Presentations that hit the spot

Feb 12 2008 by Janet Howd Print This Article

News last month that Gillette is looking to sell off its "White Rain" hair-care brand brought vividly to mind the first advertising billboard I ever saw.

It appeared, literally, overnight, fronting a space in London where for more than a decade the rubble of bombed buildings had lain open to view.

Across it, in letters taller than the double-decker bus I was traveling on to school, sprawled the message: WHITE RAIN IS COMING!

Those words filled me with awed expectation every day for six weeks or more. But when the image of a miniscule white bottle pasted alongside them revealed that they heralded nothing more than a brand of shampoo, the banality of that reality made me advert-averse for the rest of my life.

So negative a response could hardly have been the one the marketing team were trying to evoke and serves as a reminder to all presenters that no matter how compelling we believe our information to be, there will always be those who remain unconvinced because the style of delivery conflicts with values they currently own.

Designers of large advertising campaigns do all their work on likely audience response and desired financial outcome in advance and never become involved at the point of contact.

In contrast, those of us who present in person have to deal up front with people and learn how to cope with and persuade audiences to accept our message whatever state of preparedness they are in.

Almost every audience will contain people who simply do not take to the presenter. There will be people impatient at having to be present when they have other things they consider more important to do.

Others will be full of their own ideas on the subject and deaf to any new input Ė not to mention those who actually are deaf.

Some will be struggling with jet lag; some be distracted by personal problems; some struggling with the language. Moreover - without exception - everyone's experience of being taught at a previous stage in their lives will bear for good or ill on their ability to respond to the material being presented.

The job of a presenter is to account for and, where ever possible, alleviate all of the above conditions and encourage even the most willfully inattentive to glean something worthwhile from the transaction.

The best way to make sure that encounters with different audiences are as problem-free as possible, is to find out as many details about the common mindset and culture of each group before you meet them.

It has long been known that in-depth knowledge of people's preferences, foibles and status allow presenters to manipulate their behaviour.

A compelling example concerns the famous 19th Century American showman, P.T. Barnum and his customers. Those eager punters queued for hours to get in to see Barnum's well-hyped spectacle. Once inside they were confronted by a bill board stating: THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS.

Many followed the sign only to find themselves immediately outside and having to pay a second entrance fee to get in again. Believe it or not - most of them did!

Barnum's meticulous audience research had told him that the majority of his punters would be recent immigrants who longed to pass as regular Americans but whose lack of facility with the English language was the give away that would prove that they were not.

Banking on the fact that pressure not to be seen to have misunderstood would mean that the majority misled would tough it out and pay again - P.T. set up his duplicitous sign.

I am not suggesting that the mean spiritedness of the outcome of Barnum's design is something to emulate - but his research cannot be faulted. Applied to any presentation - most of the people will buy into most of the ideas most of the time.

Audiences today however, are literate, sophisticated and astute and if a presentation is not to their liking it is the presenter who will be shown the quickest way to the Egress!

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.