Ask One Question to Give the Best Presentation Ever

Twelve years ago, shortly after starting my job as an engineer with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, I was asked to present the results of a recent project to our sponsor – a Captain in the Navy, whose organization was funding our work. 

The presentation was thirty minutes long and it was terrible.  It was abysmal for a variety of reasons – too much data reporting, a lack of clarity, and disconnects between topics.  I realized later, after listening to presentations from colleagues, partner organizations, and other sponsors in the Department of Defense (DoD), I was in good company.  They too gave dreadful presentations.

Why is that the case?  Why is the simple act of speaking with other people so challenging for the vast majority?  A complete answer to this question could easily stretch this blog post into a book.  For now, I want to focus on the one tip that every one of us can use to substantially improve our talks.  All you need to do is ask yourself one question:  Is this a presentation I would like to sit through and listen to?  That’s it.  At every point of the process, ask that one question. 

For example, as you brainstorm possible topics, ask yourself, Is this a topic I’d be interested in listening to?  As you create an outline, ask yourself, is this a story or narrative that I would be excited to sit and listen to?  As you fill the presentation with concrete details and pointed commentary, ask yourself the question.  As you work on flow, pacing, and the use of gestures or other non-verbal’s, keep asking yourself the question.  

The inquiry is important because it forces you to move beyond your own narrow and personal viewpoint.  In this way, you gain empathy for your audience in a way you wouldn't before.  And empathy for your audience is essential because it’s one thing to waste your time but quite irresponsible to waste their time. 

Let’s demonstrate the severity of this mistake by examining a one hour presentation you might give to thirty of your colleagues.  If you give a poor talk, you’ve wasted your one hour of your time yes ... but you’ve also wasted another thirty hours of time for the audience.  That’s time they will never get back in their lives.  It's as if you've killed a small part of their life. 

Remember:  Be respectful, be empathetic, and always ask yourself the question, “Is this a presentation I would like to sit through and listen to?”  If you can answer that question positively, then you’ll always find ways to improve your presentation.