Substance v Drama

by: David McDermott

Working in Presentation Skills coaching and training a key question I’m often asked is, "Is content or delivery more important?"


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Working in Presentation Skills coaching and training a key question I’m often asked is:
Is content or delivery more important?
To answer this question it is important to understand how audiences select at beauty parades. During our research we constantly ask the question: “what do the winners do to merit selection”? It is surprising how often we are told that it is easier to “eliminate the losers”. Personally, I find this easy to understand.
Imagine if you were interviewing some job applicants to come and work in your team. If one of those applicants did or said something you didn’t like, you would simply select one of the other candidates. Exactly the same things happen at a beauty parade.
Bottom line is that the answer to the question is not quite so simple. In order to avoid being eliminated at a beauty parade you have to get everything right. That includes content, delivery, structure, strategy, visuals, teamwork and question and answer.
Having said this, in eighteen years working on competitive pitches I know of only one occasion where someone was eliminated for poor delivery (head down, talking into their pitch books with no eye contact). It is more often the case that the reason for elimination is irrelevant content and poor answers to questions.
I would also like to make two important points here:
1. Many presentation skills trainers and coaches place more emphasis on delivery because they simply don’t know how to give advice on content.
2. Many presentation skills trainers and coaches give bad advice on delivery!
I would therefore like to address both these issues.
Many presenters feel a need to start a pitch with the company history. “We were founded in 1905, we have offices all over the world” and so on.... This is a big turn off for the audience.
Most of the time the pitch team are invited to the beauty parade because they are deemed capable of doing the job. Therefore the focus of the pitch should be more about what they are going to do for the client rather than talking about themselves.
Even if you find yourself in a position where you are pitching for business and the prospective client does not know that much about you, you should be selective about presenting your company credentials.
Select the features of your company that are directly relevant to the pitch and relate them to the audience in a meaningful way. There is absolutely no point in telling your audience that you have offices all over the world if the nature of the mandate is UK centric. And remember, Barings was the oldest merchant bank in Britain, that fact did not save their reputation.
Pitches need a clear strategy with relevant, engaging, credible content including clear messages. The problem is that this is often perceived as very subjective and presentation skills trainers hide behind this. They assume that if a presenter is passionate that their content is good. This is certainly not the case.
To prove this point about too much bad advice I recall three stories.
Hands up baby hands up
Recently, I was sitting in a restaurant in London waiting for my niece to arrive. She is on a graduate programme with a law firm. I was surprised when she walked with purpose into the restaurant and straight over to our table.
She avoided the usual pleasantries and said, “David, you know all about presentations”. “Yes?” I replied, rather surprised at her concerned approach. She waved her hands around in the air and said, “so what do I do with these then”?
I told her she was a naturally expressive type and should therefore be natural, keeping them visible and using them to make gestures to reinforce her spoken word. “Thank you”, she replied. “I was told on a training course today that I should keep them by my side in case they become a distraction”. In the end she became so focused on her hands and keeping them still she “…couldn’t speak”.
An extensive study of the blind by Dr Jana Iverson of Indiana University proved that the gestures we use when we speak are not random wavings of the hand, but are systematically related to what a speaker is saying and thinking. So, relax your hands and do what you do naturally when in conversation.
What’s with the big pause?
On another occasion I went back to my hometown in Scotland and was enjoying a night out with some old friends. One of them, Joe, told me he had recently attended a two-day Presentation Skills course with his company. I was naturally curious and asked him what he learned. “The most important thing that I learned was…”
After about eight seconds or so he completed his sentence, “to PAUSE”. We all laughed, as his performance was rather impressive, especially as it is often very difficult to get a word in when Joe is around.
When I asked him what else he learned I was astonished to hear that this was pretty much all he took away from two days. He went on at great length about the importance of pausing before turning a page (Joe works in financial services on some complex products and does all his pitches sitting down), pausing to turn the page, pausing to think, and pausing to absorb. When I asked him how all this felt he said, “robotic”.
While it is important to pause and keep eye contact with your audience, I question the merit in a presenter having to think too much about the various pauses at the expense of their content.
I always advise my clients to pause and maintain contact when they have made an important point. Joe’s objective however, for attending the course was to learn how to explain complex products to less sophisticated audiences and no number of pauses will achieve this.
Bottom line for me is anything that comes over as unnatural or robotic is not a good thing.
Alas poor Yorick
The final story I recall vividly was helping a client with a pitch. At first they were a bit reserved and closed but warmed to me when I showed them how to engage their audience, emphasise their USP’s, make them relevant to the audiences’ objectives and make their content more credible .
When they were about to run through their pitch for the final time I gave them some tips on team work, emphasising the importance of body language, even when they were not speaking and delivery, mainly pace and eye contact.
When we finished the session they told me they were really pleased that I helped them with structure, strategy and content as well as delivery as they had had a bad experience on a previous training programme.
This of course is guaranteed to get my curiosity level high, so I asked them about it. They explained they were told previously that every pitch is a “performance”; you have to “act” out that pitch. They were then dressed as Shakespearian characters and had to shout out their lines as if on stage in a large auditorium.
At best this type of approach can be a bit of fun. At worst this approach will put people out of their comfort zones unnecessarily as they will not feel natural. Any reserved, serious, analytical types will quickly revert to type really quickly.
So, be yourself. This is what the audience want to see. Also, think of the implications of your audience buying into an act. Will you keep this up every time you see them?
Content and delivery are both important. I find that most “delivery “ issues like pace, fidgeting and eye contact can be corrected quickly. A deep understanding of persuasive presentation strategies, how to package content in a relevant, credible and engaging way and how to answer difficult questions is where the emphasis should go.
As a concluding thought I was once posed the question (in a “told you so” way), “80% of communication is non-verbal, what do you say to that?” I replied, tongue firmly in cheek, “I hear what you say and understand that, now can you communicate that fact to me non-verbally!”

Author Details

David McDermott