How I made the best presentation to the wrong audience

By Sam Stewart Mutabazi

A few years ago, I was invited by an organization in Accra Ghana to speak about Bottlenecks of infrastructure development and specifically Roads. I made little bit of preparations since I thought it would be a “small” meeting. On arrival in Accra I was accorded first class treatment right from the airport and checked into one of the top hotels. 

Later that Evening, one of the organizers informed me that I had to meet a World Bank official as the Bank was the main sponsor of the conference. I didn’t know why she wanted to meet me but I guessed it would be just to get to know who I was. I joined the World Bank official soon after dinner in one of the meeting rooms. She was a warm and jolly lady, elegant and good to talk to. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked about my presentation and whether I was ready.  I casually talked about what I was going to speak about since I was somehow conversant with the topic. She then asked whether I had a PowerPoint presentation. I told her I had one. She then requested to have a look at it.

Up until then I didn’t know what all this was about. I pulled out my laptop and opened the file, and showed her my presentation. She didn’t comment on its quality. She only said we needed to “tighten it” a bit. She told me to send it to her email which I did. I definitely knew it wasn’t the best but I knew it could pass for an audience of a certain caliber of people I was to present it to. If anything, I knew it was just fine. She told me to pull my chair close to hers, then went ahead to start suggesting edits. We worked through the document together from around eight in the evening up to midnight. I was tired with jet lag having waited for hours in the connecting flight from Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines. Nonetheless I was patient as we made corrections and improved the entire presentation. She would make suggestions which I would gladly accept. I really saw the power of professionalism at work.

By the time we finished, the presentation was not only good, it was superior. She suggested that we change the design which we did and it really looked exciting with a professional touch. She wished me good luck in my presentation the next day (call it that day since it was past midnight). I thanked her for all her efforts and helping me polish the presentation as we went to our respective rooms. Certainly the night was short, it was soon morning. My presentation was at 10:00am in the morning immediately after the introductions and main speeches. I did my presentation and I think I did it quite well. May be, or may be not.

What was not in doubt was that the professional touch the lady from World Bank did on the document must have wowed the audience. I went back to my seat to follow the proceedings. Now, we get to the main part of the story. The meeting ended well. We retired to our rooms. Later, I meet the lady again who tells me it was fantastic. I thank her too for a job well done. The conference was to last two days. The next day which was the last day, we were to have an outing as a group after closure of the event. The organizers had chosen that we visit a popular place which had a Live band with some local entertainment. In Uganda’s case it would be the equivalent of Ndere Centre in Ntinda.

We got on to buses and arrived at the place at around 8:00Pm. My host wanted to introduce me to the guests or rather to introduce the guests to me. That’s when it downed on me that all along I had addressed a meeting whose audience I had no idea about at all. The meeting had had many senior government officials including cabinet ministers and members of parliament! With hind sight, I felt relieved that I didn’t know. Had I known prior, before presenting, possibly I would have been trembling all through the presentation. It was at this point that I now knew why the World Bank lady had put in all her time to check that the presentation was right.

This experience taught two important lessons – prepare adequately when you are going to speak to any audience and secondly, that you can correct and teach people in a very subtle yet professional way without hurting their egos. To this day, I feel grateful and envious of the World Bank lady who helped me come up with the best presentation to an audience I never “knew”. God Bless her.

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