Sunday, September 13, 2009

Delivering a presentation over the Web? Don't show me your dog.

It seems to have become a trend among business presenters to "personalize" their content.

Perhaps you've noticed it: before delving into the details of a product demo or company overview, a speaker will introduce himself to a new audience with a mini bio. We learn about his history with the company and where he went to school. We're informed which sports teams he follows and that he enjoys golf. We're shown pictures of his family and pets.

I first noticed this technique a couple of years back at a one-day e-learning conference. We learned that a college professor grew up in India and still commuted there regularly to see her family. The CEO of a small e-learning firm had always loved the Beatles. These personal touches had their intended effect: the audience got to know the speakers as people. Rapport was established, and we were perhaps a bit more open to the message.

But recently I saw this technique backfire big time.

I sat in a large conference room while the professional services rep of a database vendor presented the details of the company's latest upgrade. It was a virtual presentation: his slides were shown on the screen while he spoke to us remotely. While introducing himself, he showed pictures of his wife and kids, then his dog. Around the table people shifted uncomfortably; you could almost hear the groans.

So why did the personalized presentation work well in one meeting and fizzle badly in the other? Part of it may have been the venue. At the e-learning conference we were being given free knowledge (and free breakfast). We were there of our own volition and eager to learn. At the database presentation, the audience was existing customers who already had issues with the vendor's offering. They were predisposed to be guarded.

But I think the bigger reason was the virtual nature of the second presentation.

At the conference, we could see and hear the college professor and CEO, notice their facial expressions and body language. Their physical presence made it easy to relate to them as people. In the vendor meeting on the other hand, we never met the speaker. He was a disembodied voice broadcast by the phone. So his attempts to ingratiate himself with personal pictures came across as false and off-putting.

The lesson for virtual presenters is simple: don't try for the personal touch when you're not in the room. Keep the focus on the audience and their concerns. When you need to invoke emotion (and yes, you still do) show pictures and tell stories that relate to the audience and their emotional needs.

Personalize by showing me what your message will mean to me as a person. Don't show me a picture of your dog.