why your presentation doesn’t contain proof

I’ve seen a lot of presentations recently… and I mean a lot of bloody presentations!… that pretend they’re offering proof that ‘the system they’re presenting about’ works. What they hide are sales pitch/presentation illustrating that the system in question can work. Not does work, just can do.

When I say “sales pitch/presentation” I’m being unkind. It might be that these people simply don’t understand the difference between proof and illustration. They might not understand how science works. They might be genuinely making these presentations thinking that they’re doing the right thing.

Either way, if you’re making this kind of presentation, stop. Just stop. (Side note: when I first posted about this on LinkedIn, I used the phrase “have a gentle think about it” but I’ve got more annoyed since then.)

Actually, I’m not even asking that you stop with this kind of presentation – just be aware that you’re not proving anything. You can’t prove things are true unless you remove all the alternative explanations.

Is there an example presentation you’ve got in mind, simon?

Funny you should ask!

I’ve recently saw a presentation, and read the blog that goes with it, claiming that SMART goals don’t work -and that the viable alternative is the presenter’s approach. Hidden in that was the idea that you should pay them to work with you using their approach. Let’s call this alternative approach Big Ass Goals, or BAGs.

Now, while it’s true that SMART goals weren’t necessarily intended to be used as they are being, that doesn’t mean that BAGs are automatically the say to go. This presentation then talks about interviewing “lots” of “high achieving” CEOs and discovering that they’d used BAGs.

As a side note to this blog, I don’t believe they all used BAGs. I’m pretty sure (but I don’t know!) that the CEOs in question were interviewed as a result of a combination of:

  • survivor bias; and
  • selection bias.

Essentially, the presenter had only interviewed successful CEOs (and therefore only talked about sucesses in the presentation, not realise the possibility of unsuccessful CEOs also using his system). People don’t usually do this as overt cheating though. It’s more often the result of well-intentioned, personal research that isn’t designed properly to be objective.

If research was as easy as people think, we’d all be Nobel Prize Winners!

Get back to the point, please Simon!

The result was a presentation that was absolutely credible, in that it provided lots of evidence (not proof!). Consequently, people were drawn in, thinking BAGs were the silver bullet they were looking for.

Here’s the bottom line for presenters. We have a responsibility, when we’re presenting even more than in the rest of life, to make sure our content is absolutely right, before we present it to a trusting audience Simply by being on stage or at the front of the room, we’re in a position of privilege (though it might not feel like that!). People trust us. Let’s make our presentations really worthy of that trust.

How our presentations display data matters too

presenting deprivation data in different ways

It’s not just about the validity of our data either. How we present that data matters too. It’s all too easy to mislead our audiences by showing things in a misleading way – deliberate or not. Take even the simple and humble map. Okay, I’m biased ‘cos my PhD is in statistical geography, but this short article looks at how to present simple data on maps in different ways: https://theconversation.com/even-the-most-beautiful-maps-can-be-misleading-126474

Having said that, a blog on how to present different types of data sounds like a full half day, so let’s just move on for now and agree that how you present things matters.

Even just things like “only” and “just” before giving a statistic can make the audience respond in different ways. The implications that number you’re giving them is a low on. They might not know any better… and because you’re the presenter they’re going to take your word for it. So you better be right!

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