Are you presenting for yourself or your audience?

Boring presenterMary Nell McCorquodale is a management consultant with decades of  experience presenting to savvy audiences, from C-level professionals to top brass in the US Military. As a young presenter, she learned very quickly that if you stick to your own agenda without finding out what your audience wants then it will be impossible to get your message across.

Early in her career, the company that Mary Nell was working for — a multinational technology and consulting firm — offered a weeklong training program for their clients. She was conducting a workshop on Day Three of the program, and was made aware of a major problem the minute she got started. It turns out that by the time they reached her session, the executives were pretty fed up. Their perception was that it the whole event was a rah-rah program for the host company, and they told her that if her session was going to be more of the same then they would leave. Suddenly, Mary Nell’s entire presentation as she had practiced it was worthless.

What would you have done, faced with a hostile audience that didn’t want to hear what you’d prepared? Well, rather than just pack up and leave, Mary Nell asked them to tell her exactly what they wanted to learn about her company’s products and what they hoped to get out of the session. She wrote everything down then called a recess so that she could retool her presentation to be able to address all of her audience’s concerns. When they returned, she delivered a very effective presentation with which her audience was extremely satisfied.

Over the years, she’s added another useful item to her presentation toolbox: the BLUF line. This acronym stands for Bottom Line Up Front, and it’s the way you tell your audience — within the first five minutes — how what you’re talking about will benefit them. It is also an opportunity to edit your presentation on the fly. For example, if the first half of your presentation is about how to bake a cake and you find out that you’re in front of a roomful of pastry chefs, if you deliver your BLUF line early on you will realize that you should skip that part. Otherwise you will bore your audience by telling them something they already know.

Reading a room and adapting on the fly isn’t easy, especially if you have prepared extensively for your presentation, but it gets easier with practice. Communication is a two-way street, so you must listen to your audience to make sure you’re sharing information that has value to them.

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