Ditch the presentation & have a conversation (review of Eric Bergman’s One Bucket at a Time)

There’s only one good reason to bring us together for a meeting on Zoom or in a room.

Walking us through PowerPoint decks isn’t it.

“The only reason for bringing people together, whether in person or remotely, is to listen to someone share something of value,” says Eric Bergman, presentation skills coach and author of One Bucket at a Time.

“The secret to success is simple,” says Bergman. “Bring meaningful content. Deliver that content in a memorable way. If you do, you significantly increase your chances of informing, educating, influencing or persuading anyone.”

PowerPoint makes it hard to share something of value in a memorable way for two reasons.

We can’t listen to you and read your slides at the same time. Ask us to both and we’ll do neither.  During virtual meetings, we’ll mute our mics, turn off our cameras, minimize our Zoom screens and beg off because of conveniently unstable internet connections. When we finally return to meeting rooms, we’ll revert to our pre-pandemic habit of staring at our phones or off into space.

PowerPoint also makes it easy to bury audiences in ideas and information. But we can’t absorb more than one idea at a time. Run us through 60 bullet-ridden and chart-stuffed slides in 45 minutes and you’ll overload our short-term working memory. Nothing will transfer over and stick in our long-term memory. You’ll tell us everything but we’ll remember nothing.

So if you have something worth sharing, try saying it without PowerPoint. It’ll be a leap of faith but trust that we’ll love you for it, remember what you say and act on what you tell us.

“Without slides, there can be a presentation,” says Bergman. “Without a presenter, there is no presentation. Successful presenters understand this. They know that capitalizing on how people listen is the key to their success – to having their ideas understood, absorbed, remembered and acted upon.”

Successful companies also get it.  At LinkedIn, a document formatted in PowerPoint’s landscape mode goes out at least 24 hours before a meeting. There’s no discussion until everyone’s read the document. “Slides are never presented to the group. Instead the focus in on discussion, a process that distinctly separates the written word from the spoken.”

Amazon’s eliminated slideware presentations altogether.  Meetings start with everyone reading a six-page memos written with complete sentences and paragraphs rather than bullet points. “The six-page memo provides a deep context of what’s going to be discussed. When everyone is ready, discussion begins. Questions are asked and answered. A decision is made.” Ditching PowerPoint doesn’t seem to be holding Amazon back.

Converting presentations into structured conversations requires you to welcome questions from start to finish. Never force audiences to sit in silence until you’ve finished talking.

“The simplest way to breathe life into modern presentations is to create an equal, engaging partnership with the audience by encouraging and answering their questions,” says Bergman. “Give them a chance to probe your ideas. The simple exercise of them asking questions helps cement those ideas into part of who they are. When that happens, they’ll be applying those ideas long after you and they have left the room.”

Answering questions clearly and concisely is a skill that can be learned. “Whenever an answer extends for more than 10 words, you’re making assumptions about what’s important to whoever asked the question. If all answers extend beyond 20 seconds, don’t be surprised if they simply quit asking.”

Many of us are closing in on our first anniversary of working from home. One way to combat Zoom fatigue is to have a little less information and a little more conversation in 2021. Bergman can help make that happen.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Steal the Show From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches by Michael Port

steal the showThis review first ran in the Feb. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Steal the Show: How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation For All The Performances in Your Life

By Michael Port

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Here are 11 surefire ways to lose your audience and blow your next presentation.

With a grimace and in a monotone, tell us how happy you are to be here.

Lead off with a well-worn joke or tell us, in exacting detail, about the hilarious and adorable thing that happened this morning with your kids, spouse or the family dog.

Skip the cheap laughs and instead start by quoting Webster’s. Put the definition up on the screen. Pull out all the stops by waving around an actual dictionary .

Confess that you’re a lousy public speaker and apologize for being forced to talk about a topic that’s beyond boring.

Tell us you’re dead tired because you spent last night slapping together this presentation.

Confuse PowerPoint slides with cue cards. Turn your back on us to read your slides bullet by bullet, word for word.

Apologize in advance for showing us charts and graphs that we can’t read and won’t understand.

Lose your cool when your slides skip ahead, your mic cuts out, the video doesn’t play or the projector dies. Rip into tech support and the intern who put together your presentation.

Instead of focusing on one big idea, tell us everything so we remember nothing and leave your talk having no clue what you want from us.

Blow through your allotted time to speak because you’re the most important person on the agenda and in the room.

Be genuinely surprised when your PowerPoint slides end. Close with “I guess that’s it, thanks for coming out and have yourself a great day.”

Along with losing your audience, your sub-par presentation skills can get you permanently cast in a supporting rather than starring role in your organization.

Great presenters avoid these pitfalls by mastering their material. They treat their talk like a performance. They don’t wing it and hope for the best.  Instead, they log serious hours in rehearsal.

How many hours? Professional speaker and consultant Michael Port once linvested 400 hours over five months preparing for a single keynote.

“When you prepare for a pitch, meeting, speech or negotiation, the goal is to know your material so well that you are free to be in the moment,” says Port, author of Steal the Show. “It’s hard to allow yourself to improvise if you don’t know your material right down to the core. If you aren’t well-rehearsed, you’ve stacked the odds against giving the performance you want to give.”

How you prepare is as important as how much time you spend practicing. Port recommends a seven-step rehearsal process that draws on his experience as a professional actor.

  • Start with a table read to hear how your script sounds and to find the rhythm and feel of your talk.
  • Map your content. Mark up the words you’ll emphasize. Know when to pause, speed up and slow down your presentation.
  • Block your talk so you know how, when and where to move around the stage or room. You don’t want to wander, pace back and forth or stay stuck behind the lectern.
  • Improvise and rework the parts of your presentation that fall flat. Look for memorable ways to interact with your audience.
  • Hold an invited rehearsal with a colleague who can offer constructive feedback.
  • Hold an open rehearsal to preview your talk with a larger group who are in your target audience.
  • And finally, do a dress and tech rehearsal. Wear the clothes and shoes you’re presenting in and build a good rapport with the audiovisual crew.

“If you think you’re going to rise to the occasion, don’t bet on it,” says Port. “If you think you’re going to somehow be inspired to come up with the right material during the speech without hours of preparation, think again.”

Practice won’t make you perfect but it will make you a far better presenter who avoids all-too-common pitfalls.  Port helps you think like a performer and shows what it takes to own the room and steal the show.  So quit procrastinating and start rehearsing.