They may not have the wow factor of Guy Kawasaki secular evangelizing the heck out of Apple products on stage, but why should we be having conversations instead of giving presentations?

The Presentation Problem

We’ve all sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of presentations. That’s all well and good, but are we really getting the most out of a team if one person -the presenter- is treated like the fountain of all knowledge?

It’s easier to rally around one person’s ideas, so business leaders have traditionally been put on a pedestal. Brilliant public speakers too. Think a Guy Kawasaki, or Tony Robbins. The focus is on being magnetic, having a stage presence and, more often than not, selling a product or persona.

There is, of course, a time and a place for this, but if we want to learn from the work, and life, experience of others, there are better methods that have been proven to be more effective.

If we’re emulating people trying to have huge reach and mass appeal, like the Kawasaki’s and Robbins’ of the world, when our objective is communicating in a meeting with a small group, we may be missing the mark.

Focus On The Message

Of course it’s understandable that we want to show our best selves when we give a presentation. However, chasing that wow factor in our presentations can actually have the opposite effect, completely derailing their effectiveness and leaving us back at square one.

John Coleman, writing for HBR, has revealed the side effects of having “that tendency [in presentations] to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe”. This is something he characterised as “the great unveil”. Withholding information to increase that wow factor, Coleman says, would actually lead to “one sided expositions” and “anemic conversations.”

Worst of all though, as Coleman puts it, they would “miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed”, and if someone pointed these out to the presenters “in the middle of [the] presentation, [they’d] end up distracted and confused.” By focusing too much on giving a killer presentation they completely failed to get gain any value from the input of others. Their message inevitably fell on deaf ears.

But how do we make the message our main focus?

A “punchline first” form of communication, as Coleman calls it, can take us far. That means starting the presentation with an executive summary of key conclusions. Your counterparts can study them and keep them in mind throughout the presentation meaning everyone’s efforts will be aimed at testing these conclusions and finding solutions. No energy will be spent on taking up new ideas. Additionally, you’ll be opening the floor and making the most of group intelligence, which is, unsurprisingly, much more reliable than putting all of the burden on the presenter.

Have A Structured Conversation

“Inevitably, when I engage well with an audience, it feels much more like a two-way conversation. When I fail to engage, I realize I’ve fallen back into the presentation trap.”

George Bradt nailed it on the head in his Forbes article. There’s a way we can really drive home this idea of conversations over presentations and it doesn’t mean throwing your q cards out the window. Having a purposefully structured conversation can get everyone engaged on the topic and create an environment that is inclusive and collaborative.

You can do this in a number of ways. Firstly, disperse responsibility for key parts of the presentation. A good way to start is by assigning roles such as timekeeper and note taker, and most importantly, having a facilitator to run things. Doing this will start proceedings on the right foot and lead to an inclusive discussion instead of a static presentation.

We can also take Coleman’s “punchline first” approach even further by having required reading before meetings. Once again this will get everyone involved, especially introverts who likely won’t chime in if they haven’t been allowed the time for a thoughtful response to the material.

If we really want to get to the route of an issue, we also have to get rid of the notion that we somehow “own” the solution. 

John Coleman’s team discovered this through trial and error:

“When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.”

Conversations allow us to feel invested in each other's stories instead of feeling like we’re being talked at or spoonfed advice. Our meetings, and workshops, at Circles encourage conversation over presentation and storytelling over advice giving.

This reverses the focus. Kawasaki and Robbins are geniuses at having a mass reach and wide appeal, but depending on our situation, trying to copy that style is likely to have our focus in the wrong place. While they reach a huge amount of people, turning those presentations into conversations will let you be reached by a huge amount of people. Seeking those different perspectives opens you up to a constant source of learning opportunities.