by Jay Johansen | Jan 8, 2008
I often hear presentations by people who apparently never considered what seems to me to be the obvious first question to ask before giving a presentation: Who is my audience? They seem to assume that we in the audience already know everything they have to tell us and just need to be reminded, or that we know and love their friends.
For example, I used to attend an annual convention on printing technology. Conventions typically have one or more "general sessions", that is, times where everyone is expected to be in one big room and nothing is going on anywhere else. The general session usually features a big name speaker that they assume almost everyone will want to hear, so any other session scheduled at the same time would have a hopelessly small audience. At the general session of this convention, they announced that one of the members of the committee that organized the convention had just quit. They then spent the next half hour on a Power Point presentation of pictures of this woman around the office, accompanied by songs about friendship and memories. We in the audience were apparently expected to be deeply saddened at the thought that this woman was leaving the organization.
Except ... very few of the attendees had ever even met her. To her fellow members of the committee, people she worked with every day, perhaps it was a deeply emotional moment when she left. But to the audience, she was one of many names in small print in the back of the program book, or at most a voice on the phone when you called with a question about registration or schedules, and that was it. They didn't even bother to tell us who she was or what she did in the organization.
So we sat there for half an hour looking at pictures of a woman we didn't know doing we knew not what while listening to sappy songs about how much we should miss her now that she's gone. I don't want to sound inconsiderate, but I just didn't care. We didn't know her. We knew nothing about her. The organizers of this convention made the absurd assumption that because they were unhappy to see their friend go away, everyone else in the world would be equally emotionally distraught. Indeed, I wonder how many of the people on the committee considered this a deeply emotional moment. I suspect it was just one or two people of her close friends.
Speaking of Power Point presentations consisting of slides with musical accompanient, I've seen many where the presenter never seemed to ask himself whether the audience would know what the pictures were supposed to illustrate. For example, I once saw a presentation by a missionary which he introduced with a brief, vague statement about many talents being relevant to missionary work and his gratitude to the "tree trimmers". He then showed, well, pictures of people. He never told us who any of these people were, what they were doing, or why. I have no idea whether the reference to tree trimmers was literal or some figurative reference that I didn't catch. One of the pictures showed a man in the bucket of a lift truck in front of a big tree. Perhaps he was one of these tree trimmers. Or maybe he was painting a tall building or working on the power lines and the presence of the tree was coincidental. It was never explained. When the speaker was assembling these slides, I guess he was saying to himself, "Oh, here's a picture of Bob standing in the kitchen where he just installed the plumbing" and "Here's Mary in front of the house where she does our accounting work on her home computer." But we in the audience had no idea who these people were or what they did. I don't doubt that they had all done valuable work, but in most of the pictures they were just standing there, so we had no clue what that valuable work might be. The few "action shots" went by much too fast for me to figure out what the person was up to. What did the audience learn from this?
My point is that when you are putting together a presentation, you should consider who your audience is, what they know, and what they might want to learn. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But a picture with no explanation frequently conveys no information. If you show your audience a picture of a man standing in front of a house, we have no way of knowing that this is your friend Bob who has just fought a valiant battle against cancer, or that he is the new marketing director of the western region who has just boosted sales by 30% by introducing a new advertising campaign, or whatever, unless you, like, actually tell us. You certainly should not expect us to cry over Bob's tragic death when we don't even know that he's dead, or to be inspired to implement the new advertising campaign in our own region when we don't even know what it is. We just see a man in front of a house, and are wondering what the heck the point is supposed to be.
© 2008 by Jay Johansen