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Do Conversations make any difference?

Do Presentations make any difference?

Dave Pollard. How to Save the World

This struck a chord.

My last important learning before I left Ernst & Young was the astonishing discovery that almost none of what business presenters say gets 'correctly' understood, internalized, or learned by their audience. By 'correctly' I mean what the audience thought the message was, is almost always radically different from what the presenter intended the message to be.

I base this conclusion on entirely anecdotal evidence: Throughout 2003, as a result of consternation about how so little of my presentations was sinking in, out of curiousity I began systematically debriefing with a few audience participants in each presentation I attended (whether or not I had been one of the presenters), as soon as possible after the presentations, and then fed back to the presenters what the audience said. The result was usually anger or stunned disbelief. Here are my totally unscientific findings from this 'research':

Regardless of the length of a presentation, audience members will recall no more than one important message or significant finding from a presentation, and, unless it is reinforced later, will forget even that one message or finding in about one week. They'll retain impressions about the speaker, but not what was said.

The only time a majority of the audience agrees on what the important messages or findings were, is when one or more of the following occurs:

  • the message/finding is emphasized at the very beginning and/or very end of the presentation
  • there is significant two-way conversation about the message/finding during the presentation
  • the message/finding is said repeatedly during the presentation, ideally by more than one person
  • the message/finding is conveyed by means of a story, joke, example or anecdote

In the absence of one of the above four 'aids', the probability that more than a small minority of the audience will understand what the presenter was actually trying to convey is close to zero.

Powerpoint slides with bullets, artwork & photos don't help understanding or retention. Charts, tables and 'top 10' lists can help, but only if they're simple, elegant, compelling, useful to keep, and properly explained.

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