Making Persuasive Presentations

Lessons from the Writers’ Workshop on improving your presentation skills

George Bernard Shaw - Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons.
George Bernard Shaw – Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw


“So, what do you think?” I asked my colleagues after test-running the presentation. It was for a pitch to a company that could become our first big distribution partnership. The pause before their reply seemed to last forever.

“I like it,” Yolanda said, finally.

“Yeah. Me too,” Cristian nodded.

I wasn’t convinced. That pause…

“There must be something you don’t like. Something that you think could be improved,” I insisted.

“Can’t think of anything,” Yolanda said. “It’s like you read my mind.”

“Yes, it’s perfect. Let’s run with it,” Cristian said.

“Alright,” I decided to change tack. “Then, can you tell me what is it that you like about it, specifically?”

What followed was a detailed analysis in which my colleagues highlighted the points in my presentation that they found particularly persuasive. How those points reinforced each other, and built, with a sense of inevitability, to a strong conclusion.

The problem was, I had not thought of about half of the points they brought up. Their conclusion, though compelling, wasn’t quite what I had intended to communicate. Whatever their takeaways from the presentation, they were not at all what I had planned.

Start with Positive Feedback

As my colleagues show us, most people are nice, and will go out of their way not to hurt your feelings. So, they will need a bit of encouraging, in fact, your permission, to give you useful feedback.

People generally have less trouble giving you positive or encouraging feedback. To ease them into the feedback-giving process, begin by asking them what they liked first. Specifically.

Specificity is the key. As long as it is specific, even flattering feedback will help you pinpoint what each member of the audience took away from your presentation, so you can start assessing whether you actually got your point across.

Which slide did you like? Why? What sentence or word? Image? Data point or statistic? What is the logical argument that you found not or most compelling? This last one is a great question to ask, as oftentimes, your audience will make up a logical argument of their own based on their pre-existing worldview, using the data you present.

As I found out, we often misjudge what it is that we really end up communicating, or what effect our message is having on our audience. Both good and bad.

In addition, you may also find things that are positively received by the audience, but that you did not purposefully incorporate into your presentation, so that you can make a conscious decision to highlight these serendipitous hidden gems in your next draft.

Another bonus of starting with what the audience liked is that it is easier on your ego. By the way, you will need that ego boost because once your test audience gets into the flow of things, their initial squeamishness about giving criticism will decrease. So, brace yourself. And cheer up. Feedback is a gift.

Decoding the Code

There’s a saying in marketing that perception is reality. And what I stumbled upon when test-running my presentation was one of the reasons why that saying came about.

We tend to think of communication as a tunnel through which the source sends a signal to the destination. This is not quite how our brains work. Wilbur Schramm proposed a more complete model of communication in which the source encodes the message, which is then transmitted as a signal, then decoded by the destination.

The thing is, how the encoding and decoding is done in people-to-people communication depends on an infinity of factors, which are determined by the source and destination’s respective fields of experience.

From "How Communication Works: The Proces and Effects of Mass Communication," by Schramm and Roberts, 1971. University of Illinois Press.
From “How Communication Works: The Proces and Effects of Mass Communication,” by Schramm and Roberts, 1971. University of Illinois Press.

The fields of experience of the source and the destination share some overlaps, otherwise communication would not be possible. But in the end, people’s experiences are unique. And people will necessarily decode the same signal differently. So different people’s understanding of your presentation will also be different.

For example, when you say that the book is so much better than the movie, what you are really saying is that when you decoded the text of a good book, you experienced a version of the story that was tailor-made for you. That is because unconsciously, your brain actually filled in the blanks in the story with details already residing in your imagination. That is one of the ways authors make readers identify themselves with a character, or feel the setting more vividly: By enlisting the reader in co-creating the story inside their own heads.

This openness to interpretation presents challenges as well. The gap between what you wanted to say and what your audience understood can be substantial.

Now, if only there were a proven and systematic way to leverage on the opportunities while avoiding the pitfalls of this aspect of human-to-human communication! Luckily for us, writers have already been at it for long time.

Lessons from the Writers’ Workshop

Perfected in the University of Iowa, the Writers’ Workshop has arguably become the gold standard in creative writing education. Its goal is for the writer to improve his craft iteratively, by understanding what and how readers perceive his words empirically. Peter Elbow’s is one of my favorite explanations of how and why this works.

What follows is my adaptation of the Writers’ Workshop framework to fit the needs of the author and presenter of a slide deck. Let’s call it the Presenters’ Workshop.

Firstly, although they can certainly be the subject of feedback you give or receive in the workshop, in this article, we will not address the technical aspects of the presentation: Usage of animations, text density, imagery, font size, logical structure, story arc, etc. There is plenty of excellent material about these already. Besides, different presenters can make different styles of presentation work.

Secondly, we will assume that you have a reasonable command of Microsoft’s PowerPoint, Apple’s Keynote or Google’s Slides.

And finally, we will also assume that you have the expertise and data required, or can get the relevant data to back up any claims you make.

The Presenters’ Workshop

A workshop’s goal is to determine empirically what works and what doesn’t work for an audience, without necessarily having to delve into matters of theory or principle. It can be conducted online or face-to-face, and tends to work best with between four and eight participants. Feedback can be given in writing, and/or orally for between 15 and 25 minutes.

As a training framework to improve your presentation skills, ideally, (1) all participants turn in a text to the workshop. You learn almost as much from analyzing and giving feedback to other participants’ work as from the feedback they give to you. (2) The workshops are a regular and sustained occurrence. And (3) as explained earlier, you may want to start focusing on positive feedback in the beginning, and then move on to more incisive type of feedback as the sessions progress.

However, in a pinch, you can also make this work for a one-off for a specific presentation, and for a specific presenter.

The Presenter’s Role

Prepare and make your presentation to your feedback group. You can agree to do this digitally or in person.

If you tend to do image rich slides with little text, make sure to either put the keywords or messages in text in the slides, and/or in bullet points in the speaker notes. This is so that your workshop-mates can comment on them easily.

If you are doing this face-to-face, distribute a printed copy of the presentation, with the speaker notes if applicable, to each feedback giver. Or share an electronic copy of the deck if virtual.

Remain open-minded at all times. The goal of making a presentation is not only to put ideas to paper, but more importantly, to put those ideas into your audience’s heads. And to instigate an action based on those ideas.

You are trying to find out if your audience understood, what they understood, and how they experienced the content and delivery of your presentation. By all means, ask for clarification on what they understood, or found confusing.

In business contexts, one of the more difficult, perhaps frustrating types of feedback to deal with is that which is prefaced with ‘I feel…’, as if feelings had no place in a business setting. Very often though, they yield the most valuable insights, if you dig deeper: Which specific slide, sentence, word, image? Why?

If your commenter cannot quite put his finger on it, you can use metaphors to elicit the feeling behind it. For instance, it were an animal, what would this presentation be? An eagle, a mouse, a horse? Then, if you dig deeper, you may find that your audience found the central idea visionary, timid, or reassuringly workhorse-like.

Whatever you do, don’t waste time defending or clarifying yourself.

Remember, for the workshop’s purposes, how a member of your audience experienced or understood your presentation isn’t right or wrong, it just is. What’s important in this process is that you learn about it, so that you can iterate and improve it in its next version.

The Feedback Giver’s Role

As you listen to the presentation, make highlights and any spontaneous comments on the margins of the paper printout, or use the comment function of the software, as the presenter goes through the presentation. These can be things you liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Or points, words or images that you found particularly insightful or persuasive, or not.

Then answer the questions below. I usually find that doing this in writing yields higher quality comments. I also like to read the spontaneous comments my readers leave on the margins, as they tend to be the most raw reactions you will get from your audience. But some people prefer doing it orally, and that is also fine.

  • What is the main point, and/or the logical argument the presenter is trying to get across?
  • What is the action the presenter requires from you after listening to this presentation?
  • Do you feel this is a credible and trustworthy presentation? Give specific examples (slides, words, images, statistics, logical arguments) of what made you feel so.
  • Do you feel this is a persuasive presentation? Give specific examples of what made you feel so?
  • Did you identify with the presenter or the topic of the presentation? What specific example(s) make you feel so?
  • How has the presentation changed you or how you view the topic at hand?

If the feedback receiver’s role requires that you be open, as a feedback giver, you should be courageous and generous. The best feedback is honest and open about how one experienced the presentation, often including how one felt, for feelings are at heart of the persuasiveness of a presentation: Credibility and trustworthiness are as much a matter of the feeling that people instill in you as that of objective or measurable criteria.

We typically eschew discussions about feelings in professional settings. So, feedback tends to focus on objective facts. However, if we, as stated earlier, take it for granted that you have access to the data and expertise. Then as far as developing the craft of presentation is concerned, it is more helpful for the presenter to understand the more subjective effects of his or her presentation on the audience. Is it credible, engaging, and persuasive? And then identify the instigating sections in the presentation. Of course, that is not to say that a feeling of a lack of credibility cannot be fixed with a good dose of objective and validated data, if that is what is called for.

You, The Presenter

In summary, the goal of most presentations we make is to persuade and to bring about a decision or a change. Assuming that the data is available, it is then about how your audience experiences your presentation. You can improve your chances of doing so by harnessing feedback empirically from a test audience à la Writers’ Workshop to iterate your deck.

  • Gather your workshop group. The ideal number of participants is usually between four and eight.
  • If your test-audience struggles with critiquing your presentation, start with positive feedback. Just make sure it is specific.
  • Understand that communication is not a channel, but an imperfect encoding and decoding process, which has both benefits and challenges.
  • Use the Writers’ Workshop-inspired method above to elicit feedback in a structured way from your test audience.
  • Iterate.

Your test audience can show you how clear, persuasive and credible your presentation is, and how you may improve it. As long as you listen to their feedback with an open mind.

However, it is not unusual to receive conflicting feedback from your workshop. This is why it is important to have multiple feedback-givers, as you can give more common feedback more weight. Or if you can manage, to recruit workshop-mates that are representative of your intended target audience, to ensure relevance.

But in the end, some conflicting advice is unavoidable. That is why like writing, presenting is more a craft than a science. Which is why the workshop format is more effective in improving presentation skills, as opposed to something more prescriptive, such as best practices or checklists.

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman said it best:

“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Article first published in Medium

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