The presentation dilemma [Commentary]

Presentations are big business today. When 34-year-old Chelsea Clinton, who has never held public office, can command $75,000 for a single presentation, people take note.

Moreover, the fairly recent popularity of TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has been extraordinary. The totally diverse topics of TED Talks range from the personal to the political, from medicine and science, to religion and philosophy and much more. Billed as "funny," "beautiful," "fascinating," "informative," "courageous" and "inspiring," TED Talks are presented by well known figures such as Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Sheryl Sandberg as well as "nerds" one has barely heard of. Merely click on TED and no fewer than 1,700 current presentation topics appear. One could see them live or view them online.


Perhaps as a result of TED, more organizations now require oral presentations instead of or in addition to written ones before they award money or jobs to companies.

Approximately 25 years ago, the president of a communications company that specialized in oral presentations, invited me, along with about 20 other small business owners, to a demonstration. Thus I sat and watched a pleasant-looking young man, an accountant for a large automotive company, give a rather embarrassing performance. I felt so sorry for him. Although he was nicely dressed in a Joseph A. Banks suit and tie and he made plenty of eye contact with his audience and had just the right hand gestures, his presentation was wordy and redundant and confusing, droning on and on.


He had no focus, no topic sentences; in fact, the talk, even with a couple of attractive charts, was totally disorganized. When describing projects his company was doing, he kept saying, "it was thought" instead of "we decided." Moreover, his sentences either seemed endless or they were so clipped as to be startling. Add to the presentation lots of jargon words and several mistakes in grammar, and I kept waiting for the president of the communications company to grab the proverbial hook, just like in the old vaudeville productions, and pull the young man off the stage.

The moral: One needs to know how to write well before attempting to speak publicly. Oral presentations are a one-shot deal; public speaking can be unforgiving — unless, of course, you already are famous and accepting an Oscar.

And, in oral presentations all the charts and graphs, the so-called bells and whistles, cannot compensate for poor organization, wordiness, passive voice, non-parallel structure, jargon, faulty grammar, as well as other mistakes in writing — mistakes that experts in various fields often make daily.

Nevertheless, many companies are now focusing exclusively on presentation skills without thinking about the elements that go into the presentation. One engineering firm in particular recently spent many thousands of dollars to bring in a consultant from a communications company in California to teach presentation skills. We know the old joke: a consultant is someone who lives at least 5,000 miles away.

To be sure, I have conducted many workshops at San Francisco law firms, but when I conducted my first workshop for a firm in London, no fewer than four newspapers interviewed me. How could an American teach the English English? She could.

Competition is much greater today while money is scarcer. The nicely wrapped package may catch your eye, but it's what's inside the package that counts. Although good writing sometimes seems a dying art — with all the new instant and forgiving technology — to speak well, to express your message clearly, concisely and convincingly, you really need to be able to write well first.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best, Inc. She is the author of "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing" (Basic Books). Her email is

To respond to this commentary, send an email to Please include your name and contact information.