Phil Wade Interviews: Akos Gerold
How do you define what you do? Are you a teacher? A trainer? A coach? A skills developer?
I say I am a business communication consultant. To me this term seems to match what I do because I bring to my clients knowledge and skills they do not have. My input is related to communicating effectively in an international setting, using all the typical communication channels such as presentations, emailing, meetings, negotiations, conference calls, etc. However, my contribution goes far beyond teaching EFL as it integrates a lot of psychology, behavioural economics, design, intercultural awareness, body language and knowledge from other fields that don’t belong to language teaching. I do use mainly English to deliver training and consultancy work, though I could do it in German, Hungarian and Serbian too, but the skills I teach my clients are transferrable to any language.
You seem quite passionate about presentations. Why?
Think about this: how powerful, persuasive and memorable our message is depends on how our audience feels while we deliver it. So who wouldn’t want to deliver just such a message? However, doing a bit of research and learning about what makes a good presentation clearly shows that the number of bad presentations given every day, in every company, at every conference, and in every line of business is simply staggering. And I am not talking about the content but how visuals are used, how what is said is combined with the visuals, and the delivery in general. Unfortunately, this applies equally to both seasoned and less experienced presenters.
What makes delivery bad? Let me give you a few examples. Reading from slides, long lists of bullet points shown all at once, overcrowding slides with information, fonts that are too small to read, colours that don’t provide good contrast, a colour scheme that makes the slides the most high-contrast object in the room, not pausing when showing new visual information and thus forcing the audience to either listen to us or process the information visually (no prizes for guessing which they are going to do). The list is much longer. You would think that these are such basic technical mistakes that people would not commit them. Yet, we see them all the time in all contexts.
This all makes you wonder why so many presentations are bad in terms of design and delivery, which translates into lack of persuasiveness and into audiences suffering through presentations rather than enjoying them. My guess is that so many presentations are bad because we have all learned how to present by watching others do it. Our accidental teachers, that is the models we follow, also learned by watching others present. However, very few in this learning chain have actually gone to the trouble of receiving some presentations skills training or of researching and studying how to present. This reminds me of a Hungarian saying, which roughly translates as “the blind leads the sightless”. Copying the very many presenters who didn’t do a very good job was certainly true for me too until a few years ago, when I started diving into presentation skills and as a result have become passionate about them.
I would like to help as many people as possible do a much better job and help them make a difference. And doing a better job is not difficult. I believe the 80-20 Parento principle applies to presentations too, that is a roughly 20% improvement in how we present yields a roughly 80% improvement in the effectiveness of our presentations.
I’ve read that presentations are more about body language and how you convey the message rather that the content but in academic presentations and even ones in business meetings, the purpose is to convey information in a simple way. How do you explain this?
In my opinion, body language, delivery and content are all very important in a presentation and in any type of communication, for that matter, irrespective of the field. The former two will not make up for rubbish content, but they can clearly affect whether we can achieve our purpose with the presentation. As for simplicity, we should aim for it all the time. Overcomplicating things is is a recipe for disaster in any field. When I help clients create effective presentations, one of the things I often have to do is help them simplify their message. The same goes when I train them how to run effective meetings.
If you wish to delve into body language and delivery more, I would say that the function of body language is three-fold: it should support the message, it can be used to communicate confidence and it is a potent tool for connecting with the audience. We are programmed to read body language to calibrate messages and good communicators use their body effectively to enhance their message. Radiating confidence is key since people don’t trust what we say verbally if with our body we are saying we don’t really believe in our own words. And finally, a lack of connection with the audience often just kills a presentation.
As for delivery, I believe its function, when done well, is to make the message more enjoyable, easier to follow and understand and to keep attention levels high. Really bad delivery, on the other hand, can lead to the audience not paying attention. How effective delivery is, and I believe this applies to all communication, not just presentations, will strongly affect whether we achieve our purpose with the presentation or not.
Far too many of my own students write scripts to read off. According to some, that is what they have been told to do which I don’t believe. How would you suggest I remedy it as just telling them not to do it hasn’t worked?
Visuals are very important in presentations since supporting your message with visuals aids retention. But at all times they should be an aid, rather than the main focus of a presentation. The problem is that we are wired to pay more attention to visual stimuli than aural. So if the aural message is weak and if it’s not structured and delivered well, the visuals may take over the driver’s seat and push the aural message into the back seat or even the trunk.
Let me illustrate this with a personal example. One of my clients is a co-owner of an audio-visual company. In the run-up to the Olympics, he asked me to have a look at the short English-language promotional video he had made for his company and help him improve the language, which he wasn’t happy with. So we sat down in front of the TV and he played the video. The visual input of the Rio Olympic venues, of athletes training, of Rio itself, of the Brazilian rainforest and animals in it was so stunning that only a few seconds into the three-minute clip I caught myself not paying any attention to the words, just admiring the video. After trying several times to focus on the spoken text and failing within seconds each time, I just decided to indulge in the visual stimuli and ask him to play it once again so that I could give feedback on the language. Although in this case the visual message had to be powerful as the video was meant to showcase the image bank the company has and the quality of the videos they can shoot, this example clearly illustrates that visual stimuli trumps aural as I couldn’t remember a single word that was said in the video after watching it only once.
Another example is how conversations often die when the TV is on.
How can we stop students becoming so obsessed with making impressive slides at the expense of their talks?
In my opinion, experiencing the negative effects of what we should not do is more effective than being told what to do and not to do. Perhaps, you could give them an experience similar to mine with the promotional video. I would set them a task that focuses on an important detail in a short presentation you give and make the visuals very powerful. Preferably, the detail should be presented when the visual stimuli is the strongest. If they are unable to catch the detail and thus do the task, you could start a reflection on the reasons behind this.
Many of us have probably seen or used Guy Kawasaki’s video about his 10/20/30 presentation rule, do you have a rule which you think every presentation student should know?
There are lots of rules I have. The one that summarises them all is that your audience is your guide. This means that you should design and deliver your presentation based on what they can follow, in a way they can follow it and you should avoid everything that distracts them from your message. This can then be broken down into many smaller rules, which is why I have many.
However, Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule is a good example of people loving rules that sound simple and memorable but missing the important details. During training sessions, I often get asked whether I think the 10/20/30 rule is a good one to follow. My answer is that the messages behind it are good guidelines but following it to the letter is a bad idea. Why? Because people forget the context.
In the video and in his blog post on the same topic, Guy says that he likes short presentations because as a venture capitalist he has to listen to a lot of pitches. Hence the 20-minute rule. At conferences, however, to take only one example, the lengths of the slots are determined by the organisers and they may be longer that 20 minutes. As a general rule, on the other hand, Guy’s message to keep a presentation as short as possible, when the presenter has control over the length of their talk, and avoid including unimportant details is certainly a very good guideline.
As for the size 30 font, again, the underlying idea should certainly be taken to heart. Guy suggest using a font that is not smaller than 30 points. This is meant to enhance readability and prevent overcrowding our slides with information. I totally agree with both ideas. In fact, I listed the opposites as big mistakes in one of my previous answers. Unfortunately, some people remember the wording wrongly and they ask me if size 30 font is what they should use. Guy says not smaller than 30.
And finally the 10-slide rule. This is the one that I totally disagree with. The reason has to do with how we can best focus the audience’s attention on a detail. As I mentioned earlier, showing several bullet points all at once, which is what most presenters do, will mean that the audience will be reading through all the bullet points while the presenter is still talking about the first one. If we read something and listen to something else at the same time, we will either focus on one or the other, but certainly not on both. Most often we cannot remember either. This is one of the the surest ways to have the audience lose focus. To avoid this very frequent mistake, we should grey out the bullet points we are not talking about to the extent where the audience may see that there is something written but it blends into the background so much that they immediately give up on trying to read what it is. So it should always be only the bullet point we are talking about that is visible and readable. To achieve this technically, for a list of five bullet points we need to create at least five slides. It’s clear that we will often need more slides than ten even for a short presentation if we are not to distract our audience from our verbal message with too much information on a slide.
In the coming months, I will be shooting a video course on presentation skills for a Sao Paolo-based online learning platform and one of the chapters will decode the 10/20/30 rule, as done here.
Having talked about rules, I think it’s important to mention that all rules can be broken if that serves the best interest of the audience. I have created very well received presentations for clients in which the presenter did not give an overview of what he would talk about in the introduction. In another one, the presenter used only three slides, one of which was the opening slide with the title and her name, and the last one was the thank you slide with her contact details.
As I said, to me it all boils down to your audience is your guide.
Bio: Akos Gerold is a business communication consultant dividing his time between Europe and Brazil. He is passionate about helping clients enchant their audiences with their presentations by using lessons learned from psychology, design, behavioural economics, non-verbal communication, linguistics and elocution. Akos has worked with corporate and individual clients from Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and the Balkans