How Bad Presentations are Like Flying East: Finding and Losing a Precious Commodity – Time

Sunsets are usually quick. From the time the bottom of the sun hits the horizon, it is just a couple minutes until it is gone.

But for me today, that transition took 45 minutes.sunset

I also found 3 extra hours in my day today. They cost a bit, and I’ll have to give them back in a few days. But I used them productively.

These two events are, in fact, connected and timely.

First – the connection. I am currently at 30,000 feet, flying cross-country from DC to Portland, OR. Four factors were at work when I took off – my departure time, the angle of the plane, the gradual nature of the ascent, and the westward direction of travel.

These factors aligned such that for the better part of an hour, the sun appeared to sit on the horizon like a lazy egg yolk. From my vantage point above the clouds, it was riveting.

So maybe I wasted a bit that time staring at the sunset, but the nature of westward travel across multiple time zones means I also gained three hours on the clock. A rare boon, for just the cost of a ticket on United.

Now, why is this timely?

Because I productively used those additional 3 hours to read Chris Anderson’s new book, “TED Talks”. It is really very good regarding what makes for great communication. Spot on, in fact – as you would expect from the gentleman who has curated TED and coached hundreds of speakers to that stage for the last 15 years.

Of the many lessons in the book, one that grabbed me the most was in the first few pages.

Anderson writes “If you have picked up this book just because you love the idea of strutting that stage and being a TED Talk star, inspiring audiences with your charisma, please, put it down right now. Instead, go and work on something that is worth sharing. Style without substance is awful.”

Style without substance is awful.

I have a rant I occasionally can’t resist spouting, about bad presentations…and how when you give bad talk, you’re taking an hour of someone’s life – often of many people’s lives – that they will never get back!

And driving this result is one of the worst sins – when someone gets up to talk and thinks they can razzle-dazzle their way through the time. Style without substance.

Bad presentations are like flying east – as an audience member, you might as well just set your watch forward an hour – because that hour has disappeared, and you have nothing to show for it.

You’ve all seen this – the “let me show you how smart I am by confusing you with jargon and indecipherably complex detail”, or the person clearly unprepared and thinking they can wing it and magically come up with something compelling in the moment, or most dangerous, the big personality, with all the funny jokes or crazy anecdotes, completely unrelated to the topic at hand.

Unfortunately, the fault is all our own – because not only do we tolerate these situations, but in the case of the big personality, we often reward them. As I write this, there are presenters getting standing ovations whose content will be forgotten 10 minutes after the crowd leaves the room. The crowd was entertained, but they actually received nothing of value.

Stop tolerating this. Fix it. Here’s how:

At the end of any talk or presentation, big or small, ask yourself:

  • Did I actually learn something useful?”
  • “Was my mind changed on a topic that is important?”
  • “Will I at least consider changing my behavior because of what was shared here?”

If the answer is No, go up the speaker who just used up those minutes of your life, and (gently) tell them: “I am not sure what I am supposed to take away from that.”

The truly oblivious ones will likely just chalk it up to a failing on your part, not theirs. But most will at least think twice as they prepare for the next time. Especially if we all begin calling out this behavior.

In the end, we’ll all benefit because we’ll all lose fewer hours to bad presentations.

Maybe you can use that time to sit back and enjoy a sunset.


Written by

Eli Murphy