimism and self confidence appear to rub off on other people.

[jbox color=’blue’]On a personal note, I’ve had people tell me it was the best presentation they’ve ever seen on days when I knew I’d missed a bit out! I knew it could have been better… but they didn’t! I’ve also followed presenters who thought they were God’s gift to the stage who made me (and the audience!) cringe.[/jbox]

One more quick thought… because confidence rubs off, act as though you’re sure of yourself. You can convince other people that you’re good at something simply by acting as though you are. While you can’t fool all of the people all of the time you can probably fools most of the people most of the time – but remember how the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes finishes! And in all cases, make sure you’re acting ethically. And at the very least, don’t allow your uncertainties to show, because other people will judge you by them.


So, next time you think your presentation could have gone better (or worse) ask yourself two questions.

  • did it do what you needed it to do, whether or not it felt like it worked ‘in the room”
  • how do you know, as you can’t judge! 😉

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