Bluntly: Why are Group Presentations so Boring?
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
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Group presentations are boring. Theres no two-ways about it. The context, the delivery and the content all point to one logical resolution - SLEEP. Does it have to be like this, though? Have we, with our millions of years of evolution in the bank, found some necessity for turning off our charisma and becoming uncompromisingly beige when asked to present something with other people? Or do we have the ability to change course for a more engaging experience? Well, in one way, we have evolved to turn into this grey-scale version of ourselves in the face of group-presentation, and this is what will be explored in this article - along with the idea that it doesn’t always have to be this way, fortunately!
I like to subscribe to the idea that we have evolved from something that was once much less sophisticated, intellectually, than we are now. To surmise one theory of this process, imagine you are a giraffe and everyone has eaten all the leaves at the bottom of the tree. You’re hungry and need to eat so what do you do? Well, you stretch your neck, of course, to reach the higher leaves and - BAM - giraffes now have long necks just like that! Another theory is that from a vast pool of different versions of “humans”, certain external environmental events, such as listening to U2 in public, halt the progression of certain gene pools and only the strongest survive. Whichever one you think is more plausible, I’d like to point out that they both reach equifinality in their conclusion, this being: adapt or face the consequences.
Now, it would be silly to suggest that this is a quick, or even slow process - as it is fundamentally and incomprehensibly slow in-fact. Most importantly, however, is that over this extremely-long process, we have been fine-tuned to be the most effective “animal” that we can be, with big jelly-like brains that can think about ourselves thinking about thinking and, equally as impressive, opposable thumbs - to name a few of our greatest achievements. Now, what does this have to do with public speaking. I would argue the way we speak publicly evolves, albeit more fluidly and on a much smaller scale.
I’d like you to think back to your first group project. This may have been your first group public-speaking experience or, simply your first public-speaking experience. I’d also assume that this experience occurred in high-school or equivalent and related to a topic that wasn’t that important, presented in a class of equal unimportance. You and your group probably did minimal preparation, focused more on the hilarity of the slides than the content, wrote down a few things you actually wanted to say and read them directly from the sheet as you presented. The consequence - nothing. You got away with it. Your lack of preparation had no real repercussions and now the image you had in your mind was that every experience is as easy as that one was. As a result of this, you evolve to devote minimal effort to group presentations under the pretence that there are more important instances that will require the energy you haven’t used. Oh how very wrong.
As we will discuss in the next section, this entirely natural and ubiquitously held perception of group presentation locks all of us all in to a one-way track to oracy-extinction.
Riding a presentation-high - revelling in our own natural abilities, some of you may have gone to College/University and had your optimism punished by a whole world of hurt. Others may have gone straight into work and had an equally uncomfortable experience. This is where group presentations start to require real-work, and not once in your educational experience have you been told how to go about this even slightly effectively. The result plays out as expected, a poorly constructed deck of slides - containing parables from Shakespeare's complete works on each individual slide, presented proudly in lime-green text from which the group reads word-for-word and accompanied by transitions between slides named ‘whoosh’, ‘sparkle’, ‘shimmer' and a whole repertoire of garishly named animations. This unfortunate evolutionary avenue is met by a blunt end. An F. Presentation-extinction has taken its course and it cannot be coerced by anyone.
Now, unlike the standard evolutionary process, most groups get a second chance to adapt and come back stronger than ever after the first meteor shower of poor grades. The tragedy is, most don’t. I am now in my second year of University and the amount of presentations I have seen with near essays contained within text boxes, images completely unrelated to the topic being discussed and presenters as exciting and zany as a pack of crackers is astounding. And this is where the evolutionary process gains its fluidity within the presentation eco-system. No matter how many times groups come close to extinction, some never evolve. But for those that do, they become some of the strongest organisms in the keynote world. The difference between a strong slide deck, presented by engaging individuals in a coherent and stylish way is an observably different breed to its decrepit ancestors.
And what do the strongest organisms look like? Because without knowing, it is a long and arduous process to move through our own experiences until we reach our evolutionary peak without any degree of help. Well, here’s an un-exhaustive list: black slides, one topic per slide, minimal transitions, clean cuts for new topics, dissolves for the same topic, no/minimal reading of the slides, a charismatic delivery, stepping forward when you speak and, most importantly, minimise your ‘um’s’, ‘like’s’ and ‘you know’s’. This isn’t easy, however, and can require a lot of meaningful preparation and practice. The issue here is that the opportunities to practice these skills are few and far between, making mass extinctions more common and evolution opportunities infrequent at best. Not to mention, this process requires expending a lot of energy.
A New Front
So we’ve established that group presentations on a mass scale are dross and bearable at best - with few opportunities to improve but relatively many instances to become extinct. This poses the question, “how can we ever expect to evolve?”. The answer, you need to work on yourself first. It is in these experiences where you dedicate a significant portion of your energy and time to improvement in your room, that you subsequently emerge a beautiful public-speaking butterfly. People have evolved to devote the minimal amount of effort to almost everything, giving them more energy to sit in bed and watch Netflix, so as little as 20 minutes a week can make a huge difference. Granted, this doesn’t improve the ability of the rest of the group, but seeing your presentation excellence and how you energise and engage the audience will make them keen to try and emulate your approach. They’re also usually extremely thankful for your ability to shelter them from this mass-extinction and will often give you a bit of well-deserved praise, which is always nice. It is these little anecdotes of “mate, that was class” or other such variations that should keep you hungry for progression and equally inspire your colleagues and peers to want to do the same.
By just reading this article, you’re already one step closer to presentation excellence - and one stage more presentationally evolved than the rest of your competition. This means that you now know how to do more than evolve, but know how to thrive instead.