Love them or loathe them.
I fall into the second category for the most part. Probably because I have endured endless managerial/political ones in the NHS where someone tells you something that you already know. And you could have been spending your time far more productively doing something that would improve services for patients.
After spending far too long on Sunday listening to presentations, I began to think about them yet again for the first time in years. As I’d written enough on roughseas about the extended morning, I decided NOT to write about presentations on there.
Truth was, I had expected from today’s generation of undergrads, a rather sophisticated format using computers for slide shows etc. The old powerpoint show, which I confess invariably sends me to sleep unless it is riveting.
We didn’t get that. We got an informal set up, 20+ chairs around a long set of tables, the presenter in the hot seat in front of the two tutors and two guests, and the other students around the tables. In terms of being intimidating I didn’t think it was, although one student said she found it so. The difficulty with the layout was that you couldn’t engage all your audience, only the ones immediately in front of you. If I was being smart, I might say that was thereby not encouraging discussion from the other students as it was effectively demoting them to the ranks of the unimportant.
X X X X X P X X X X X
X ———————————— X
X X X 1 2 3 4 X X X
No, it is not a mathematical formula. P = Presenter, and 123&4 = the two tutors and guests. X = the students.
Afterwards, I thought to myself – what IS a presentation? Although I’d expected one specific type, I realised it was a much broader description of any public address or public speaking where basically, one person gets up in front of others and talks. With or without props (pictures) or prompts (cue notes).
I thought back to the first time I’d had to do that. Junior school or maybe first year of senior school. Choose a topic, prepare your notes and speak for five minutes or so. I have to say I was terrified. I didn’t know what to talk about. I went home and asked my parents’ advice. ‘It’s easy,’ said my father loftily, who to be fair, could talk the hind leg off a donkey, as can my partner. Is it a male thing I wonder? Anyway, my father suggested I talk about our caravan holidays. ‘No need for notes,’ he said. ‘Just open your mouth and the words will come.’ I’m sure you can guess what happened. After 30 seconds I had dried up. ‘We spend our holidays in a caravan, it’s really nice.’ Or words to that effect. What else was there to say?
And that has probably coloured my view ever since. My school encouraged public speaking. Or rather it picked the girls with potential, encouraged them, and the rest of us were left to wilt with our lack of confidence.
We didn’t have presentations at university. Journalists don’t do presentations. They spend their time reporting on others making speeches. Perhaps another nail in my public speaking presentational coffin. I learned to listen, observe, write, and report. But not to speak.
After the useless caravan début, I think the next one was chairing a press conference. It was in Aberdeen, and our office was making a big fuss over this one, some new long-awaited docks regs. Our office manager, who had tastes above his income, was allowed to order smoked salmon and chablis for the event (he didn’t get to go, just me).
I flew up to Aberdeen from London and stayed overnight. Come the morning of the event, I was up bright and early wandering around the harbour. Very nice. Introducing the press conference, not even difficult, as we were all sitting around a nice oval table, I lacked words yet again.
‘Hello, thank you for coming, this is to introduce the new docks regs, here are our two speakers and afterwards there is a little something upstairs for you all.’ Ooops. A little something upstairs could have been anything. I was too embarrassed to say chablis and smoked salmon, so tried to unsuccessfully downplay it.
After that, I avoided presentations of any type until I joined the bloody NHS.
The presentation-obsessed NHS
If the NHS spent far less time on presentations and more time on managing, taxpayers might see better value for money.
But the NHS is a good example of the different type of presentations.
1) The ones I actually enjoyed.
Listening to, not making I hasten to add. Clinical ones. I enjoyed going to conferences/workshops/events about cancer. There was loads to learn about different techniques, survival rates, treatments, lots and lots of statistics, although a few blatant bids for individuals’ pet projects. But it was interesting and informative. Good for me in my job in charge of cancer services. They were basically lectures. I attended and took notes, and absorbed for future use. No way could I have stood up in front of hundreds of people.
2) The ones I utterly hated.
Political ones (not party politics, but political in the sense they were about achieving the latest government must-do which was so much more important than achieving service improvement).
For example, waiting times. YES, we all know they are too long. People don’t want to wait a year for a hip op. More controversially from the public perspective, YES, we all know that a few weeks or months is not a major issue for breast cancer. Sorry people but it is true. There was severe resistance from breast surgeons about the introduction of waiting times targets for breast cancer ops.
But I don’t need to spend a day in London to listen to someone telling me why waiting times are important. I know to the person who is worried it is paramount. My time could have been better used working with colleagues in the hospitals to speed up the system instead of getting on the train at 5.30, spending all day in a boring hotel, and getting home at 9 or 10pm.
3) In the middle, were smaller meetings with an agenda, where someone had to make a presentation about their issue.
a) For example, a board meeting. This never did compute to me. If there are board papers sent out, why would someone need to stand up and make a presentation, complete with slideshow, or before that OHPs, about something that everyone had read? I hated doing that as well. RTFM or in this case, RTFPapers. These were all about show too.
b) But, a meeting with an agenda and papers, where people briefly introduce their proposal (or whatever) and open up for discussion is totally different. Everyone SHOULD have
done their homework read their papers, and can contribute towards whatever recommendation is being made. It’s informed, informal in style, but formally recorded with minutes. It’s a presentation in a way, but of a different type.
What is a presentation (again)?
This is what my computer dictionary has to say about presentations, well about one of the five on its list:
4 a sales presentation demonstration, talk, lecture, address, speech, show, exhibition, display, introduction, launch, launching, unveiling.
That pretty much summarises the NHS sales pitch, my PR events, and what I reported on as a journalist.
Another demotivating factor in my lack of public speaking skills was one of my bosses. We were running a public consultation back in the early 90s about closing a hospital. It was all the rage back then to close hospitals under Thatcher. I was in charge of the PR ie trying to mitigate the backlash.
I was totally in awe of my chief exec. He dressed immaculately (I did advise he use blue shirts/ties for appearances to match his blue eyes), was totally articulate, no prompts, no cues, no nada. He was so in control of the overhead projector and his slides, didn’t need to look at them, just at the audience, and on top of that, he nimbly danced around the electrical leads. Just. Wow!
At the other end of the spectrum was a hospital chief exec. Cranky bastard, although I secretly admired him too.
‘Hi, can I speak to XXX,’ I would say to his secretary with the gold ankle bracelet who he was allegedly shagging. She would normally put people off.
‘Hello, roughseas, how are you,’ he would invariably say around 5.30/6pm when I spoke to him. I was NOT high enough up the rankings for a chief exec to speak to me but when he was in, he always took the call. Odd guy.
So I went to one of his presentations. He leaned at the back of the stage of the huge lecture theatre and said he wasn’t into fancy presentations (bit of a dig at my CE I suspected), absolutely no slides at all, so we all had to listen. He spoke well for however long, and he was good. Very good. I admired him ever after for that alone.
The NHS introduced annual meetings (more presentations). The hospital chief was holding his annual one and I was instructed to attend as it would be too obvious if my health authority CE went. What was the first thing the hospital CE said? ‘Oh, I see roughseas is here from the health authority….’ So much for anonymity.
Not content with filling the working day, week, month, with presentations of any type, the NHS insisted that any job interview necessitated the inevitable presentation. Why? Why can’t I write it down, and you can read it? Just like you can read my CV. Why do I have to stand up and say it when you can absorb it better if you get it in advance in writing? Def not my strongest point at interview.
The odd success
I did manage one or two presentations that went ok. One was about prescribing where I had figures and stats up to my eyeballs, it was a breeze. A bit like the clinical lectures I enjoyed, I found I could present something where I had a lot of information that people might actually find useful. I can churn out facts. I can’t be bothered to tell people how to think.
Similarly I held a Writing/PR/Journalism workshop for a charity group, and that was easy too.
I took two things out of those events.
1) My father’s advice was pretty rubbish (well, I already knew that). The only way to be successful at any speaking is to know your subject inside out.
2) I have no interest in speaking to people who don’t want to learn or be informed. Speaking for the sake of it leaves me cold. Sharing information and knowledge is worth the effort.
Somewhere along the way I managed that one. Water off a duck’s back. By the time I left the NHS I was chairing countless meetings. I’d suddenly learned it was easy. Well, it was if you got other people to speak and agree to do some work. Maybe it wasn’t so easy. Or maybe I had become a control freak. A far cry from the frightened caravan speaker. Or non-speaker.
I’m still chairing meetings, and other people do some work. I’m no longer nervous, and I don’t expect arguments. I conduct a formal meeting, although on first name terms.
Final thoughts on ‘presentations’?
For the sake of it, I still loathe them. If there are written papers, why make a visual and verbal replica and waste people’s time? But it’s very much about our image, is it not? How do we look? sound? speak? Whether we have any intelligence is another matter.
I like discussions, I like constructive meetings, I can admire clever speakers although I will never be one.
I don’t like powerpoint and silly slides that have three rows of text which someone then reads out, and then flicks onto the next slide where they read the next three rows of sub-text.
Public speaking and presentations are sadly a part of life. The skills should be taught at school, because we live in a competitive world. We should all be able to stand up and talk about what we know, but we shouldn’t have to waste our time with unnecessary events.
It took me 30+ years to gain that confidence, which I credit to my MBA course, where we had excellent group working (but more of that one later). People shouldn’t have to wait that long.
I know the theory – but I still can’t do the big audience. Max I’ve done? 20 or 30.
Here is a link, for when I finally learned a little confidence: My first CSQAG