The Presentation from ZZzzZz

3 mins

This week, we look at how we can spruce up snooze-worthy presentations. Lawyers and law students, this is for you!

You know the usual riff-raff of bad presentations. They include presenters who…

… make zero eye contact with their audience…

… drone on in a monotone with an A4 sheet in hand. Or worse, treats their audience like kindergartners who need every spoken word written on the PowerPoint slide. Delightful stuff.

Sadly, it still happens more than it should.

But these are obvious mistakes that anyone can spot. How about more subtle mistakes that destine your presentation to the ZZzzZz zone? Some observations and thoughts below.

#01. Know your audience

Presenters who produce presentations from ZZzzZz don’t bother about getting to know their audience first.

Unless you’re speaking to lawyers who have an unnatural interest in an esoteric aspect of law—chances are that your audience won’t care terribly much about the details.

However, they may want to know how something (for example, a change in law) directly affects them. In other words, application is everything.

These days, we hear a lot about the importance of “design thinking”. Unfortunately, it’s meaningless when you don’t bother to think about who your audience is. Design thinking is about having empathy for your audience and asking:

  • Is your audience versed in this area of law?
  • Do they care about it? And if not, why should they care?

#02. You’re not a walking textbook

In some circles, there is a strange fixation on becoming the mythical lawyer who spouts case law at will, kind of like a walking textbook. A walking textbook must surely be a great lawyer…

This sort of thinking approaches things from the wrong end of the stick. “Walking textbooks” appear to be so, not because they have a photographic memory. Rather, it is more likely that they have worked in an area for a long time, are super passionate about it—and have a lot of experience in applying their knowledge.

The walking textbook myth lives on every time a presenter feels the need to create endless slides of legal principles and case citations to look authoritative. In reality, there’s a limit to how much law we can jam down our audience’s… well, ears.

Application is everything. Don’t regurgitate without critical thinking. It doesn’t add anything, rather it takes away from your audience’s experience. A better way? Provide practical examples and engage your audience’s brain—humour often helps.

#03. A neighbourly chat

A great lawyer once told me that when you need to explain a legal case or concept to someone, treat it as if you’re having a friendly chat with your neighbour across the fence.

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy… and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, page 20

We often get caught up in a desire to look smart, that we end up looking kind of dumb. And it’s obvious for all to see.

#04. It’s not a cram exam

Presentations aren’t about getting as much information into a 30-minute or 1-hour timeslot. Remember that your purpose is to act as a guide and highlight the things that matter. Don’t throw everything at your audience.

#05. Bufferrrrrrrr

We all have an irrational fear that we’ll run out of things to say halfway through a presentation. We end up preparing too much material—and this leaves little time for interacting with our audience.

Engagement happens when your audience is interested in what you have to say. And it can only happen when you give them a bit of space to think about what you’re saying. It doesn’t happen when you speak non-stop at turbo speed or throw everything at them (aka. information overload).

You know that awkward ending to a presentation when the presenter asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” (Crickets. Presenter nervously scans the audience. More crickets.) A big reason for why this happens is because the presenter has been talking at the audience non-stop. No pauses so that the audience can absorb, think and contemplate. Why would they then wake up from their stupor to contribute a question?

This is when buffers are important. If you have one hour, don’t prepare a full hour of speaking notes when 30–40 minutes is more than enough. Leave the rest for intelligent, engaging discussions during and after your presentation. When you get your audience interested and invested in your topic, it is more likely that they’ll engage.

It also means that you won’t wipe out your audience with boredom. And everyone will have more fun.

And then…

Sometimes, your topic is actually boring—or esoteric—and that no one is genuinely interested in it (*cough* tax). But that can’t be true in most cases! Give your presentation the best chance of generating oxygen, not a room full of ZZzzZz.

P.s. Remember to use great graphics and not cheesy stock images of business-suited people smiling inanely at each other. Canva is a great resource.

Image credit // Volodymyr Hryshchenko

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