The Real Measure of Presentation Success

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Historically, it’s been tough to quantify the success of events, presentations, and speeches. We’ve long known that the spoken word is a powerful tool for influence and action, but how do you measure that power?

When many organizations flipped from in-person to virtual and hybrid meetings and events, presentation analytics became a whole new ballgame. Speakers used to measure impact largely by surveying people and reading the literal room. While those forms of feedback still provide useful information about whether and how a message is landing, presenters now have many other metrics they can use.

Here’s a quick example: For decades, my firm built all the decks for a large company’s annual software developer conference. When the conference went remote because of COVID-19, we reworked all the content — each of the breakout sessions, as well as the keynotes — for a virtual audience. After that conference, the organizers stack-ranked the most popular sessions and realized they’d put the same amount of energy into creating a session that garnered 40 views as they’d put into creating sessions that earned hundreds of thousands of views. The organizers also got data on the percentages of participants actively engaging with the sessions, along with related numbers on downloads and shares. Combined with the substance of attendee comments, these insights told the conference folks which topics were resonating both broadly and deeply, helped them manage their time investments, and shaped their choice to keep the conference mostly virtual.

That’s just one of many ways you can slice, dice, and analyze. But to gauge a presentation’s success, what should you measure for? In the example above, a key organizational goal was for developers to learn and build new software features into products, so the conference folks were looking specifically at how long each attendee stayed in the critical sessions, how active they were in the learning sessions, which tools they downloaded, and, after the event, how many applications the developers rolled out. Once the event team knew which sessions had turned out to be the most useful, they could create better-targeted content for the next conference.

All of these yardsticks measured some form of action. And really, that’s what all presenters should be looking for: evidence that they’ve moved people to do something, whether it’s learning a new skill, adopting a new approach to organizational culture, changing a deeply ingrained process or behavior, or treating customers differently.

To measure a presentation’s success, you need to assess your audience members’ feelings and actions before you speak, while you speak, and after you’re done.

Before Your Talk

To define what baseline result you’re after — that is, what action you want people to take after they walk away from your talk — it helps to know your audience. In studying hundreds of powerful speeches (and even checking out business speeches from the Stanford University library all the way back to the 1950s), I found that most of their calls to action targeted one of four audience types: doers, who could instigate activity and get things moving in the organization; suppliers, who could provide resources and other types of support needed to achieve a desired goal; influencers, who could mobilize others to adopt a new idea or approach; or innovators, who could generate new ideas and apply their smarts to solve a problem or seize an opportunity.

Which type of audience will you address in your talk? Once you’ve sorted out that critical “who,” you can analyze the “what” and the “how” of getting people to adopt and implement your idea. Specifically, you can take one of the following approaches.

Delve into your audience’s thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself about the people you want to reach: What do they think about your idea now? If it’s not on their radar yet, how will they feel about it when they hear what you have to say? And how do you want their thoughts and feelings to change as a result of your talk?

How do you want your audience’s thoughts and feelings to change as a result of your talk?

This isn’t just a hypothetical stepping-into-their-shoes exercise. Gathering that information in advance — and articulating the points of view you want to move people from and to — will determine the way you frame an issue and possible responses to it. That could mean doing some research or surveying the audience to assess what people currently know about your topic and how they feel about it. For example, you might interview the people closest to your customers or culture. Are they excited about your idea, or skeptical of it? What questions do they have about it? Not only will you figure out what baseline you’re starting from — you’re also likely to gain insights about your audience that will help you craft your message. You can also identify a benchmark to measure against later on, after your presentation — say, one of your organization’s KPIs or an important talent-recruitment metric.

Anticipate emotional sticking points. The bigger the transformation you’re trying to trigger in your audience, the more difficult it can be to quantify, especially if it’s an emotional shift. As you research what’s currently going on in your audience members’ heads, consider their hearts as well. What’s going to be the hardest part of your message for people to accept or process, no matter how logical the argument or solid the evidence? What sources of potential resistance can you identify? If you do win over people’s heads, how will you know when you’ve won over their hearts, too?

Emotional change often won’t show up on a dashboard. Even technologies that allow organizations to track customer or employee sentiment won’t collect data on everything you need to know. Sometimes you’ll know you’ve overcome emotional resistance only when you see it later in new behaviors — when employees stop pushing back on important initiatives, for example, or when customers change their minds and buy the new release of your product.

During Your Talk

You can gauge your talk’s likelihood of success as it’s happening. To do this, you’ll measure audience reactions in a few ways.

Observe audience behavior in the room or online. The most immediate form of measurement is to watch how people respond to a presentation in real time. When everyone takes out their phones to snap pictures of slides, you know something’s grabbing their attention. Notice, too, when people laugh, gasp, or applaud — these basic behavioral cues signal which moments in your talk are resonating. Tech comes in really handy here. If your talk (whether delivered in person or remotely) is recorded, you can easily go back and look for places where the audience visibly or audibly responded.

Look at the number of attendees. If you’re addressing a crowd at a big event such as an industry gathering, another useful metric is the number of people who showed up to hear you speak when they could have attended other sessions instead. If you’ve packed a physical or virtual room, that means you’ve teed up your talk effectively before even opening your mouth. When I spoke this year at Dreamforce, a Salesforce conference, most of my audience members skewed young and weren’t familiar with my work, but the talk was still oversubscribed, with overflow attendees clustered in the doorway. My name wasn’t the draw — rather, it’s the way I’d titled and framed the message that hit a nerve. When attendees rated the talk, the data showed that it had lived up to the promise in the title and program description.

Spark and track social engagement. If your talk is getting everyone buzzing, especially at a large event, they might share quotes or images from your presentation in real time on social channels. Be sure to add your social handles and event-specific hashtags to your slides so it’s easier for your audience to tag you and for you to track the ideas they’re engaging with most. (Those posts, comments, likes, reshares, and other in-the-moment social reactions can later be captured in a post-event report.) You can also accelerate and measure the spread of ideas by providing repackaged presentation content in easily shared formats like infographics or Slidedocs (slides that have more text because they are meant to be read by the audience rather than simply presented by the speaker). One of our tech customers has us build their keynote speeches into skimmable e-books with the script and slide visuals as well as trackable links to additional material.

After Your Talk

Your post-talk metrics can track both satisfaction with the presentation and some of the steps audience members have taken to implement the ideas.

Use surveys to assess audience satisfaction. Many speakers use surveys to measure audience sentiment after a presentation. If you surveyed people before you spoke as well, you’ll be able to see whether your talk has moved the doers, suppliers, influencers, or innovators in the audience any closer to your point of view. One Fortune 100 tech company we work with also uses audience ratings as a management tool to motivate speakers to perform well. Everyone wants to get the highest possible score, and those who don’t score well are likely to work hard to raise their score the next time they speak — or not be invited back.

Examine the speaker’s own satisfaction. In companies without a strong measurement culture, sometimes one of the most telling signs of success is how the speakers themselves think their presentations went. That might seem like navel-gazing, but it’s a bigger deal than most people assume. If a leader who consistently works on their skills and performance as a communicator and is sensitive to cues from the audience feels that they’ve delivered an effective presentation, chances are actually pretty good that they have. And, hey, when your CEO wants to feel like a rock star, and they walk off the stage feeling like one, I call that a win.

Quantify actions taken. This is where you come back to that baseline result you’ve defined — the audience behavior you wanted to elicit or change when you developed your presentation. While reactions like satisfaction and buy-in matter, actions matter more. The whole point of giving a presentation is to persuade people to adopt and implement your ideas. So look at the traction that your initiative gained as a result of your talk. Did your employees complete the enrollment forms your HR team mentioned in the benefits presentation? Did your sales team download the new corporate overview deck you launched at kickoff? How many deals closed as a result? I embed QR codes in my slide decks — most people know how to use them — and share my slides. This allows attendees to do a deeper “double-click” on a concept. My marketing team can track all that activity for post-talk analysis.

While reactions like satisfaction and buy-in matter, actions matter more.

If you’re trying to prevent certain actions, it’s important to measure those, too. One year, a company hired my team to help them deliver news of a planned reorganization, one of the most difficult presentations to deliver. Executives worried about two kinds of fallout in particular: highly valued employees leaving their jobs in frustration, and a decline in productivity. So they decided to track two data points after the announcement: the number of resignations over the next several months, and any productivity dip as reflected in customer relationship management data over the next several weeks. With those reports in, they were relieved to see that both numbers were much better than company leaders had anticipated. In this situation, measuring success meant tracking a lack of (that is, negative) action after delivering a sensitively crafted message.



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