15 Seconds to a Better Presentation

I was doing a lot of reading last night… Another article I came across was published on Inc.com and was written by Geoffrey James.  The article is all about first impressions and how to maximize that little bit of time (the article cites 15 seconds) that you have to grab an audience’s attention.  The information in this article is great for training programs, business presentations, and even meetings.  I’m certainly going to try these suggestions for my next presentation.

I’ve included the article below.

15 Seconds to a Better Presentation

These four simple rules will help ensure that your audience sits up and pays attention.

It takes an audience about 15 seconds (at most) to decide whether your presentation is worth their attention. Fritter away those fifteen seconds and your audience will either mentally check out or pull out their phones to start texting.

Here’s how to begin a presentation so that your audience really sits up and takes notice.

1. Have somebody else introduce you.

Don’t waste time explaining who you are and why you’re there. Write a short (100 word) bio and a short statement (50 words) of what you’ll be talking about. If you were invited to speak, have whoever invited you read this information to the audience. If you called the meeting yourself, put that information in the invite.

2. Do not tell a “warm-up” joke.

I have no idea how the “warm-up joke” became part of conventional business wisdom. Most of the time, the “joke” consists a weak attempt at situational humor (like “why are these meetings always on Monday?”) that merely communicates that you’re nervous and unsure of yourself. The rest of the time, the “joke” is a long story with an obvious punch line that tries everyone’s patience.

3. Do not begin with “background.”

Many presentations begin with a corporate background that’s intended to build credibility. (Example: “Our company has 100 years of expertise!”) The problem here is that at the start of a presentation nobody cares about your company. You’re asking them to translate your background information into something that’s meaningful to them and their business. Why should they bother?

4. Open with a startling and relevant fact.

To get an audience focused on what you’re going to tell them, you must first break through the “mental noise” that causes their attention to waver. This is best accomplished by a slide showing a fact that is new to the audience and important enough to capture their attention. Build the rest of your presentation to answer the business questions that this initial fact has raised in their minds.

Here are two samples presentations to help explain these points:


“Hi, I’m John Doe from Acme and I’ve been working in the widget industry for 20 years. And boy, has it been an exiting time (just kidding!) Acme is the industry leader in widgets with over a million satisfied customers!! I’m here today to talk to you about how we can help you save big money on your purchases of high quality widgets.”


“Yes, one million dollars.” (Pause.) “That’s how much money you’re losing every year because of widget failure. Fortunately, there IS a better way and I’m going to explain how you can easily save that money rather than waste it.”

Needless to say, the slides in the above example are simplistic. The “better” example could probably be made more visually rich, perhaps with an illustration of money going down a drain (along with the $1m).

What’s important here is that you realize why the surprising and relevant first slide is far more likely to capture the audience’s attention than the typical rambling intro.

Please note that the “startling and relevant” fact need not be an attempt to generate fear.  The fact could just as easily be about possible opportunity, the achievement of a long held goal, or something else that inspires. As long as it’s surprising and relevant, the audience will listen.

It’s about the customer, stupid!

Yesterday I received my very first issue of Training Magazine in the mail.  After over 16 years as a training professional, I’m really not sure why I never read Training before – but I’m glad I started.  Right off the bat I was quite pleased with what I was reading.  Like many trade magazines, the edition opens with a letter from the editor.  Lorri Freifeld, the editor in chief of Training, does just that.  Her editorial is titled ‘Ask and You Shall Receive’, and includes an example from training professional Michael Marr, who mentions that training folks have a tendency to agree to developing and delivering training without out determining the true need.  Lorri expands on this by illustrating the simple process of going to a coffee shop.  They don’t just hand you a cup of coffee when you go in (well they do maybe if you are a regular there), instead they ask you what you would like.  As trainers we must always keep our finger on the pulse of the needs of the customers.

I’ve blogged previously about the necessity of conducting training needs assessments and how critical they are to learner outcomes.  Yes, sometimes the need seems very apparent, and you may be right, but peel back the layers of this anyway just to make sure.  Not only does this give you the opportunity to verify the purported need, but it will also give you insight into the driving forces behind that need – which may lend itself well as fodder for training content.  You may be surprised to find that the issue is not training related at all, but rather a fault in the process or equipment.   Remember, training is the greatest example of the ‘garbage in – garbage out’ theory.  If you don’t invest your time, energy, and resources into making a quality product that meets needs, then you are simply wasting the time, energy, and resources – and in this economy, more than ever, we can’t afford to waste those things.

Find Out What You Need

As mentioned in previous posts, I am, by trade, a trainer.  Many of those years have been in the realm of public safety and emergency management, but I’ve had the opportunity to apply my trade to a few other areas as well.  Quite possibly the most important things I’ve learned, both by training as well as  experience, is the necessity of a needs assessment.  A needs assessment, as defined by The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning & Performance is “a systematic study or survey of an organization for the purpose of making recommendations, and is often employed … to get to the cause of a performance problem.”  This definition is on page three of the book, by the way.  It’s that important.

In training and other professions we do needs assessments all the time; some formal, many informal.  So informal, in fact, that oftentimes we don’t realize we’re doing them.  I’m big on common sense and in trusting professionals, but I think this oft lackadaisical approach leads to incomplete and sometimes shoddy results – not where we want to be as professionals.

In the instance of doing a training needs assessment of an organization, one needs to be certain to assess both internally and externally.  One internal focus, obviously is the employees themselves.  First, we look at the tasks – what do they do, how do they do it, and how well do they actually do it (aka actual outcome).  We compare this to expectations the performance expectations (which, ideally, are documented).  The gap between actual outcome and expected outcome is, usually, a training need.  These would translate to what I call Tier I training needs – those necessary to do business.

To digress a bit, here’s where a trainer often times becomes an organizational development consultant.  Likely, the processes a company performs haven’t been looked at in years, with layers of policy and procedure added every time a problem was identified.  The trainer, upon examination, may find that the process itself is faulty or outdated, which wouldn’t be a performance deficiency of the employees.  These types of findings should be noted to management immediately.

Still looking internally, the trainer also needs to look at the wants and desires, in terms of training, of both management and the employees.  Management may have training they want applied to all employees (by the way, this is worth analyzing, as often times something like this is ‘a good idea’ vs something identified by way of a needs assessment’) and the employees themselves (or their union) may want to incorporate training to allow for development, career paths, etc.  These are all certainly viable candidates for Tier II training needs – those that aid the organization.

A good needs assessment must also look externally as well.  The Tier I external factor would be safety and regulatory requirements – i.e. the legal things that must be done, such as OSHA training.  External Tier II factors would be non-required industry standards.  These are things usually obtained by way of certifications, conferences, etc.  While they aren’t necessary, they can help the company’s resume and aid in keeping the company near the head of their industry.  So often do we see these as some of the only trainings that employees receive, which is very frustrating.  These are typically rather expensive (especially when you factor in lost productivity and travel), are not focused (at least on the needs of the employer), and the ‘training’ received is usually not shared at all with the employer.

Needs assessments are certainly applied in other areas.  In emergency planning we do things like a hazard analysis, a vulnerability assessement and a capabilities assessment to determine preparedness needs.  In emergency response we do a situational assessment to determine what is needed to resolve the incident – often times over and over again, as these needs change as the scope of the incident changes.  In disaster recovery we analyze the needs of victims and survivors so we can provide the best services to them.  Needs assessments are vital to many professions and fields of practice.  It seems we’ve lost the quality of services that managers and customers expect.  I feel that much of this is related to people being lazy, not taking pride in what they do, and taking short cuts in their work.  If you short cut a needs assessment, you cut short your potential.  Do it right and start off your whole process with the right information to do the job right.

My top business books

After finishing the latest Nancy Duarte book, Persuasive Presentations (read my blog post on it), I did a bit of rearranging of the book shelf in my office.  I have lots of books… LOTS of books.  Sadly, there is only room for one book shelf in my office.  This keeps my top reference books handy – mostly on the topics of business management, training, and emergency management.  I actually get asked, on occasion, to provide a book recommendation in one of these subject areas.  So, in the event that you might be interested, here are my top business-oriented books, with some commentary.

The Baldrige Guide to Executive Manners – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referenced this book.  It’s a wealth of information for anyone in business or government.  It contains everything from common cultural issues, dress codes, communication nuances, and seating at events.  When I first got it, I actually read through it (not word for word!) cover to cover – which is really the best way to familiarize yourself with what’s in it.  It is a touch dated, but largely etiquette and protocol don’t change much.

Oh to have a library this beautiful!!!!

Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss – Dr. Weiss is a consulting genius, pure and simple.  The man has been doing it successfully for a very long time.  So successfully, that the skills he developed and knowledge he gained in doing it, he shares with others through a multitude of books, speaking engagements, his website, and other venues.  If you are looking to get into consulting work, no matter what it might be, this is the foundational book you need to help you lay out how you will structure your business and interact with clients.  I’ve read some of this more focused books as well.

Flawless Execution by James Murphy – Jim Murphy is a consultant who has brought what he learned in a successful career as a fighter pilot to the

corporate world.  He has built a company around these principles, incorporating the sexy environment of flight suites and pilot lingo, to engage businesses and help them become more successful.  It’s a pretty straight forward read, actually using concepts similar to the Incident Command System (ICS) that we use in Emergency Management, to identify goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics to stay focused and accomplish tasks.

The 360 Degree Leader by John Maxwell – In my mind, no business reference list is complete without John Maxwell.  This is just one of several of his books that I own, but I feel it is by far the best.  Maxwell illustrates from every angle how anyone within an organization is a leader and can exercise influence.  You don’t have to be ‘in charge’ to lead.  Maxwell always provides external references through his website which have great tools to help you assess your capabilities.

Guide to Managerial Communication by Mary Munter – Another book which I have referenced time and again.  It’s in its 9th edition now… mine is the fourth edition and the info on Amazon indicates that it’s been updated to include more contemporary info.  It’s one of the few college texts that I ever kept.  It covers a variety of communication issues, writing design and style, a bit of info on presentations, and even some formats for memos and letters.  Very handy.

That’s my short list on business reads.  I’ll likely post lists on training books as well as emergency management books sometime in the future.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”  ― Groucho Marx

The Human Factor

While most of my blog is focused on emergency management, it is after all my blog.  So I’m taking some liberties to write a bit off topic on something that I feel rather strongly about – and fortunately, I’ve found that my opinion is shared by others.  This is the matter of ‘self checkout’ at stores.

You’ve seen them at your local mega-mart, grocery store, or even big box hardware store.  The machines don’t seem to scan bar codes as well as the machines used by the cashiers (granted, I also don’t have the honed and practiced intuition of where to find those silly things that the cashiers have, either), and they yell at your for not putting the item in the bag when either you have or it’s too large to fit into a bag.  And, of course, there is the frequent occurence of the machine refusing to serve you any longer until a cashier inputs their secret code.  Frustrating.

There is certainly a business case for them.  The general idea is efficiency – usually one cashier overseeing four of these machines; and cost savings – one cashier instead of four.  I get that.  That said, most stores I frequent tend not to have lines at these machines.  Many people avoid them.  I hear comments from fellow patrons about how frustrating they are.  Some people, myself included, do appreciate this lack of lines when you only have a handful of items and it can (hopefully) get you out of the store sooner.  I’ve even experienced the one individual who is overseeing several self checkouts call a customer over from a staffed line and scan the items themselves for the customer, knowing that people resist these machines.  How many of you have spoken back to the self checkout machines?  I know I have… “I DID place the item in the bag!”

I heard the best comment yesterday from a fellow shopper who was standing in line next to me (both for registers with cashiers).  He remarked to his friend about how he never uses the self checkout because he wants to ensure justification for jobs for cashiers.  I certainly can’t argue with that, and, in fact, I support it.  Another issue I have is that if I am saving the business money by using their self checkout, that savings should be passed on to me.  I am, after all, checking myself out.  And bagging my own items.  What’s that worth on average?  Perhaps a 5% savings on your final bill?

I rarely use the self checkout, much for the same reason I hardly ever use a drive through.  I like the face to face service.  I can ask questions, ensure that both my order and bill are correct, and if something goes wrong I don’t have to seek someone out to remedy the situation.  I think self checkout, while a great idea from a cost savings perspective, is a bad idea when it comes to customer service – which is a concept that seems to be eroding within society.  Much of our economy is service based, yet service keeps getting worse.  Business owners – if you don’t focus on the customer and their needs, you won’t reach your profit potential.