If you worry about giving presentations it is natural to seek advice on how you come across, but, a boss is probably the worst person to give feedback

Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters’ courses on this topic in UCD

If you worry about giving presentations – and most people do – it is natural to seek advice. And bosses are only too eager to give this advice. They want to make sure you are representing the company, or division within that company, in the right way so they will often sit through several dry-runs to help you get it right. But be warned, your boss is nearly always the worst person to give you feedback.

Why? Are we not supposed to respect our elders and betters? Well in regard to presentations, often the answer is no. And failure to realise this point has turned many good presentations to sludge.

Often your boss will not be a ‘good ear’ for your material. He or she will probably know your topic inside out and speak the same technical language as you do, even think the same way. However, it is unlikely the audience will. The audience will be new to your ideas and often experts (or bosses) are poor at judging this.

I observed recently where a PhD student was instructed by his academic supervisor to remove most of the pictures from a presentation so that he could ‘get to the meat of the study’ more quickly. The problem was that the images provided a background to the story by locating the research in the real world. Even other experts in the field need orientation of this sort, usually lots of it.

The curse of knowledge

There is even a name for this phenomenon: ‘the curse of knowledge’. The idea is that the more you know about something, the simpler that thing seems to you. And this can lead you to under-communicate that topic to a novice.

Chip and Dan Heath in their bestselling book, ‘Made To Stick’, outline some fascinating experiments that have quantified this effect. Employees in a telecoms company were asked to estimate the time it would take for novice customers to master certain basic tasks on a new digital telephone system that had been installed.


Experts, when communicating, are often guilty of underestimating the complexity of their material

The employees with more expertise made worse predictions than those with less expertise, consistently underestimating the time taken for novices to master the new system. Expert communicators frequently make the same mistake. Bosses with customer or sales experience can overcome this bias but it is not the only thing that mars the feedback they may give you.

You have to be aware that when someone gives you feedback, they are not actually listening for content. They are not the target audience so they don’t have that target audience’s needs. For this reason, they will not be focused on your message but rather on how you convey that message. This is very unnatural.

Imagine you got lost and stopped somebody in the street to ask for directions. During that short conversation you will be completely focused on learning what you need to learn – turn left, take the second right, walk past the church – and less aware of how that content is being conveyed. You will not be counting the number of times the speaker says ‘eh’ or ‘basically’, or checking your watch to see if they are sticking to time.

Feedback on communication only makes sense when the audience is actually ‘listening for content’

When you are actually listening for information, the attributes of communication – eye contact, body language, facial expression, vocal inflection – make a difference but you don’t notice them explicitly. However, when you are giving somebody feedback on a presentation in which the content is not meaningful to you, you notice little else.

I have encountered situations where speakers were instructed to tame their hand movements or tone down their accents, to smile a bit more or a bit less. None of these things matter when content is actually being conveyed but they look like they matter in the absence of a focus for the communication.

Worse is when the speaker is taken out of the feedback altogether. This occurs when you get the dreaded request to ‘send on the PowerPoint’. Presentation slides viewed in the absence of a presenter are meaningless and feedback on them equally so.

Apart from which, as discussed in the article on visual aids in the last issue of this journal, slides viewed on a monitor communicate differently to those viewed on a big screen. Often undue clutter is tolerated and the result is more like a poster than a presentation slide.

Bosses aside, however, it is difficult to get useful presentation feedback from anyone. Criticism of the presentation is seen as criticism of the presenter; ‘How was it?’ a euphemism for ‘How was I?’

The best way around this is to ask for relative rather than absolute criticism. Say something like, ‘I was thinking of taking the graph/story/video out of the presentation so I can put more images in at the start.’ This will prompt replies like, ‘No, I really liked the video,’ or ‘Yeah, the pictures were really effective, I thought you could have done with more of those.’

Also, once you get people talking, you can discern the most valuable insight of all: what do they remember? If they picked up your main points you have succeeded, regardless of how much or how little you flailed your arms.

Barry Brophy: phone: 00353 87 929 3262    email: barry.brophy@ucd.ie    web: www.barrybrophy.com

  • He is author of The Natural Presenter, 2007, which was published in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
  • He has provided training for many large engineering clients: BP, Jacobs, ESBI, Faber Maunsell, Engineers Ireland, DePuy, Microsoft, etc.
  • Although based in the Mechanical Engineering school in UCD, the courses he teaches are open to students from all disciplines – see short videos.
  • He has spoken on this topic recently on Ireland’s leading business radio show, ‘Down to Business’ – listen to podcast.
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Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters' courses on this topic in UCD If you worry about giving presentations – and most people do – it is natural to seek advice. And bosses are only too eager to...