Presenting: Andy Goodman discusses why bad presentations happen to good causes on March 7.

We have all, at some point in our lives, found ourselves the unfortunate audience of a bad presentation. Whether it be a PowerPoint packed with text, a presenter reading directly from slides in a monotone, or simply an unwieldy length of time, poor presentation skills make it hard, if not impossible, for audience members to get much from the experience beyond frustration and exhaustion. Even the best ideas, most innovative proposals, and strongest action-plans can fall flat if delivered in this manner.

As co-founder and director of The Goodman Center, a communication and marketing firm that helps non-profits tell stories, Andy Goodman is well-versed in the stakes of presenting. The worst presentations can alienate clients and co-workers — while the best have the power to radically expand interest, deepen commitment, and even create a national movement.

Goodman will explore what makes excellent presentations stand out while others flop at the Cobblestone Creek Country Club Thursday, March 7, from 9 to 11 a.m. The event is sponsored by the Princeton Area Community Foundation. Visit www.pacf.org.

Bad presentations tend to go so poorly for several reasons, Goodman says. First, reading slides aloud pretty instantly makes an audience lose attention. Presenters should also avoid overloading audiences with information — whether this means the presentation lasts too long, or too much is crammed in too little time, audiences can’t digest when they feel bombarded and lost. Relatedly, when presenters don’t incorporate the chance to participate, audiences feel talked at and often zone out. Goodman recalls one frustrated audience member, responding to a survey Goodman collected in researching good and bad presentation techniques, powerfully summing this up by writing, “we are not empty vessel to be filled up with your information — we want to talk, we need to digest.”

On the flip side, exceptional presentations tend to stand out for three major reasons. First off, when presenters include audience interaction, they help listeners absorb, think critically, and stay alert throughout a presentation.

Secondly, clarity is crucial — “It’s important that a presentation is not just a data dump, unloading everything I know about the subject and saying, now you figure it out,” Goodman explains. “The presenter should have taken the time to have a thesis, a clear argument to back it up, and an action plan to follow-up.”

Finally, a presenter’s enthusiasm level is contagious — passion inspires the audience to feel similarly about the subject. Goodman notes the Dos and Don’ts are consistent — his research shows that audience participation is the most desired element of good presentations, while the lack of it is a problem.

Goodman has spent the last three decades telling stories, but not always for the non-profit world. Goodman grew up wanting to write for television, and after a few years in advertising and radio he moved his family to L.A. and found work writing for sitcoms “Dinosaurs” and “The Nanny.” Despite realizing big ambitions, he felt unsatisfied.

“I had a chance to fulfill my dream but I had that experience of, okay, I’m doing it, it’s lucrative, but it didn’t feel meaningful,” he explains. One day he received a letter from a friend about a position at the Environmental Media Association, an organization aimed at lobbying television and film writers to incorporate environmental messages in their plot lines. (“Product placement for the environment,” Goodman quips.)

He took the job and spent five years at EMA, building deep roots in the public interest world. He began to realize his skill set could be helpful in this new setting. “What I found was, first, this is where all the nice people are, and they are all highly educated and passionate about what they do, but nobody taught them to be professional communicators,” Goodman says. In 1998 he opened his own firm, the Goodman Center in Los Angeles, to help public interest organizations communicate more effectively.

As part of his work at the Goodman Center, he listened to hundreds of presentations — and at some point, he realized what an important, and often blundered, aspect of the non-profit sector these were.“As I started circulating, I watched countless presentations, and after the mind-numbing experience of watching slide after slide come up, I thought, somebody should do something about this.” Goodman decided to write an e-book, “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.”

Although texts offering presentation Dos and Don’ts exist, Goodman’s is unique in its use of audience research. Goodman conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people across North America on their experiences listening to good and bad presentations — and then used this information to write analytically about trends in what audiences like and dislike. The e-book is available for free online and can be accessed on Goodman’s website, www.thegoodmancenter.com, in the “resources” tab.

One of Goodman’s biggest takeaways from his research is that adults learn differently than children do and presenters ought to take this into account. Goodman used to begin his presentations with abstract concepts and lead these into specific applications — but adults learn the exact opposite way. “If you’ve ever had someone try to teach you how to play a card game, when someone tries to explain the rules, it’s usually confusing,” Goodman says. “So you say, ‘let’s play a few rounds and I’ll figure it out as we go along.’”

Similarly, Goodman has learned to start presentations with real-life, tangible applications, and develop general rules from these examples. “If I just give you a rule, it’s hard to understand because there is no specifics or basis,” Goodman says. “Instead, I have you deconstruct a story to understand the pattern and architecture, and then come up with the rule from there.”

Goodman notes the best presentations don’t have to set their sights on just convincing colleagues, but can hope for much more. He calls Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” an example of the power of an exceptional presentation, and the “best use of the form.” The 2006 documentary was “essentially him doing a slide-show in front of an audience,” Goodman notes.

After the movie Gore launched the Climate Reality Project, an organization that aims to educate the public on the environment by distributing Gore’s slides and training individuals how to give his slideshow. This exceptional slide-show “launched a movement,” Goodman observes. With the right techniques, there’s no reason more presentations can’t aim to do the same.

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