Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Art of Presenting

As a process consultant, I spend a lot of time practicing the craft of facilitation—either as a hired gun, or as a teacher. Essentially, facilitation is about how to run dynamic, effective meetings where the practitioner is all about the how and as little attached to the what as you can get.

In the interest of safeguarding content neutrality, I believe it's advisable for the facilitator to steer as clear as possible from the role of presenter—the person introducing the topic to the group. Caution: Please don't commingle these roles under the mistaken belief that it will speed things up. If someone has a reaction to how you present, regardless of how clean a job you think you're doing, that can hole your boat of neutrality before you've even gotten out of the harbor. It's not worth the risk.

While I've written gobs about the role of the facilitator, a student recently pointed out to me that it would also be valuable to have guidance about the role of the presenter. What a good idea! Here is my thinking about the qualities wanted in presenters:

o Ability to tell the story clearly
You want someone who can lay out the information in an orderly way, that everyone can follow. The better this is accomplished, the less time will be spent on clarifying questions—because everyone got it the first time and nothing important was omitted.

o Ability to tell the story concisely
This is about accomplishing the above without rambling sentences, extraneous jaunts down side alleys, or extra tickets for the merry-go-round. There's a great Mark Twain quote that applies here: "I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn't have the time to write it short."

o Ability to project adequately for the audience
Your tight presentation may be wasted if you mumble or can't be heard in the back of the room. While this isn't a high bar in a group of six, it can be a serious concern in a group of 60. Make sure that your presenter has the voice for the job, even if that means a stout PA system.

o Flexibility to field questions and not get flustered by reactivity
While not strictly necessary (you could have one person present, and another handle queries), you generally want someone comfortable enough with the topic and sufficiently at ease in front of the group to be able to roll with the unexpected—including someone in the audience getting reactive to what's presented. Nobody needs a floor fight before you've even started doing any heavy lifting.

o OK to tell the story with passion
It's fine if the presenter gets into their presentation. While it's not helpful if the presenter loses track of the audience and takes off on a solo flight to Never Never Land, I'd rather attend a revival meeting than a wake.

o OK to be a stakeholder
While neutrality is essential in your facilitator, I have no problem with a presenter who's a cheerleader for butter side up—just don't try to hide it. In fact, it's probable that the presenter will be a stakeholder, as people who know the full story are seldom disinterested. Caution: Allowing permission to have a preference about the outcome should not be interpreted as a license to be sarcastic or inflammatory about viewpoints that vary from the speaker's. A good presenter is filling the trough with water for all the horses, not poisoning the well.

o Can work with the facilitator
Good meeting prep typically requires that the presenter huddle with the facilitator in a collegial way to provide objectives, background, and anticipated pitfalls. If the two don't talk, missteps and inefficiencies are likely to result. In the worst case, bad blood between the two can sabotage the meeting with open hostility.

o Has the time to prep for the presentation
Good presentations are not born, they are raised. They require thought and effort to put together, and care should be given to selecting someone who can carve out that time.

o Understands what materials will help people have a great meeting
There are two parts to this: a) what should be supplied to folks ahead of the meeting (to do advanced thinking); and b) what should be prepared in the way of flip chart pages that serve as a road map or reminder of what we're looking at and in what sequence. Note: This is not solely about text—the right graphics can be enormously helpful here.

o Knows when to sit down
… and let the facilitator run the meeting. In groups where the separation between presenter and facilitator is not clearly drawn, a strong (and well-intentioned) presenter can take over a meeting. And a passive facilitator might let them! While this is not automatically a train wreck, it might be. Especially if the presenter is charismatic, funny, and wants to steer the boat in a certain direction. When I'm facilitating I ask the presenter (politely, yet firmly) to take a seat as soon as we're done with clarifying questions.

o Understands what's plenary worthy
This is about focusing the presentation on the aspects of the issue that are appropriate to be dealt with in this meeting. Part of that is taking into account where the group is at on its journey with that issue; part of that is knowing what's expected from that group. With the help of the facilitator, the presenter's introduction to the topic can proceed much more smoothly (and productively) if the presentation is geared toward pointing the group in the right direction (not about what to decide; about where to focus its attention). [For more on plenary worthy see my blog of xx]

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If I ran the circus (it's uncanny how often meetings resemble a trip to the Big Top), presenters would have all of this in mind when getting ready for their 10 minutes of fame in front of the microphone. And you thought presenters were just standing up there making shit up...

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