Style or Content?

This morning, I tweeted the question:

“Which is better: professional content delivered poorly, or poor content delivered professionally?”

Of course, in an ideal world, every presentation would be full of great material and would be delivered expertly. This is not an ideal world.

Therefore I asked this provocative question because very often people talk about focusing on content versus style, or vice-versa.

One answer was very clear: “Both suck”. I can identify with that. Thinking back to my last TEDx event, I know that there was a presentation which was full of important content, but I can’t remember any of it – all I remember was the awful delivery and the frankly sinful combination of Times New Roman and Comic Sans. Equally, there was another talk which was expertly given but didn’t actually say very much.

Neither of these talks was effective in that they didn’t deliver a lasting message. I’ll come back to them in a moment.

I also got some answers saying that good content delivered poorly would be preferable to poor content delivered well, if a choice had to be made. Interestingly, nobody suggested that it’s better to have poor content delivered professionally.

Therefore after my provocative question, here’s a provocative answer. I’d prefer the poor content delivered professionally. Why?

Let’s go back to those two TEDx talks. I cannot even remember the name of the lady who gave the good content poorly. If she were to speak again, I wouldn’t sign up to see her, still less pay to see her, even (or especially)  if I recalled her talk upon seeing her name again.

As for the guy who spoke very professionally about not very much, I can remember his name, and I probably would sign up to see him again, because at least he was entertaining and I enjoyed listening to him. I also learned a few speaking tips.

Ultimately it’s about how well you achieve the four aims of presentation. If you deliver poorly, then you might not be properly heard or understood, you may not be very well respected, and very likely your great messages won’t be remembered. Communication failed.

However,  if you deliver professionally, if your voice is heard and your audience is listening, if you are clearly understood, and if you are respected at least for your speaking ability, then you stand a better chance of being remembered, and getting your sub-standard message across – and furthermore, you are more likely to have future opportunities to deliver messages, which could be better crafted.

So for me, it’s either a great message which doesn’t get remembered, or a poor message which might get remembered and a speaker who might be respected to some degree. This is why style is at least as important as content, and perhaps more so, although you need at least some of each. Presentation skills do not only cover style – and this is why when I am training presenters with Ideas on Stage, I spend a whole day on the message before getting onto oratory and visuals.

Of course it would be better if everyone had great things to say and learned to deliver them like Steve Jobs. Like I said, this isn’t an ideal world. But a focus on true presentation skills, honing the message as well as its delivery, can give everyone a better chance of communicating effectively.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

2 Responses to Style or Content?

  1. Hi Phil – interesting article.

    For me (and this is personal, not professional) it’s not a question of a presentation being “well delivered” but it’s more about a presentation being “well *enough* delivered”.

    For the majority of “normal” people, presentations aren’t going to be the biggest part of their job and so the best we can hope for is that their presentations do the content justice – in other words that they (at the very least) don’t get in the way of the content.

    Taking the “good enough” approach frees up people who would otherwise shy away from presenting to have a go….


    • Phil Waknell says:


      Thanks for your comments. I like to think we can hope for a little more than presenters not getting in the way of content, but your point about making presentations not being the main part of someone’s job is well made and very pertinent. I make the point in my courses that I can’t teach everyone to present like Steve Jobs, but I can help them to present like themselves, a little better and a little more comfortably.

      Given the typical standard of presentations, i.e. very poor, most people are able to learn how to stand out from the crowd and get their message across without becoming superstars. Therefore while I agree with your ‘good enough’ principle entirely, I’d add that ‘good enough’ is actually a lot better than average, yet is still within anyone’s reach if they make the effort and take the time to learn and practise.

      Thanks for your comment Simon!


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