William Ronco, Ph.D. Biotech Leadership Institute
Some of these recommendations may surprise you.
“So, those are my findings. Are there any questions? Concerns? Comments? Feedback? Anything?”
“Well, I think you made an addition error in the fourth column on your ninth slide.”
“Why did you use the red type font instead of the blue one?”
“Have you considered the impacts of your cell research on climate change?”
Often, it’s the discussion that undermines our presentation, not the presentation of our ideas. A vocal, negative minority dominates. They focus on minor items and neglect the major points. They go off on tangents. Key people we’d like to hear from say little or nothing. What are they quiet ones thinking? How can we engage them?
We offer ten radical suggestions to rethink and significantly improve presentation discussions. We know these are radical because whenever we introduce them, many people initially react with surprise, disbelief, and, in some cases, rigid resistance. We also know these suggestions usually generate positive results when people try them. So we ask you to consider:
- Only half the job in presenting is to present. Though you’ve been asked to “present your findings,” your job in most cases is not only to explain your ideas but also to move your ideas forward. Whether you’re presenting in your organization or at a conference, your role is usually not only to describe your thinking, but also to help others work with your ideas, apply them, review them, develop and enrich them.
- The 50/50 rule. Nearly everyone agrees that presenters tend to “run over” the time they have for presenting and leave inadequate time for discussion. If you presenters should help move their ideas forward, you might also consider that in many cases, it’s important to allocate and use a full 50% of your allotted time for discussion, not just whatever time may be left over after you’ve finished “getting through your slides.”
- Planning your questions as carefully as you plan your slides. Ineffective discussion often begins with ineffective questions. If you ask your audience, “What concerns or problems do you see in my work?” you’ll hear their concerns, problems, and little else. And if you just “ask for feedback” and don’t plan questions at all, people are not likely to address the items most important to you.
- Three-part questions. One effective way to frame your question is to ask it in three parts. For example, after presenting your ideas, ask, “What do you think are 2–3 major strengths of my analysis? What are 2–3 of the major weaknesses of my analysis? What are 2–3 things I should do next to improve my analysis?”
- Communicating your questions before you present. Telling your audience the question you’ll be asking when you finish presenting helps them focus from the outset on the items you want to address, e.g., “I’m interested in your thoughts about my presentation. As soon as I finish, I’ll be asking you this question,” etc.
- Discouraging and minimizing questions and comments while you present. Inviting your audience to “feel free to interrupt me if you have questions” may seem like the polite thing to do, but it also leaves the door wide open for participants to take your presentation off on an unproductive tangent. You can tell people, “I’m very interested in your comments, but I ask you to wait until I’ve finished presenting because I’ll probably answer your question in my next slide. Also, I can respond to your question more effectively once you’ve seen the complete package of the way I’m thinking.”
- Not just responding to people who ask questions, but also calling on people you want to hear from. Of course you shouldn’t put people on the spot or make them feel uncomfortable, but you also can’t assume that their silence implies that they don’t have an opinion. To engage people you’d like to hear from in a way that’s comfortable for them, try using the three-part question described above, i.e., “What do you think are 2–3 of the strengths of my analysis? What are 2–3 of the major weaknesses in my analysis? What are 2–3 things I should do next to improve my analysis?”
- Dividing your audience into subgroups. We’ve saved this most radical suggestion for next-to-last because it’s the one that many people instantly reject out of hand commenting, “I can’t do that with this group,” or, “That wouldn’t be appropriate,” or “What would that possibly accomplish?” However, dividing your audience into smaller groups increases the likelihood that people who usually have nothing to say will contribute, decreases the opportunities for a vocal minority to dominate, and enables all participants to develop your ideas in greater depth than if they are all trying to interact with you one person at a time. To see how dividing an audience significantly improves the effectiveness of discussion, try it first in low-risk situations. Explain that you’re doing it because you want to hear from everyone. Provide a plan for how you want the subgroups to form, e.g., divided your group of 12 into four subgroups of three each. Designate a person in each group (perhaps someone who usually doesn’t participate) to take the notes. Provide a time frame for the subgroups to work in. Usually 10–15 minutes is ample to enable all 3–4 people in the subgroup to answer questions such as the sample question cited above.
- Planning your subgroups as carefully as you plan your slides and questions. If you want to know what the different groups in your audience think about your ideas, divide your audience into those different groups. If you want to get your audience’s input into how to implement your ideas, you might want to group them so each subgroup represents a cross-section of the overall group. In discussions as at weddings, success is often defined by the seating arrangements.
- Read parts 1 and 2 of this three-part series, starting with “10 Wince-Inducing Mistakes That Undermine Science Presentations”: Too many good ideas get lost not because of their content but because they weren’t presented or discussed well. Don’t make people wince! Next, make your point with impact, comfort, and clarity by using the best practices we detail in “10 Ways to Significantly Improve Your Science Presentations”.
Director of the Biotech Leadership Institute and president of Gathering Pace Consulting William Ronco, Ph.D. (email@example.com), consults on leadership, communications, team, and partnering performance in pharmaceutical, biotech, and science organizations.