Brilliant Presentation

Friday, May 8th, 2009 0 comments

brilliant-presentation-thumbBrilliant Presentation by Richard Hall

Brilliant Presentation is published by Pearson (who also own the Financial Times), and prominently displayed at airport and railway bookshops across the UK. It has sold well, and no doubt been read by many an executive. Yet, while full of attractive prose and colourful anecdotes, the book is poorly structured, repetitive, shallow, and contains little that is new or insightful. This is precisely the sort of book on presentations that is widely read, and perhaps this explains why so many people deliver not brilliant, but tedious, presentations.

Brilliant Presentation attempts to move presenters on the journey towards brilliance. Brilliant presenters are viewed as those with a ‘deep transcendental knowledge’; an all consuming passion for their subjects, the ability to tell stories in simple language, while making these stories seem fresh, and a sense of pace and control in delivery. Presentations are mostly seen as acts of theatre – and Hall has in mind the ‘ballroom’ or ‘keynote’ presentation in most of what he writes. Speakers on the after-dinner circuit are cited as examples.

This book is targeted more at the want-to-be business guru than the improving sales presenter. For Hall, presenters have control of their own material – that is, they decide what they want to say. Corporate objectives should be considered (‘judge a presentation not by the applause but by the reviews… win the business’), but no thought is given to the fact that many, many, presenters use material they have been given by others (e.g. the Global Marketing Department).

Approach

Hall proposes that presentations should:

  1. Be in context – crafted for each audience and each occasion
  2. Tell a story
  3. Use facts to provide ‘colour’
  4. Use high-quality visuals or none at all, and
  5. Be performed with pace and power.

Context

‘If you don’t know why you are doing a presentation, where you are doing it, when you are doing it, to whom you are doing it, what the state of the political or commercial climate is, what the audience knows already and what they expect then expect to fail’. A presenter should do research into the event they are speaking at, the schedule for the day, the mood, the audience, and so on. Hall also suggests that part of understanding the context of a presentation is being aware of the day’s news, and even being aware of one’s own mood. Hall is suggesting that a presentation might need to be adapted right up until the moment it is delivered.

Story and Colour

Of Hall’s five parts of a brilliant presentation, two overlap – the need to use stories and the need for those stories to use ‘colour’ to bring them to life. Indeed, when explaining what kind of stories to tell, Hall makes the point that stories should ‘fire the imagination’, and use first person anecdotes. These two are what adding colour to stories is – as Hall later explains. Hall’s five parts of a brilliant presentation can usefully be reduced to four.
Stories should be written with a clear end in mind, and be summarised at the start. Structure should be simple – perhaps in three parts. To make stories interesting, they should be fresh and creative, and Hall suggests things like reading widely and working at breakfast time to get creativity flowing, in order to find material to add colour.

Visuals

Hall makes the important point that ‘if you have no visual aids you have made the decision to make you yourself the illustration’. While poor visuals ‘slow everything down’, the brilliant presenter should ‘get trained and experienced people to finish off [their] visuals’ for greater impact.

For Hall, visual aids should have fewer words, fewer slides, and sometimes impactful ‘single word slides’. Pictures can be ‘useful, as a picture is worth 10,000 words. But it has to be the right picture’.

Hall gives an example of what he considers best practice in slide design in chapter 10 of Brilliant Presentations. The problem? The slides he shows aren’t effective. They are professionally designed, but the meaning is all still conveyed by text. The slides are still self-explanatory. Images, far from conveying real meaning, are gratuitous and distracting. (Hall’s slides contain images of lemons – ‘to give it vitamin C, where ‘C’ stands for communication’.) All the meaning is in the text, and the text is still, essentially, a collection of bullet points. Pretty bullet points, but none-the-less, easily readable and understandable by any audience member, without the presenter. So why listen to the presenter?

In his chapter on PowerPoint, Hall gives the awfully outdated advice to ‘not use more than five bullet points or thirty words a slide except for handouts’. Fonts should be selected with care – ‘Ariel [sic] and Times Roman are pretty well foolproof’. In the context of the sentence, the spelling mistake is amusing, and ought to have been picked up by a publisher with Pearson’s resources. This book feels very much like it was written to cash in on a hungry market, rather than being any sort of labour-of-love. It’s on the shelves, and people buy it. But better books are available.

Performance

Presenters should be themselves, work on their voice, develop stage presence, look right, be dramatic, be dynamic – the advice comes thick-and-fast. The problem is that most presenters know these things to be important, but scatter-gun advice can end up being unhelpful. Probably the single most memorable bit of advice is to get a voice coach. By saying too much, this book ends up saying little.

Should You Read It?

Brilliant Presentations is poorly structured – both within and between chapters, making it hard to follow. For example, Chapter 4 – on context – talks extensively about the need to understand the audience. But then Chapter 11 ‘Really Understanding Your Audience’ is, of course, on a similar topic. The same material is handled in two places, in different ways. This doesn’t make the book easy to follow.

Individual chapters in the book are also poorly constructed. A large part of the material in the book is presented outside the main narrative – as lists of do’s and don’ts. In some chapters, there are more pages of do’s and don’ts than of the main body of text. Summaries at the end of each chapter sometimes relate to the main body, sometimes to the do’s and don’ts, and sometimes to neither. The book gives the impression of having been written as 1000s of small parts, with no successful organising principle. Hall does suggest a five-stage approach to brilliant presentations, but then chapters 9-16 seem to sit entirely outside this framework, and the five stages are really four in any case.

This book contains some great material, and some wonderfully pithy writing in places – but one comes away with a feeling of having read much and gained little. There is good advice, but, ironically, the structure is off, there’s no clear story, too much extraneous material, and the only examples of visual aids are distinctly unimpressive.

Viewed from above, Hall’s message comes down to this – A brilliant presentation must start with an understanding of setting, have an effective message (based on colourful yet simple stories), should be accompanied by impressive visuals (or no visuals), and must be delivered well. True. But perhaps somewhat obvious? Once context is understood, the message, visuals, and delivery of a presentation are all that is left. With little clear overarching narrative, putting Hall’s advice into practice is challenging. Large lists aren’t easy to remember – which is exactly why books like this, and many presentations, aren’t as successful as they could be.

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