Down the Exxon Lane — 7
How to make an effective presentation
In the first few years of Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Company, everyone seemed to be making a presentation on something or the other. We made presentations to senior managers, to visitors from the head office in New Jersey, to groups of new hires, to our peers, and so many others. At times, it seemed as if we were in the presentation business.
We made the presentations with the help of what we called vugraphs (viewgraphs) and an overhead projector. Sometimes we used 35 mm slides. PowerPoint was 30–40 years away.
We even had a full-time employee preparing vugraphs. Sabir was his name if I remember correctly, and he was a very busy man preparing vugraphs all the time.
It was YM’s turn to make a presentation that day about the newly set up soil testing lab, its operations, and how could it help the fertilizer business.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, YM was a new hire from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). He had been a bright student but had never made a formal presentation to a group. Understandably, he was nervous. He came to me seeking advice. I was his immediate supervisor. I gave him a few textbook tips, which I had acquired going through similar spells of stage fright.
“Remember three things”, I told him, “1. Preparation, 2. preparation, and 3. preparation. There’s no substitute for preparation.” Then I gave him a few additional tips that I thought would help:
- Make no more than 5 -6 vugraphs with not more than 5 bullet points on each.
- Don’t rush through the vugraphs. Spend 5–10 minutes explaining each.
- Keep eye contact with the audience. Don’t turn your back on them.
- Finish your presentation in the allotted time.
One more thing, I cautioned him. If your hands feel shaky, which they do in the beginning, keep them lightly clasped in front of you, and release them when you feel comfortable. And don’t put them in your pockets. People who do that tend to play with coins or keys. It is distracting for the audience.
And, yes, I added, don’t play with the pointer swinging it like a pendulum. Use it only when you need it and put it back on the table when not using it (we used long wooden pointers those days).
A good student that he was, YM absorbed the advice I gave him and was ready to face the audience in the room we used for such presentations, in the corner of the 3rd floor of the Central Hotel Building, Karachi.
Among the audience, there was Andrew Seager (Technical Services Manager), Vick Sheldon, (Marketing Services Manager), Dick Davis, (Sales Manager), and Tony Ward, (Vice President Marketing) along with several other members of the Marketing group, a total of 12–14 people.
When all was set to go, with the overhead projector sitting on a table draped with a green cloth and the screen set up along the wall, the anticipatory hush descended on the room.
YM placed a vuwgraph on the overhead projector and started introducing the subject. He was visibly nervous but seemed to manage. Following the advice I had given him, he kept his hands lightly clasped in front of him.
A couple of minutes into the presentation, however, we heard a loud thud. The projector on the table shook and the image on the screen trembled. After a few seconds, there was another thud, a louder one, and yet another. The letters on the screen danced wildly. The thuds continued, at different intervals, for several minutes, sometimes loud and sometimes soft, before they died out.
Since I was sitting closer to the speaker, I discovered the epicenter of the “earthquake”. It was YM himself, kicking the table. He had restricted the movement of his hands, as I had advised him, but his nervous energy had moved to his legs, which made him kick the table involuntarily. I had not given him any helpful tip on that.
It's been years since the days of the Central Hotel Building — far too many — and I’m still looking for a tip on how to restrict your wayward legs from punctuating your presentation with periodic kicks to the table. End