I have just participated in an innovation projects’ evaluation committee, an exercise in which 12 candidate solutions competed to win European funds destined to extend their activity for 1 year. Of the 12, only 5 projects finally had access to money, so I insist: they were competing.
Leaving aside the innovation degree of the proposals, the experience of being on the committee has also been enriching for me as an observer of the public communication skills of our European researchers. Each project was orally defended by its representative, who had 10 minutes in front of the committee.
Well planned and used, 10 minutes of presentation can lead us to success. If you do not believe me, go ask the entrepreneurial community, which usually has to cope with the 3 minutes, when not just 1, of the famous and fearsome elevator pitch.
A first personal and exasperating conclusion of the experience: we continue to present in public without attending to the basics, and lately I see it more in the academic-scientific settings. As if it had not to do with them. We have resources, books, training, videos, communication coaches … but there seems to be no way! Or maybe there is a way, but there is no will, because it could also be that the importance of presenting your work well is still undervalued by some.
Okay, not all of us have to showcase the speaking and visual design levels of TED Talks; it really is not necessary. But some minimums do seem essential to me, especially if there are euros at stake which could make your project advance.
What do I mean by paying attention to the basics of the basics? I will reduce it here to 2 points, for me those that were most blatant from this recent experience with the 12 projects we evaluated.
First: if you have only 10 minutes to convince a committee that your solution deserves to be financed, do not spend the first 7 talking about “the baby” -read here the project-, how special it is and how well you take care of it as no one else would, and then rush the last 3 minutes to defend in a hurry the real benefits that you will bring to society and how you are going to use the money allocated to do something sustainable with your project. The presentation’s objective will not be met.
My proposal is that you carefully keep the right proportion between key messages and time when you have an audience which will take decisions based on what you say. Ask yourself who that audience is and what they should really take from your presentation, and from there prepare and decide what to emphasize, based on what is expected of you as a spokesperson. The same obviously works for a 3-minute elevator pitch, as you will see endlessly repeated in the extensive digital literature that exists on the subject.
In this case, the committee members were interested in knowing what impact the project would have and if it would generate wealth in the broad sense of the term. We didn’t need to hear all the details and wonders of the research behind it. And it wasn’t out of contempt or whim that it was so, but instead because our mandate was to evaluate in 10 minutes if that specific project was focused to generate real and tangible innovation in the market society as to continue financing it.
Second, and here I make a call to all communication skills trainers and visual designers around the world: please let’s unite in stopping once and for all the impossible slides that overwhelm our understanding as an audience and turn off the brightness of the speaker and his work without any mercy!!! The academic and scientific community needs us. It cannot be that, after so many years evangelizing on this subject, we are still suffering like this.
For example, one of the projects, highly relevant in its scientific content and potential for disruptive innovation, sacrificed itself already in minute 3 of the exhibition because of a slide that was surely well-intentioned but perversely designed. It presented a 9-square grid, in which each square contained infinite lists of unintelligible things -the famous bullet points-, which the speaker also described square by square over the same slide. I tried to follow her, really, but it was impossible. My neurons instinctively went off to search for less abrupt landscapes.
I propose to take great care of visuals and remember that the “less is more” rule always applies. If a slide can be captured in 3 seconds, we are fine. Because you know what I’m talking about: as an audience, it causes an exhausting schizophrenia trying to listen to the person who presents at the same time that you want to decipher so much picture and so much listing.
Let the slides accompany your speech rather than sabotaging it. We want to have your gaze and listen to you carefully. We want to easily connect with your tone, your energy and your smile. You are the star, that’s why you came and that’s why we give you our attention, and here the slides are really secondary in most cases. And precisely because we do not want to give them excessive prominence, we must not neglect them.
So far with this quick rescue of two basics of public speaking, that some audiences around the world are crying out for.