There is an advertisement on the radio for communication training service that ends with a most dubious declaration that “It is not what you say, but how you say it”. While this statement that ‘style trumps content’ might be true in one of the hallowed governance institutions of our country where any content is allowed once one conforms to the rules of the Speaker, it is certainly not an operating principle for communications in the world of business. However, the advert did provide a prism through which one might reflect on the recently concluded Energy Conference. More specifically, how effective was the conference presenters and presentations in their communications?
It is safe to assert that the power of this conference is its ability to reset national business sentiment at the start of each year. This conference is now an essential calendar item because it sets the tone for the industry with policy makers and key business players in our energy sector weighing in on what the agenda holds for the new year. Given the insights into the major driver of the local economy, the conference also attracts the non-energy sector business elites who are always eager to understand the fortunes of our energy industry since it shapes the context for other industries. This unique convocation of the country’s business elite is one of the conference’s key competitive differentiators.
Given this distinctive access, it is safe to assume that all speakers make every effort to deliver high quality presentations; rich in content and stylistically effective. My professional assessment is that some achieved this better than others. While it would be inappropriate to provide comments on specific individuals in a public medium like this (I am happy to give my assessment if asked in a more private environment), I can provide some general observations on the communications effectiveness of presenters at the conference.
Firstly, I wish to confirm that “death by PowerPoint” is very real. With two days of presentations and a 20-minute limit for most speakers, creative ways are required to capture the attention of attendees. Of the presentations that I saw, the points that stayed with me were driven by the big, simple but powerful visuals - the offshore field schematic of the future shown by BPTT, the seismic imaging shown by BHP’s VP of Exploration, Professor’s Jupiter’s graph of the progression of local exploration finds of “big fields” and Atlantic’s chart showing LNG pricing projections out to 2022 with the catchy tagline of “lower for longer”. Others did not do enough of this effectively, however. Some presenters were still intent on putting a lot of words on a slide – sometimes in quite small font – which only served to distract the listener as they tried to understand the words on the slide rather than listen to the speaker. My observations affirmed my general guidance for presentations in settings like these – make it image intensive, use few words and stay to crisp, clear points that are highlighted at the start and end of speaking.
Secondly, many of the presentations are very “jargon-filled’. This is a fault across the energy industry and it seems that many were unfortunately guided by a rule that says “keeping it simple means saying it with acronyms”. For an audience that comprises of many non-energy business leaders, the use of energy industry jargon serves to further alienate important partners outside of the industry. As I said in previous articles, the level of understanding about the local energy sector is low and this conference is a great opportunity to help raise the level of awareness and build an understanding of the drivers of the local oil and gas economy. Speakers should be cognisant of the fact the audience is drawn from both energy and non-energy backgrounds and tailor the presentations to both technical and non-technical audiences.
My third point of observation relates to the balance of emphasis given to CSR initiatives by many of the companies. I understand the need to showcase, with pride, the great work done in the community. However, given the core business of the sector, in a 20-minute presentation I would suggest about 1 to 2 minutes be devoted to such activity. Any more than that presents a loss of opportunity to properly explain your business, your plans and the relevance to the national agenda. What’s worse – it can leave the impression that you have little to say by way of activity and are using your CSR programmes as a diversion. Making CSR dominant in this setting can actually serve to undermine the authenticity of worthwhile social programmes. CSR alone does not make a company relevant to a country. Of importance is the clear demonstration that its business plans are aligned to sectoral and national priorities. So keep the balance right
The final point relates to style used by the presenters. This is the area where there was most variability from observation – some presenters were very engaging and others had difficulty in keeping my interest. I will say in general, there seemed to be limited thought into “how” to deliver the message. One or two speakers spoke too quickly, which could convey a hurriedness to deliver information, while others were too closely following the speech – which could suggest that they did not prepare it themselves and were therefore disconnected with the material. The result was that they became disconnected form the audience. Then of course there are always the jokes that don’t quite work in this kind of setting. In fact one was delivered with so much enthusiasm, that it almost overpowered the rather interesting substance of an otherwise solid presentation. We are not all gifted orators but we can all learn how to use our strengths and manage visual cues for positive impact when presenting. While most people think they are okay at presenting, even the best ‘talkers’ will balk when they see themselves played back on video. Tone, stance and modulation all matter when trying to keep the listener interested. So too does eye-hand coordination in switching between audience and screen, the right use of language, bold and engaging visuals as well as speaking with an authentic voice.
Consider next time you present whether you want to convey that you are enduring it, simply delivering what someone has put in your hand or whether you want your audience to feel as passionate as you do about what you want to say. It might be an improvement for the EC planners to provide some presentation tips and tools for speakers ahead of time that can help make their presentations more effective. This should include some facility for getting feedback, constructive criticism and even an opportunity for coaching. I think the speakers for this forum – and more generally – stand to benefit from deliberate actions to improve their presentation skills so that the audience would have done more than hear them speak.
The value of the conference to the national energy landscape could be even more impactful, if all speakers could be thoughtful and deliberate in their approach to both style and content - because unlike that questionable advertisement on the radio – it does matter what you say and certainly how you say it! It takes both to ensure that your audience not only “hears” but also ‘listens” when you speak.