The Death of the Presentation

Posted on December 21, 2010


One of the looming byproducts of this era of 140-character attention spans and the socializing of business communications may be the demise of the “presentation.”  I certainly hate to see it struggling and in such pain—after all, my blog is titled Present Perfect—but like the Old Year with his scythe yielding to Baby New Year, traditional presentations are rapidly giving way to “engagements.”

This evolution crystallized for me as I was working on the third iteration of a crisis communications program that we continue to redesign to reflect accumulating feedback from participants.  When we initiated the program several years ago, it was only natural to start it off with 90 minutes or so of presentation to educate participants about the elements to consider in a crisis and about handling the news media who may turn up at their front gates even before so-called first responders. The rest of the day was consumed by a tabletop walk-through of the stages of a crisis scenario.

Turns out the scenario was more instructive to the participants than the presentation, so we revised the program to actually put the participants in the middle of a mock crisis and work through the situation as a crisis team, videotaping our steps along the way and reserving the presentation for the end of the program, where we offered instruction founded in the participants’ own experience earlier in the day.

Feedback, however, told us that the afternoon session was lagging in comparison with the morning, so now we are breaking the groups into subgroups to develop their own “reports” on crisis management do’s and don’ts and other critical topics, with our guidance.  Presentation is reserved only for a few key points relating to dealing with media.

We’re beginning to see this same crawling-out-of-the-presentation-sea-onto-the-engagement-shore in other types of business presentations as well.  From courting a new-business prospect to reporting on PR activity to current clients, companies are telling us they want less stand-and-deliver interaction and more “engagement”—conversation, signs of mutual understanding, highly graphical documents, personal chemistry, and Higher Thinking.  When facing a large group, we presenters now find ourselves in the midst of a Twitterfest that reviews, characterizes and reshapes our presentations as we speak. The audience has rejected the presentation format and has transformed it into an engagement with us, whether we like it or not.

As a result, presenters—perhaps now more appropriately called “engagement masters”—will need to release their grip on conventional presentation elements—from slides to handouts to even the good ol’ Q&A session—and adopt the tools of engagement, if they expect to connect with their audiences.

Tomorrow’s “presentation” (and I mean Wednesday, not five years or five months from now) will need to be an engagement session that incorporates new perspectives and elements, if it is to succeed.  Engagement masters will need, for example, to:

  • Be less autocratic and more Socratic, encouraging “truth” (what we used to call “tips”) to emerge from guided discussion among participants.
  • Embrace social media in their sessions, encouraging audience members to tweet or like, seeking feedback from their messages and the replies of their friends.
  • Break the engagement into modular segments that can be digested in bites and tweeted progressively (the new way to “write it down”) as a method of reinforcing the content that the group has “discovered.”
  • Deploy more visuals in their engagements, including video clips, live video interactions with key individuals who are off-site, props, demonstrations and physical concept models.
  • Turn over a portion of the engagement to the participants themselves to share storytelling, lessons learned, local cultural considerations, planning for next steps and/or other elements.
  • Replace “leave-behinds” with their own blog posts or tweets over a period of days or weeks, furnishing participants who follow them with both refreshed information and links to illustrative clips, articles, images and  sites.

R.I.P., presenters.  Tyvm engagement mstrs & gl n the 140 world.