Imagine you are in a room full of highly technical engineers. You are an employee of engineering Research Company that is presenting to a group of outside company engineers on various research topics that the engineering companies will be paying for. You present with a technical PowerPoint presentation and a wave of stress is travelling through your body. You have presented in this forum before and you expect some pointed questions, cynical remarks, sarcasm, and sometimes some playful humor. At the back of the room sit your peers, awaiting their turn to present.
I attended this meeting as one of the outside company engineers. The consultants who were presenting ranged in experience levels from a few years through to the PhD’s with an abundance of experience. The presentation skills ranged from people who were comfortable presenting, could remain calm during the question period and provide good answers, through to the other end of the scale where there were presenters scared to death, sounding like they were on the verge of breaking down, and couldn’t answer questions very well. Age and experience did not seem to be a factor. A few of the younger speakers coped quite well, and I suspect they had gained experience and training at college and other venues.
What can we learn from this?
1) Culture of helpfulness – As the presenters were challenged and questioned they occasionally “froze” trying to understand the technical question and also to try to answer it with adequate detail. I hate to see anyone put on the spot struggling to answer a question (I have been there too many times myself) and it made me feel good to hear the presenter peers at the back of the room “jumping in” to help clarify the intent of the question and to also help provide some additional information and answer it.
This is an excellent culture of employees who have an inherent instinct to help each other and make sure that they are all successful. This in turn makes sure the image of the research/consulting company is maintained. Imagine if these were employees who were working in a festering, conflict ridden workplace. Can you imagine the peers sitting in the back of the room smirking at the presenter “crashing and burning” up front and thinking to themselves, “glad its not me”. As an engineer in the audience being encouraged to spend my company’s money on research, how would I feel if the presenters were not able to answer questions? Maybe I would advise my company that we could put our limited resources elsewhere.
Exceptional workplaces have a strong focus on making sure employees have good communication skills, have a sense of balanced fun and respect, trust each other, and will do anything to help each other and advance the company.
2) Death by public speaking – The second visual I have from this meeting was a relatively young consultant presenting. It was an image I have seen before in different forums and it haunts me. The presenter appeared scared to death of speaking in front of an audience. He was nervously coughing and clearing his throat as if he had inhaled a mouthful liquid. His presentation was about 20 minutes long, and I have no doubt that it was a slow drowning. His coughing progressed to the extent that one of the audience engineers went outside and got him a bottle of water. As he went through his presentation his voice got more and more stressed and he sounded like he was on the verge of breaking down. During the question and answer period his peers helped him out, but I was very glad when he was finished.
From a workplace excellence perspective we should not allow our employees to “crash and burn” like this. It is totally avoidable. There are organizations such as Toastmasters International where you can become a good speaker in six to twelve months and an exceptional speaker if you stay longer. The cost for six months public speaking training is in the order of the price of a tank-full of gas for your car (~$40). I know many companies who send their employees to this organization to help them succeed. Find a club in your neighborhood at www.toastmasters.org
3) You have to laugh – The third visual I have from this meeting was an experienced presenter trying to get a research project video to work in the PowerPoint presentation. The research project documentation included a high speed video of a large test explosion, which would show the explosion flame running through a flammable vapor cloud and transitioning into a fearful explosion. Explosion videos are one of the highlights of the presentations and everyone waited in anticipation. This was an explosion where things did not go as planned, and it produced explosion effects that caused the research engineers to inadvertently provide audible expletives in the video soundtrack. The presenter spent a minute or two trying to get the video to work, but it was unsuccessful.
One of his peers shouted out from the back, “you will need to act out the explosion” then someone else shouted out, “can you do an interpretative dance?” The presenter had the character where he could take the humorous comments in his stride, and the room erupted in laughter. With the laughter in the room the failure of the video became inconsequential and the presentation was continued without it. What I learnt from this is the presenter’s peers knew that the humor was appropriate for that specific presenter. They knew that he had a humorous demeanor and would “play” with their comments. I am sure you will agree with me that the comments would not have been appropriate for the previously described “stressed” presenter.
Humor is a great tool to have in a meeting or presentation, but be careful that it does not cross the line and hurt someone. If there is a single person in the room that will be impacted negatively by humor, it is not worth it.