Monday, March 7, 2011

Content or Presentation - Which is More Important?

I hear this debate every day.

Coach A - "You've got to hone your presentation skills, or it will take away from your content!"
Coach B - "If you don't have great content, your presentation skills won't matter!"
Coach A - "Nah, if you can dazzle the audience, they won't even care what you say."
Coach B - "But if you have amazing content, how you present it won't matter - you can ah and um and stutter and ramble all you want - and I have TED videos to prove it!
Coach A - "No, no, NO! Bad speakers lose credibility, and their content gets lost in the poor communication!"

Content or presentation, presentation or content? The debate rages, and will likely continue 'til the end of days. But no one ever seems to ask this question: What if you have both? Quality content and quality presentation are hardly mutually exclusive.

Regardless of your perspective, can you really argue that a speaker with great presentation skills and a strong message will trump anyone who only has one or the other?

Both arguments are sound in their own way. Listening to a great speaker say nothing for an hour is a bit like going to a wonderful restaurant and eating every dessert on the menu instead of actually having a meal. Fun at the time, but you'll pay for it later. Listening to great content out of the mouth of a bad speaker is a bit like going to the gym and having your trainer double all your weights, and your workout time as well. You'll get something out of it, but you won't enjoy it.

Lest I leave you thinking I'm dodging my own question, I do believe that content trumps presentation. When I first started Toastmasters, I ran through the first manual, and won the Best Speaker Ribbon 9 out of the 10 times I spoke. After I finished my 10th speech, my mentor came up to me and said "You're a great speaker Rich. Just think how good you'd be if you actually started saying something." She was absolutely right. And she still is.

With this said, I still wonder why we don't ask this: why not improve in both areas? Isn't being a complete package better than the alternative, no matter how good one or the other part is? Either way, this doesn't mean being somebody you aren't - it means becoming a better version of who you are for the sake of your audience. 

Just like physical training, speaking training means changing your view of yourself by looking within, to find the speaker that exists inside. It doesn't mean you need to become Schwartzenegger if all you want to be able to do at the end of the day is run a 5K. It means deciding what your goals are, and determining what skill sets you need to make it happen.

When I coach people to Speak & Deliver - I cover both aspects of speaking. I believe one skill enhances the other. The more you learn to create strong content, the more you'll desire to deliver it well. The better a presenter you become, the more important it will be to provide strong content to the audiences you'll be put in front of.  

You may always be stronger in one area over another, but to give up on improving either one because you can get by the way you are? You're cheating your audience, and you are cheating yourself.


  1. I have the very same situation in my presentations.

    Although, as my evaluators and audiences agree, a slant of either over the other provides a greater impact. %A FACTUAL REPORT on an economic condition should impact the audience differently than presenting a play from Shakespear.

  2. Rich, it depends. An after dinner/drinks keynote to end a week long company bash will fall very flat if it has much content. Nobody wants to learn anything more. Their brains have been stuffed for a week, their stomachs are stuffed and the drinks are having an effect.

    On the other hand when I do a 4 day training seminar to a group of engineers who will have to use the material when they get back to the job do not care about presentation - they demand content. In fact, if I get fancy with presentation stuff, they will complain.

    So the correct answer to your question is, "It depends."

  3. Hugh,

    Interesting point, one I think I'll address more completely in a different post.

    The definition of content may be debatable here. An afterdinner/drinks keynote should still have strong content, but the TYPE of content, and the DENSITY of content doesn't need to be the same as a training presentation.

    Training, in general, is a whole different animal entirely, and depending on the type of training we're talking about (say, phone sales vs. rocket science) needs a different approach.

    Know your audience still applies, regardless, but that, too, is another post.....

    Thanks for stopping in - you've given me some great ideas.



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