How to Kill Anyone with a Presentation (and Get Away with It!)
A Satirical Look at Presentations and Why They Bore Us to Death—Part I
You’ll be happy to know that killing someone—anyone—with a presentation requires very little planning. Apparently, humans are genetically predisposed to do so, and have been for some time. Although modern cultural critics treat the 1987 release of PowerPoint as ground zero for what’s since become widely known as the “zombification of presentation audiences,” our predatory skills in this area have long been on display. For example, it’s a matter of historical record that the renowned Greek orator Socrates once lured a crowd of thousands to an Athens arena under the guise of providing a more detailed (and salacious) account of the famous affair between Helen of Troy and Prince Paris, which led to the Trojan War. Once the audience was in place, however, he proceeded to offer a three-hour treatise on the virtue of justice.
In the end, 6,127 people were killed. Only seven people survived, and it’s rumored that when Socrates lured in another large crowd at a later date with the promise of a rousing reenactment of “Leda and the Swan,” those same seven showed up again, knowing full well that it might be a sham. (Apparently all seven individuals were introspective philosophers who seemed by and large immune to poor presentation skills as long as the topic promised to be academic enough for their intellectual palate). This time, as a precaution, Socrates’ co-conspirators had all exits blocked, but such a safeguard was unnecessary, for Socrates knew then what we know now: the worst presentations don’t drop like a bomb, they slowly infect like a poison. Most victims never see it coming. Shortly after the presentation starts they begin to feel nauseous, then antsy, then a bit sleepy. Ultimately, hopelessness and anxiety creep in toward the end and it's pretty much over. Typically, at this point they cease all resistance, resigning themselves to their fate and the slow death that comes with it.
Of course, more current examples of our ability to kill each other with presentations abound—even more since modern software appears to have emboldened many who otherwise would have never attempted such a feat. From political speeches (like American president Andrew Johnson’s drunken 90-minute inaugural address in 1865 that claimed the lives of at least 75 members of the “rebel aristocracy”), to university professors (who somehow thought that copying their personal notes onto a transparency and using an overhead projector in the 1980s translated to teaching), to everyday business presentations (seemingly designed to reduce employee numbers by ensuring only half make it out of the committee room alive), to every high school commencement speech ever, humans have proven that we know how to snuff the life out of any audience in a matter of minutes. (Fun fact: The origins of the modern overhead projector dates back to the 17th century invention of the magic lantern. And, while the magic lantern inventor’s goal was first and foremost entertainment, when twentieth-century educators realized the potential it offered for eradicating their classrooms of all interactive learning in the 1980s, they pounced).
What followed was an unprecedented adoption of a “death by presentation” skill set that’s still alive today via PowerPoint. Here we have just one example of how modern technology, however advanced, can aid in our goals of sedating our audiences. They say death is no respecter of persons. Well, neither is a presentation well-designed to produce maximum collateral damage.
So, there’s the good news. Killing someone with a presentation comes naturally. Still, I think we can do better. So much of the “Death by PowerPoint” I’ve witnessed in my life has resulted merely by default or happenstance on the part of the presenter, rather than by his or her thoughtful and purposeful attempt at audience assassination. If you’re gonna kill someone with a presentation, do it on purpose I say, and do it well. To that end, what follows in this blog series are ten concrete steps you can take to ensure that when your presentation is done, no one will be left standing. Read below for Step 1.
Step I: Completely Disregard Your Audience
The first strategy we need to cover in discussing the art of presentation assassination begins before you even began drafting your presentation. As you think about the topic of your talk, you might be tempted to consider the following—whether out of personal interest or professional curiosity:
What are the backgrounds of the audience members?
Is the audience made up of a uniform demographic or is it more diverse?
What are their expectations regarding this particular presentation?
What relevant knowledge do they bring to the table?
If there is a specific vocabulary attached to the topic of your presentation, and will the audience understand it, or should you avoid it?
What’s the overall purpose of the presentation (i.e., is it to inform, persuade, entertain, inspire, etc.)?
What’s the context for the presentation (i.e., formal or informal, business or education, etc.)?
When are you giving the presentation (morning, noon, at the end of the business day, etc.)?
Are you the only presenter that day, or are you one of many?
Disregard all of this. After all, your main goal here is to showcase your intellect. I mean, why would you want to get to know your audience when they should clearly want to get to know you? In fact, if some tactless person inadvertently informs you of these facts, do your best to forget them. Attending to even a third of the above questions puts an otherwise “sure kill” at risk, and we can’t have that. (I am aware that sometimes the person who has assigned the presentation may offer any number of documents that provide similar information about your audience. It’s best to just nod and accept the information and then conveniently not get around to examining it. I mean, we’re all busy, right?)
I once watched a presenter blow a wonderful opportunity to obliterate a large group of conference attendees all at once. Midway through his comatose-inducing 45 minute lecture on postmodern epistemology and the future of e-commerce, he decided to switch gears and introduce an interactive activity that allowed the audience to reflect on how the topic might affect their own lives. Fortunately, the activity proved to be a one-off technique, which his “enlightened” supervisor had required of him, but he quickly went back to his previous delivery style and finished well. Still, five people survived and walked away from that talk with some form of introspection at work in their minds because of a single thoughtful question. Sure, they were limping a bit, but they still walked away.
Now, someone may argue, “What’s the harm in knowing a little context for a presentation? After all, that’s not the same as knowing the background of all audience members.” True,
but the impact of a contextual knowledge can inadvertently alter the style of delivery, as well as change some of the content. For example, a number of years back, I was asked to give a 30 min-keynote address at an international conference in Europe on the topic of empathy.
Now, opportunities like this are rare. Think about it: I was being asked to present on the topic of empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If done right, this occasion afforded me the chance to put an international audience six feet under in a beautifully ironic fashion. I remembered that as a young man I had watched a true master of the “Death by Presentation” craft take out an entire school district of classroom teachers with a 3-hour lecture on group discussion. Pure brilliance. I remember looking around, seeing everyone’s eyes glassing over, and wondering, “Is anyone else getting this irony? This is poetry in motion!” Here was that kind of opportunity right in front of me. Properly designed, I could offer a lecture on empathy that failed to demonstrate any identification with or compassion for my audience whatsoever.
To better understand the impact of audience awareness and just how much this information could inhibit the success of an intended homicide-by-homily, however, I choose to pass on the opportunity and instead pretend as if the ultimate goal of presentations was to enlighten and entertain. Just as an experiment, mind you. To that end, I began by emailing the coordinator of the conference to ask a few questions: what was overarching theme of the conference, what time of day was my talk scheduled for, how many keynotes came before and after mine, what was international makeup of the audience, would translators be onsite, what technology would I have access to, what was room was like, and so on. On the surface, these might seem like innocuous questions that would have little impact on my ability to put an audience to sleep, but that is not the case. Consider my original plan, sure to work: I would simply take a talk I had given in the US, which had already proven successful in putting my audiences into a permanent narcoleptic state, change nothing, and re-deliver it to my international audience. If anything, it would prove even more lethal there. Armed with the provided contextual information and the desire to not kill but rather impact and even connect with my audience, however, I set about making the following changes in the three key areas.
Content: I researched the conference goals and familiarized myself with the material the audience would have read before registering. This understanding narrowed the focus of my talk and thus made my content more relevant to the attending audience. I then researched the other presenters to see how my field of expertise might connect with theirs, thus leading to a better connection among presenters on the topic overall.
Language: Upon learning that at least 10 nationalities would be represented, with translators provided, I checked my material for US-centric, idiomatic expressions, stories, or humor that might need to be adjusted, replaced, or simply removed to ensure its effectiveness. I also checked for any naturalized assumptions at work within my arguments. Finally, I let a friend from Europe check it, which provided some insightful feedback.
Delivery: Upon further investigation, I learned that my keynote would be the last one of the first full day of the conference. Thirteen keynotes were to be delivered before I got to the stage. Assuming I could count on other presenters to commit the usual crimes associated with our craft, that would be mean I would have an audience that was essentially dead by the time I stepped up to the podium. Turning that around would be hard, but not impossible. There was no way I could just get up and talk nonstop for 30 minutes in these circumstances, so I adjusted my delivery style accordingly.
I won't go into all the details here, but the result irrefutably confirmed my suspicions that audience awareness is a detriment to the goals of “Death by Presentation.” As anticipated, by the time I got up to the stage in the afternoon—the last of 14 keynotes that day—the glassy-eyed look of the participants all but guaranteed a losing battle for their attention. But, I was armed with an exciting, interactive opening activity (which they didn’t expect), meaningful content designed with the present demographic in mind, a thoughtful, well-designed slide deck that added, rather than distracted, from my talk, and several audience participation moments throughout that captured and retained their interest from beginning to end.
All of this just goes to show how paying attention—even a little—to our audiences can thwart our goals of taking out our attendees with tried and true methods that ensure their eternal sleep. The lesson here is that it’s just best to avoid audience awareness altogether so you can be assured of your mission’s success. So, here’s my best advice in a nutshell. Never think about your audience, not before, during, or after a presentation. From planning to delivery, think only of yourself and you can’t go wrong.
Next time, I’ll discuss how to avoid the many "productive" digital tools available in presentation software. Until then, do your best to keep the flame dead in all things presentation.
Want a deeper dive on this topic? Check out PLC's Presenting with Purpose Program