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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Presentations Riddled With Legal Caveats: Can A Speaker Still Make a Point?


I recently attended a day-long conference where the most compelling - even entertaining - talk was from a company's legal officer explaining the parameters within which all spokespeople must stay when delivering a talk about their product. There were amusing references, snide remarks about compliance, and illustrative analogies to clarify the rationale behind the restrictions. I began to think, what has the world come to where the most interesting talk is about the ever-more-strict rules on talking?!

With all of the caveats that lawyers want to put on presentations these days, can a speaker still make a compelling point? I believe he or she can, but it requires more preparation and greater attention to organization, delivery and emphasis.

Recently, Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management delivered a talk on where to invest in 2011. Like so many in the financial industry, he knew he had to frame much of what he says with cautionary language. He took that head-on and decided to use humor to make his main point early and memorable. In fact, he put it in his title and subtitle: "How To Make a Fortune* -- *My compliance team cautions that this is a tongue in cheek title." Brilliant - while he made it clear that the audience should not take his main point as a guarantee and without being aware of inherent investment risks, he was still able to deliver his main point and make it memorable.

Too often, when audience members are asked what a presentation was all about just five minutes after it ends, they say that all they remember is all the warnings and disclosures. Why should I employ this financial strategy, buy this product, prescribe this drug or invest given all these caveats? Audience members begin to question the speaker's expertise, passions or motivations to presenting this data or perspective and need to be reminded. Why even make the presentation if you can't offer solid, clear advice?

The burden is not on the audience, but on the presenter. And, there are some good and effective ways to manage the legal disclaimers while still making a strong, memorable and clear point - and there is some bad advice out there as well.

  • Good advice: Take the disclosures and legal warnings head-on and early. Bad advice: bury the warnings at the end of the presentation and hope the audience loses interest by the time you get to them.
  • Good advice: Keep the same slow, deliberate pace when delivering a warning slide, but take the opportunity to remind the audience of the rationale and of your main point - perhaps coupled with a personal connection - "It is important that we are clear about the risks, and I consider them in my practice just as you do, and find that the benefits I mentioned outweigh them in certain circumstances." Bad advice: speed up and skim through the legal slides in hopes that the audiences misses more than they retain.
  • Good advice: Give appropriate - in some cases equal - weight to the cautions in your summary, but no more than that and emphasize your main points. Audiences tend to remember most the first thing and the last thing that you say. Bad advice: Leave all cautionary language out of your conclusion and gamble that the audience won't notice.

Transparency has become a central driver of credibility and believability as we are mired in what surveys confirm is the least trusting time since the Great Depression. In my opinion, this cannot be ignored and there are no "tricks" that can fool an audience. The burden is on the presenters. But if they adjust, prepare more and rehearse, they can still land their point amidst all of the caveats.

Do you share that opinion? Any other tips you'd like to offer about how presenters can cut though the legal morass? Any examples of how a presenter handled the legal portion well or poorly?

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