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Lessons from Top Management: How to Unengage Your Audience

By David Cox

I recently attended a two-day seminar for managers. Well, not only did I attend but I was responsible for putting a portion of it together. As part of the company’s ongoing effort to keep managers abreast of the latest business techniques and strategies, top managers were to give outstanding presentations to a group of rising stars. These top leaders had years of experience in business, accounting, management, acquisitions, leadership, start-ups, public speaking and training. It was to be an exciting two days with promises of growth and achievement. I was located in the rear of the huge ball room in a convention center as I gasped for each breath. Someone has to close my mouth as I stood in utter disappointment. I prayed for the seminar to end. Please let the time go by faster. Of course, time slowed down as everyone in the room tried to stay awake. We have all been there.

So, what went wrong? I began taking notes regarding the presentation sins of each speaker. I use the list as a reminder of what not-to-do when giving presentations. I wanted to share the list as a reminder to us all.

For those astute spellers and walking dictionaries out there, I am aware that “unengaged” is not a word and the correct word is “disengaged.” I made up my own word because “un” seems more appropriate in this case than “dis” as you will discover as you read on.

Before I begin the list, let me set the stage of how the room was set up. As I stated previously, this was a large ballroom in a convention center. Each presenter had a PowerPoint presentation; the lights were dimmed so everyone could see the screen well. There was a monitor in the front facing the speakers so that they could see what was being shown on the screen. Microphones were used so that everyone could hear. There was a back-up computer for the presentations, just in case the first one failed. The speakers had a remote for moving each slide and a back-up remote was available in case the first one failed. All tables and chairs were arranged for optimal viewing of the screens, facing forward and under dimmed lights, so they could still see to take notes but could also view the screen. I thought it was the perfect physical setup. What could possibly go wrong?

Keep in mind this is not a scientific, peer review research project. It is merely my own observations. Maybe you will find a little humor along the way.

  1. Face the audience! It drives me insane when a speaker speaks to the screen and turns their back on the audience. I am really not interested in seeing your hind quarters, especially if your clothes don’t fit properly (but that is another subject, for another day). Speak to me. Talk to me. Impart your wisdom on the audience, not some object. When I teach presentation skills, I will threaten my students – “Don’t you look at that screen!” each time they turn around. The other students laugh and everyone becomes very aware of their focus.
  2. Scan the room with your eyes! One speaker faced the audience – well done. There was a problem, however, because she only looked at me the entire time. Not just looking, but staring. I became uncomfortable with the stalker gaze. Afterward, everyone ask me why she was staring at me. I still have no idea why. The audience felt the material did not relate to them but rather only one person. I really did not pay attention to her topic because I wondering how to get a restraining order.
  3. The “clicker” does not work on the screen!  It absolutely cracks me up every time I see a presenter turn the remote toward the screen, rather than the computer to move slides. It reminds me of every one who is a TV remote hog at home. Somehow, they think turning the remote toward the big picture will change the channel. For those of you who do not know, the receiver is normally located on the computer, so you should click in that direction.
  4. Just the Facts, ma’am! This is one idea for terrorists because I can think of no worse torture than having to sit through one to two hours of someone reading facts. Please, please tell me a story that relates to your topic. Tell a joke; something! The audience is trying to come up with scenarios for the facts being read, but just in the beginning. Soon they begin daydreaming because you have lost them. Explain how these facts relate to your audience and develop an interesting storyline around those facts.
  5. I can read! Unless you are teaching English as a second language, do not prepare your entire presentation on PowerPoint and read it to the audience. This is another torture technique and should be banned by the United Nations. Almost every presenter read their entire presentation from the slides while facing the screen. I wanted to shout, “Don’t you look at that screen! Stop reading to me!” Which leads to the next topic….
  6. Know your Subject! Guess what? The audience knows when you are not familiar with your topic. It’s like watching water boil. The audience keeps expecting something better will bubble to the surface, but it never does. Study the topic; know more about it than what is in the presentation. How does the presenter expect the audience to learn, if the presenter does not know the subject well?
  7. Wordy slides! Keep the slides simple and include as few words as possible. Clutter becomes confusing (okay, disregard my desk) to the audience. Just introduce the topic. If you explain it clearly, they will follow.
  8. What was the question? There were often questions after a presentation. Remember, the speakers had microphones but the audience did not. I have found that audience members are often reluctant to use a microphone and if a microphone is passed, they will simply not ask the question. It was difficult to hear the questions from the audience but in every case, the speaker answered the question without the remainder of the room knowing what the question was. In this case, the speaker should repeat or summarize the question for the audience.
  9. Practice, practice, practice! I honestly believe that no one practiced their presentation for this seminar. They believed they could ad lib with the best. Guess what? They were wrong. I have students practice in front of the mirror. This is tougher than any crowd they will face. Notice any unusual mannerism or poor posture while practicing the speech in the mirror.
  10. UH! One of my all-time favorite past times. During times of excessive “Uh” use, I make hash marks on my paper for every “Uh” that was uttered. My pen is out and ready when the first word is “Uh.” Practice your speech in front of another person and have them count the number of times you use the word. It may be a surprise.
  11. What’s the point! How many times have we all walked away from a presentation asking ourselves the meaning behind the presentation? Sometimes the speaker did very well with their presentation, but I walked away wondering the purpose behind the presentation. Tell the audience what you are trying to accomplish or want them to understand. Make a handout, a take-away, or something they can use and won’t forget the point.
  12. Would it kill you to smile? Okay, maybe not every time when discussing a serious topic. There are many occasions when it is appropriate and it makes the audience feel a little more comfortable. Have some fun during the presentation. Focus not only on the topics but also on how you appear to the audience. Another good reason to practice in front of a mirror.
  13. Energy! Show some excitement for the topic. We have all heard the monotone speakers (yes, especially my college statistics professors) and we all know how boring that is. Show some passion and excitement for your subject matter. Scan the room. I remember teaching an accounting class once and suddenly several people in the class broke out in laughter. I asked the class about the purpose behind their humorous outburst. The response was they could not believe someone could be so excited about accounting. Well, it is exciting!

    On the rotten tomatoes scale, I would rate this seminar as one big stinker. My biggest take-away from this two day seminar was how not to give a presentation and how badly I felt for the poor managers in attendance; many of whom traveled many miles  and across many states to attend. I am quite sure you have noticed these same debaucheries in other presentations, but as professionals when was the last time we looked at our own iniquities in the public speaking arena? Please, for the sake of your learners, perfect your skills and then teach others. We have all been tortured for too long by these terrorist speakers.


    David Cox has an MBA and currently PhD candidate specializing in learning and instruction. He is a former college instructor and currently works as an instructional designer, course creator, LMS administrator, trainer and seminar speaker.

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