At a conference I attended earlier this fall that will go unnamed, I was struck by one presentation in particular. Not because it was good, mind you. But because it was horrendous -- and not for lack of quality content. The problem was that a management consultant, from a big name firm, decided to go up and show the audience how creative his graphics team could get with frameworks and 8-point fonts. It was the opposite of how strong keynote speakers present material. The sad part was that the content was actually quite good beneath the over complicated smarty-pants veneer. But I fear it was all lost on the audience, many of whom appeared to glaze over just as soon as the complexities began.
This experience taught me, above all else, that consultants are often some of the worst presenters outside of a small group setting -- and not for lack of speaking skills. But rather, they seem to not realize that traditional consulting slides (e.g., replete with take away arrows, flow charts, waterfalls, etc.) simply don't work when you're on stage in front of an audience, opposed to presenting in the office of a prospect or client.
Based on this experience, I thought I'd pull together a quick list of nine items -- all based on rules that the above-mentioned speaker violated -- that consultants need to keep in mind when crafting a presentation for a conference or non-client setting. While I'm sure this list is not complete, I hope that it goes at least some distance to ease the pain of conference attendees like me who have no interest in permanently damaging our eye site trying to make out ridiculous fonts and frameworks on the big screen. Without further adieu, when speaking at a conference, I'd strongly encourage all consultants to ban from their repertoire:
1) Frameworks that require more than 10 seconds of explanation
2) Slides with more than 300 words on them (1/4th this number is often ideal)
3) More than one take away arrow on a chart
4) Slides that can't stand on their own (without explanation)
5) Material that lower level analysts, consultants and managers obviously wrote but somehow failed to pass on the important details to the presenter
6) Tracker slides with fancy graphics (or even simple ones); note, a basic agenda is fine
7) Uses of "scare quotes" twice on a single slide -- let alone at all (e.g. "Lead Themes," "Shelf-centered collaboration")
8) Consultant Speak (e.g., "Smart Innovation") and jargon (e.g., "best practice", "industry standard", "robust")
9) Stories that speak too much to "projects" and "client engagements" they've been a part of (honestly, we don't want to hear about how you saved the world and flew 200,000 miles on Delta last quarter)
Hopefully consultants can see the sense in these basic rules and learn to make the presentations they give at conferences much more palatable. Some of this will require a change in thinking, however. After all, one of the reason so many firms embrace complex, wordy slides is that they feel a bit like Dickens. In other words, many still approach slides and presentations, in part, like they're getting paid by the word (after all, the more that's on paper, the more the client can see you've worked hard on their dime). But please, for all my fellow consultants in the audience, even if you believe in this logic -- and I hope you don't -- remember that when it comes to presenting at conferences, less really is more.