Why present?

Actually, that title might be something of a misleading one, because the question in my mind isn’t just about presenting, it’s about communicating. Presenting being one type/form of presenting the rules about communicating in general would seem to (generally) apply.

And at the moment I’m getting a lot of questions about why communicate at all.  I was asked out-right on a recent course and presenting and communicating in times of change what the point of it all was as it had no effect. I had two immediate responses:

  • the point of today’s training is to allow you to deliver presentations which do have an effect, didn’t you read the paperwork your boss sent you?; and
  • I’m not surprised your presentations don’t have an effect – you seem to do them so badly you could only achieve that level of disengagement in your audience if you were actively trying.

Fortunately I didn’t say this out loud.  I’m told my a colleague who was watching me that those things didn’t even show on my face. Just as well, I suspect.

What the question does though, is rather nicely raise the more general existential point of why communicate. The group I was with at the time I’ve just cited above pretty much instantly came up with only two reason for communicating, one worthwhile and one one not.

Let’s deal with the non-worthwhile reason for communicating first… to cover our backs.

In other words, we sometimes communicate just to tick the box and say that we’e done it, so we can’t get into trouble later when we’re asked. In my  mind there isn’t any real attempt at communication here, just a mindless ritual.

terms_and_conditions_book_smallIf I’m feeling cynical, I might suggest that the question we’re asked when we buy a new piece of software would count as an example here. “Tick to confirm you’ve read the Terms and Conditions”. Yeah, right. How many of us actually read the darn things?  And understand them? Change our minds about buying the software?

The point of asking us to click the button to say we’ve read them isn’t to get us to ready them. Instead, it’s to allow the provider to cover their backs in case of future problems.

To be honest, I’ve got very little time for this kind of communication. It’s a null-communication, taking up time and only pretending that communication has happened. Reports that no one reads; presentations no one listens to; commissions no one attends; marketing that no one sees…

You might not be surprised to know that my challenger was an accountant: “It’s more important that I’m right than that anyone reads it. I don’t care if they don’t read it!”.

Let’s something more worth out time…
trying to change the world.

For me, this is where it’s at. Communication is about trying to change something, or at least to provoke or steer some kind of action. If nothing changes as a result of our communication, why do it?

Let’s start by looking at even the most basic of communication: think about the last time someone asked you what time it was. Presumably what they did next depended on your answer. If they’re later than they think they rush; if it’s lunchtime they can eat; and so on.  (Of course there are always times when what’s being communicated isn’t what’s overt. That question might be to get you to look them in the eyes and see how wildly attracted to you they were – in the hope you’d reciprocate, presumably!)

Let’s get grander. If you’re writing a report, presumably you want people to read it, believe it and act upon it..?

And so it absolutely is with presentations… if you give a presentation and nothing happens, then why present?

Communication – and in particular presentations, with their business focus – are all about changing something.  (Yes, I know, people might not to change their behaviour if they decide what you’re giving them isn’t advantageous to them, but I’m counting that as a positive thing: it’s an active choice they make, not a passive continuation of the status quo carried on out of ignorance.)

So what say you, gentle reader?  What changes in behaviour do you think I was aiming for when I wrote this?

Simon is one of the UK's most highly regarded presentation skills trainers and professional speakers in the fields of presenting, confidence and emotional resilience.

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