Constructive Criticism: “How Can I Say This Nicely?”

Criticism Of An Engineering Presentation
Criticism Of An Engineering Presentation

Last week I was invited to sit in on two sets of presentations by junior members of a very large telecommunication firm’s IT department. They are part of a management training program and the program’s instructors asked me to visit because they had had some guest presenters who were *really* bad. The hope was that I could provide immediate feedback for the teams that presented as well as things to avoid for the teams that had yet to present. Sounded fair enough, eh?

During the presentations I wrote notes like a madman. Ten separate engineers presented material and I filled about seven pages of a notebook with comments and ideas. To keep things brief, let me share with you the top three things that I noticed:

1. Who You Talking To?: Each and every one of the presenters spent a lot of their “stage time” with their bodies pointed towards the projection screen and actually talked to the screen instead of the audience. This happens way too often when you use PowerPoint to create an outline of you speech and end up reading it off of the screen.

Solution: The correct way to present material is to make sure that you always face your audience. The slides are there to reinforce your verbal message — you should spend no time staring at them. Instead, have a conversation with your audience and let us choose if we want to look at you or your slide.

2. Here? There? Over There?: Just where to stand was a major problem for each presenter. There was a lectern on the stage (def: a lectern is big and goes all the way down to the floor, a podium is shorter and generally sits on a table. They both hold a speaker’s notes) and nobody seemed to know what to do with it. Some stood behind it, some stood off to its side, and some completely ignored it. They all moved from behind it to in front of it and back during their presentations. The end result was that this turned out to be a distraction to everyone who was watching the presentations.

Solution:: Make a decision before you start to speak — in front of the lectern or behind it. Once you make this decision, stick with it. Neither decision is right or wrong, only alternating between the two positions is wrong because it becomes distracting.

3. Handy Hands: Hands sure are nice to have. Except when you are presenting to a group. Then the difficult question of what to do with your hands when you aren’t making a gesture comes up. Each of the 10 engineers who presented did something different with their hands: in the pockets, behind the back, crossed in front, praying that they don’t get kicked in the groin, etc. What this ended up doing is once again distracting the audience as we watched the speaker try to determine with what to do with their hands.

Solution: When not using them as a part of your speech, let your hands drop to your sides and let them dangle there. This sounds soooo easy; however, it really is quite difficult to do. If you spend time practicing talking in front of a mirror at home, you’ll be able to catch yourself doing “handy” things and can quickly put a stop to it.

Ok, that’s it for now. I’ve got much more to share. Let me know if you’re interested in learning from the faults of others and I can post it.

7 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism: “How Can I Say This Nicely?””

  1. From a professional speakers speakers point of view, I must agree on most points.
    If you are using power point you should have your laptop or monitor in front of you to make sure you are on the correct slide. I never look at the screen unless I am directing the audience to a specific on the slide. The use or should I say misuse of powerpoint is an entirely different subject that every speaker should look at.

    Get rid of the podium all together or put it off to the side. If you need to read your speech you aren’t prepared to deliver it. Know your stuff so well, you can do it heart. If not, one day the powerpoint will fail, your laptop will fail or your notes will be misplaced and when that happens and your speech fails, you are finished.

    • Bob: I agree with you on the PowerPoint point (is that the right way to say it?). The trick is to keep hitting the (or whatever) key on the laptop enough times to get the image to display on BOTH the big screen and the laptop. If you do this, then you may never have to turn around and look at the screen during your presentation.

      I’m a bit torn on the getting rid of the podium all together. Yes, I prefer to walk around on stage; however, I know many good speakers who really need the safety and security that the podium offers. I guess it’s one of those personal preference things…

  2. Jim,

    I agree with Bob on the lectern dilemma. Professional speakers don’t need them, as many (including me) prefer to have the freedom to move around the platform.

    Less experienced speakers tend to use them as a crutch, and end up reading when they really don’t need to, just because the notes are there. I’ve also noticed the “white knuckle” syndrome, where they grip the edges of the lectern so tightly it’s a wonder they can unhook themselves at the end of the presentation!

    All in all, I say ditch the darn thing — I always do, even if it means asking the facilities people to take it away.

    Hope this helps.

    • Helen: I fully agree with you. Where I seem to get tied up is when I show up to give a speech all ready to roam over the stage and discover that there is a lectern and that’s where the only mic is! I think that we all have to know how to use this scenario when we get stuck with it!

      Otherwise, I too think that all lectures should be ditched!

      • I understand that point Jim, if that is the only mic you don’t have much of a choice That bothers me because I feel I am chained to the podium and I cannot be as effective without the freedom of a wireless or at least hand held mic. One time was all it took for me to check that logistic before hand so I can make other arrangements.

        Good discussion.

      • I love this thread and appreciate all the observations and insight. I don’t use a podium or lecturn either. It feels like I am hiding behind a post. I just came back from a large conference where I was one of many speakers. I dropped in on several other presentations and was really surprised to see a lot of “professional speakers” we really didn’t know what they were doing. One speaker actually READ her own life story to the audience. Another was a very small and petite woman whose head barely reached the top of the podium. The podium was also in the far left corner and honestly, she seemed miles away and completely out of touch with her audience. Pity, has she had a great message. As for microphones, I always confirm what the audio set up will be and request a lavalier microphone. I like to check the room in advance to see the set up. I use power point with a remote and like to walk up and down the aisle and among the audience and invite participation. If I’m on a stage, I may stand next to the podium at the beginning and then step off the stage or lean down to talk to people sitting near the stage. As for hands, I never really think about them. I’m very expressive and use hand gestures. Never turn your back on the ocean or an audience! Best, Marilyn

        • Marilyn: Wow – it sure sounds like you have your presenting act together! If you can get a lavalier mic then you’ve solved the podium / lecturn problem once and for all.

          One point that you didn’t bring up is where to stand on the stage if you CAN roam around. Although you can go just about anywhere, I was talking with a videographer who reminded me that moving to the sides of the stage and too far front or back will palace you in the shadows. He said that staying in the center, just a bit back from the front of the stage is where you will really “shine”.


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