THOUGHT LEADERS : Presenting To Managers: Making your presentation meet your objectives

Every presentation has an objective: perhaps to transfer information or learnings; to influence behaviour; or to sell an idea. But, for presentation to meet its objective – whatever this might be – three things need to occur. Managers need to listen; they need to engage with the information and understand its relevance; and they need to remember it.
Oddly enough, the latest cognitive research tells us the standard corporate style of presentation – where the presenter talks to PowerPoint for 30 or 45 minutes – almost guarantees that none of these three things happen. In fact, it completely overrides the natural way people learn. As presenters, we must understand the success of our presentation doesn’t just depend on the quality of our information, but also the way we present it.
How then can we present information so that it can be understood – and processed – to the point that it can be recalled and used effectively by the managers listening to the presentation?
Brain science leads us to multitude of strategies for accomplishing this. But, for the purposes of this article, let us concentrate on two. This simple approach will tune your presentation to the learning needs of your listeners, dramatically increasing the odds that the objectives of your presentation will be met. The two-step process is this: Partition & Process. Consider each of these steps independently.
Partition: Educational research suggests that learning occurs best when new information is presented in manageable ‘chunks’. For adults, the size of this chunk is smaller than many expect – about 10-15 minutes, at the maximum. Thus, the first step in making sure managers listen to your presentation is to carefully partition it into distinct sections.
If you can, try to restrict each section to single key idea, with supporting data or examples to further illustrate the concept under discussion. This doesn’t mean you can’t put two, or even three, related ideas into single partition. But keep the section focused on central theme or point.
So, you’ve divided your presentation into manageable chunks, short enough to keep your listeners’ attention and prevent information overload. The question now becomes, “What do I do with participants between partitions?” The answer is…
Process: Between partitions, give your managers time to ‘process’ the information in the section and make their own connections with the material. The point is, after listening to ‘chunk’ of information, adults need adequate time to think about and consider what they’ve heard. If they don’t do this they won’t properly engage with the information, or analyse it – and they will find it hard to recall. Moreover, they won’t have any ‘brain space’ to listen to your next chunk. Managers don’t need much time to process – perhaps no more than two or three minutes – but, without it, they will not ‘learn’ the information.
Processing can take number of forms. In training environment, facilitators often simply ask participants to review their notes and consider how to use the information. In presentation, your instinct may well be to use the processing break to take questions. While, this can be effective, it may also lead to that moment where the call for questions is followed by an uncomfortable silence.
To avoid this, and ensure your listeners engage with the material, ask them to chat with one or two managers near them about ways to use this information. Or, even simply ask them to discuss with each other any reactions – anything at all – they had to that segment of the presentation. Sometimes this wide-open format can be the most effective form of integrating new ideas, since it allows participants to make spontaneous connections, and generate insights that might not have occurred in more focused discussion format.
Interestingly enough, the more useful and practical your information, the more frequently you need to give managers time to reflect on the ideas. Many managers may initially be startled when given the opportunity to pause and think or chat about the content of presentation. Since this is not frequently used strategy, you might want to explain the purposes behind it first. Quickly, though, your managers will find they get far more value out of presentations designed this way than from traditional talkfests.
In summary, effectively presenting to managers means carefully breaking session into learnable, manageable component sections, and allowing them sufficient time to come to firm understanding of the idea before moving on to another one. Presenters who offer information in this manner are respecting the natural learning process of adults.

Rich Allen is an educational psychologist and master trainer. He will visit New Zealand in May and November this year and runs presentation courses.

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