Would you wear a bikini to work?

January 15, 2013

We hope not. Not unless it was wear-a-bikini-to-work day and the money raised went to a very worthy cause.

As humans, we have an inbuilt awareness of what is and is not appropriate in certain situations. We can apply this to presentations. There is always a context in which you are presenting. But context is often overlooked.

We’ve made this mistake too. We were once invited to speak at a professional member organisation’s Christmas lunch. We launched into a perfect execution of our organizational storytelling presentation, and were met with stone-cold faces. They were there for the Christmas lunch, the biggest social event of the year. With free wine flowing, the audience was in high spirits all the way through, but sadly not on account of our insights. We did receive a fine bottle of champagne as thanks and it took all our self-control not to drink it on the spot!

So always answer the following questions to prepare you for the context of your presentation:

  1. Why is your audience there?
  2. What does the audience want or need to know from the speakers?
  3. What do you think their attention span is going to be?
  4. Will you be competing against anything or anyone?
  5. Who else is speaking and what are they going to be talking about?

Now we always contact the organisers to find out the context of the presentation and sometimes this means holding off the presentation to another, more appropriate time. It’s in their best interests, as well as yours.

There is a pivotal scene in the film Any Questions for Ben that shows how context can make or break your presentation. When Ben, a twenty-something up-and-coming marketing exec, is invited to his old school to speak at a careers event, his presentation comes straight after Alexis, an international human rights lawyer who works with the United Nations in Yemen. Alexis’ presentation is moving, engaging and she gives the impression, in a very humble, yet self deprecating and humorous way, that she is changing the world. The audience hangs on her every word.

In comparison, Ben’s work seems mundane and even grubby. Immediately after he speaks, the panel moderator asks “Any questions for Ben?” A set of hands goes up, but the first question asked is “I want to ask Alexis …” When the moderator says they’ll be questions for Alexis later and again asks if there are any questions for Ben, all the hands go down and a deathly silence ensues. This moment creates an existential crisis for Ben that makes him question both his work, and his life purpose.

Sure, it’s a movie so they have to exaggerate the consequences of not getting your context, your audience or your presentation right. But it serves as a lesson for all of us, to do our homework and never end up with the presentation equivalent of wearing a bikini to work.

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