A new model for business presentations

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Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe wrote a book called Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future. The book concerns itself with a set of basic management principles that they believe govern the successful development and evolution of new technology. I think these principles fairly represent current perception and support what are generally accepted in tech today as virtuous practices. The principles are presented in a kind of yin and yang pairing of binary and opposing forces.

One of those pairs is emergence over authority. The authors argue in favor of emergence over authority as the source and nutrient of ingenuity and innovation in technology. Their discussion is pretty well restricted to the theoretical plane (they offer little in the way of practical advice for fomenting emergence beyond “if you observe it, encourage it.”)

Here I want to show how emergence over authority is at work in the business presentation and how emergence can be encouraged with the practical application of the principles of live performance which I advocate.

The model must change

The traditional model guiding business presentations rests almost entirely on what I call the Authority of Office and category expertise. The voice of authority is presumed in the presenter because in older hierarchical organizations the presenter is very often the boss or team leader. If not the boss, they are presumed to be the category, company or industry expert. The audience pays attention and follows the direction offered in the presentation because it is their job and responsibility to do so. Even the word we use, “presentation,” suggests a formal, one-way communication.

But tech companies today are less likely to be rigid, formal hierarchies. They tend to be flatter. Most of us now have more colleagues than employees or direct reports. Working groups are increasingly ad hoc. We create teams on an as-needed basis that change dynamically as projects progress and evolve. We have more temporary assignments and work with or under the direction of a quick succession of project managers or business owners. We have more remote employees who work remotely or independently and may be on site only occasionally to attend a meeting or presentation. As a result, contributors to any initiative are less vested in long-term personal relationships (or annual reviews from a single manager they may be working under for only the next two months). Independence of thought, solution and action are encouraged as we all have fewer external imperatives to take direction.

Information and expertise are also distributed more broadly. It is increasingly less frequent that any one person has all the knowledge or expertise necessary to understand or accomplish any significant business initiative. There is simply no way any one person can know everything. Individuals may possess a narrow knowledge or skill set that is critical, but only to a single facet of larger overall projects.

As a result, most of the audiences you face today are peers, not subordinates, who collectively possess nearly as much if not more than you do. The old authority model for presentations can become a source of anxiety for many presenters. They are less likely to be seen by the audience as the person who has all the answers and that may explain why the top concerns expressed by tech managers continue to include: “that I do not have all the information,” “I will not have the information the audience expects,” “I will be asked questions I don’t know the answer to,” etc. The voice of authority seems to have abandoned them, and presenters are at a loss for confidence.

An emergence model

So that means we require a new way to think about the business presentation; one that is focused more on persuasion and invitation than revelation and directive; a model that is less overtly didactic and that values the knowledge and experience of the audience as much as the knowledge of the presenter.

A business presentation is a live performance and the live performance is first and foremost a shared experience between the presenter and the audience. The intent of the presentation is to transform the audience’s thinking, not command their obedience. The live performance model recognizes that the audience plays a role in that experience. The live performance model invites questions from the audience. It allows for contributions to be made by the audience and for ideas to emerge from the audience.

If members of the audience possess key knowledge that is essential to the shared experience and the goals we are trying to achieve, and if they are to become actors in the implementation of decisions and realization of those goals, then it is important for the presenter to describe active roles for those audience members in a project narrative which invites and allows the audience to make those contributions: that make meaningful response on the part of the audience possible. That is the way we move audiences to action.

The new voice of authority comes from skillful management of the presentation experience. The presenter serves as the catalyst between the audience and the content of the presentation. The goal of the presenter is to reach their audience, transform their thinking and move them to action. That is how great presentations are allowed to emerge.

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