There are almost infinite posts in the blogosphere about how to give better presentations. If you want good ones, try www.PublicWords.com by Dr. Nick Morgan. Today, I’m dedicating this space not to giving presentations but instead to receiving them. While I would give most presenters at least a passing grade, I would fail most teams for their terrible behavior in consuming them. This post provides a disciplined approach you can use to enhance what you get out of a presentation.

I was inspired to write this by a session I facilitated in Texas last week. The two-day meeting was the second session of a strategic planning process—the session in which early versions of ideas are presented, debated, and then culled into a manageable portfolio of projects to be subjected to a fuller business case.

There were 11 presentations scheduled for the first day. The presenters were various senior people in the organization and the audience was their executive team. We used a very strict approach. Both presenters and participants agreed that the approach was key to making the session a success. What might have been the epitome of mind-numbingness was instead a really engaging and productive day. Here’s what we did.

How to Receive Presentations

Set Up for Success

Most teams just casually request a presentation and invest almost no effort into ensuring it hits the mark. (That could possibly explain why it seldom does!) The first secret to being a good audience is to be extremely clear about what you want to hear. If appropriate, provide a template so you get what you need out of the presentation. Ideally, have one member of the team responsible for reviewing the content and coaching the presenter before you waste anyone’s time on a presentation that isn’t what you needed.  Next, get the presentation document in advance and read it. Finally, get in the right mindset.  Remember that as much as you’re evaluating the ideas and the presenters, they’re evaluating you. Put your phone away. Close your laptop. Listen.

Listen Only

How often have you been part of an audience that interrupts the presenter about 2 minutes into the presentation and every 30 second thereafter? What starts as a clarifying question from one person is then hijacked by a second audience member, and suddenly the whole thing is off track. If you want an effective presentation, assign a tight but sufficient amount of time and bar all questions. I recommend 15-20 minutes where the presenter is given free rein without interjections from the audience (longer than 20 minutes and someone might spontaneously combust). You won’t believe the difference this makes.

Ask Questions for Understanding

At this point, most audiences unleash the pent up demand to hear their own voices and the pontificating begins. Don’t tolerate it. Once the presentation is complete, your next task is to ask questions of the presenter. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t start engaging with another audience member. Ask questions of the presenter only. Use open-ended questions to explore their thinking. Use closed questions to get them to converge and commit. The interaction should go between the presenter and the audience, not between audience members.

Discuss and Debate

Now! Now you can let lose with a torrent of ideas. Share data points that weren’t covered in the presentation. Ask questions and explore ‘what if’ scenarios. Put tension on the system if the discussion is skewed in one direction. Really have at it in service of the best decisions possible.

Move to Round 2

Once you have done as much as possible with the information available to you, stop. There’s no point in collecting anecdotes hoping that enough anecdotes will suffice as data—they won’t. Use the remaining time to formulate the next round of questions that need to be answered. Provide direction to the presenter if you want the same person to carry on with the next step. While you’re at it, share some feedback about how each presenter did and what you would like to see next time. For extra points, share feedback with the sponsor about how well he or she prepared the presenter for success.


Using this disciplined approach to consuming presentations provides a much better experience for all involved. First, the presentation actually delivers the information you need. Second, you get to hear the presentation they intended to give. Third, you demonstrate respect and improve the rapport among the group. Fourth, you minimize the pontificating and evidence-free opinion spurting. Finally, you move efficiently through a large amount of information in a relatively short period of time.

Try using this approach next time your team is listening to presentations. It will make all the difference. (Here’s a version you can print out and refer to.)

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Further Reading

Back to Basics Listening Drill

Wasted Time in Meeting

How to Go Faster

2 Responses to 5 steps for better presentations

  1. Pingback: How to handle someone who talks too much | 3coze

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