Avoiding “Are we there yet?”; Issue #345 September 1, 2015

In a recent workshop, the participants asked how to deal with something that often puts them on edge early in their presentation. In their presentations to senior management, they found that the executives interrupt them with questions after only a few minutes. This often disrupts the flow of what they wanted to say and takes them in different directions than planned. They asked what could be done about it.

When I asked for more background and details on what was happening, I found out that the executives were asking about topics that the presenter was planning on addressing later. So it wasn’t that the presentation content was different from what the executives wanted. Were the executives at this organization just rude in interrupting the presenters? No, it wasn’t that.

When I had reviewed the sample presentations the participants had sent me, I actually wasn’t surprised at what the executives were doing. The problem was that the presenters did not include an agenda or map of the content in the presentation. Instead of giving the audience an outline of where the presentation was going and what topics would be addressed, the presenters just jumped into content. The executives didn’t know if their important questions would be answered, so they jumped in to make sure they got the information they needed.

The analogy I used to help the participants understand the anxiety they were causing for the executives was taking young children on a surprise car trip. If you have done this as a parent or remember back to this during your childhood, you will know how this turns out. You bundle the kids in the car and announce that you are going on a car trip to an exciting destination, but the end point is a surprise. The questions such as “Where are we going?” and, “Are we there yet?” start before you have even left the driveway. Not knowing about the journey causes anxiety and questions.

It is the same in presentations when the presenter doesn’t tell the audience where they are going and how they will get there. Without a clear goal and an agenda of steps along the journey, the audience is unsure if they want to take this journey to an unknown destination. Their response? Ask questions. In the case of executives who need certain information from a presenter, the questions are specifically about the topic they need to know about. They won’t wait to see if the presenter might address their topic, they want to know the answer.

By stating a goal and giving an agenda at the start of the presentation, you let the audience know what is coming up. They now have context for what will come and they know that their topic will be addressed during the presentation. The anxiety is reduced because it is no longer an unknown journey. This requires you to have planned your content in advance, not just grabbed slides from other files and hope that the audience figures it out. I suggest you use a GPS approach to planning your presentation as outlined in my book GPS for Presentations.

In planning your presentations, reduce the potential anxiety of the audience about the journey by starting with an outline of the journey. This will reduce the interruptions you get early in the presentation and help you deliver the important messages with the proper context and sequence.