Pssst! Wanna Get Ahead? Polish Your Presentation Skills

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Pssst! Wanna Get Ahead? Polish Your Presentation Skills

Most of us are occasionally called upon to make a business presentation… Presentations to seek authorization or funding for a project, to report on performance, to pitch a product or service, demonstrate expertise, the list goes on. These presentations can have have serious business and career consequences, yet few of us have been trained to do them. Perhaps because we don’t especially look forward to the task, we often wait until the week, maybe even the day before, and hurriedly assemble a PowerPoint® deck, then hope that there is somehow “magic in the clicker.”

There isn’t, ergo we shouldn’t be too surprised to see puzzled looks on the faces of some audience members, other faces that are peeking not so surreptitiously at their devices, and hearing still others squirming in their seats while we talk. That is an awful feeling. We’ve all been there, and we’ve lived to tell about it, but what about our message? What happened to it? What did it to to or for our career arc?

Shortly after writing my first book (with co-author and business partner, Richard Hadden) and beginning to do paid speaking gigs, I resolved to get better at it. Following is a short list of precepts that have benefitted me. I hope you find some of them helpful:

The Deck Isn’t the Presentation, You Are! – Repeat after me – I am the presentation, the storyteller. The slides, stories, anecdotes are but tools (vessels if you will) that serve to transport and illuminate the message for your audience. Giving a presentation is a stage performance, and you are the performer. Everything else is a prop.

Message Clarity is Vital – It is vital that you be abundantly clear about what your story is, and isn’t. In his book, Beating the Street (recommended), famed Fidelity Investments Fund Manager, Peter Lynch maintained that people ought not invest in anything that they can’t easily explain with a crayon. The same thing holds true for a presentation – Until you can explain with that same blunt instrument what your presentation is all about, don’t go anywhere near a storyboard or PowerPoint deck, let alone a microphone, because you don’t yet understand it well enough to be creating slides or emoting aloud.

The Presentation is About the Audience and the Message, Not About You – After getting over a case of “fat-head” that often accompanies having a hot selling book, I realized that the more I crafted the message to my audience, the better they liked it. This stage of preparation involves some serious work, because you’ve got to ”go to school” on  your audience. How many are there? What are the demographics? Who are they, and where do they come from? What do they do? Why are they assembled, and how is my presentation relevant to that? How long have they been sitting? Who preceded me onstage, and who is following me? What is likely to be the the mood in the room? How, specifically, might my message interest or make life better for THEM? What commonalities might they have that I can use as a lever? Are there any hot button issues that I need to be aware of or stay away from?

Commit to Better Storytelling – Your primary role is to fashion and deliver a compelling message that changes awareness, hearts, minds, and usually, gains Commitment to some course of action (uppercase “C” intentional). Sadly, we’ve not had a lot of really good examples set for us. For every truly exceptional presentation, we’ve probably seen a hundred lousy or at best, mediocre ones. Most of those subpar performances have two things in common: The presenter was ill-prepared, and the presentation was entirely too long. Occasionally, I’m asked to do a 75 or 90 minute keynote, which I politely refuse, always. Nobody is that good, with their clothes on:-)

Think hard about your central message (remember the crayons), and then search your memory banks for stories, analogies, questions, facts that best convey and give life to that message for your audience.

You don’t have to use a slide deck to augment your presentation, but do remember that at least a quarter of your audience consists of visual learners. Somehow, you must reach them. Ditto for a similar sized group that needs some form of analogy or concrete example to drive the message home for them.

Whatever media you use, make sure it’s impeccably good. Like a beautiful salmon filet or steak, please don’t clutter it up with a lot of other junk. Stay away from text-intensive slides (nothing less than 32 pt. type, and <32 words per slide, preferably fewer.) Try it out on some volunteers to ensure that it conveys the message you think it does, and doesn’t have any unintended consequences.

Wherever possible, favor simplicity over complexity, pictures over words, and equip numbers with a “helper” that lends context or meaning. In a recent piece for Forbes, Carmine Gallo (with an assist from Bono) conveys some great tips for making effective use of data in your presentations

Prepare, and Then Prepare Some More – As a rule of thumb, my ratio of prep time to presentation time is roughly 100:1. So, for a one hour presentation, I’ll spend somewhere around 90 hours building the presentation (conceiving, storyboarding, building media) and another ten hours rehearsing (including a full dress rehearsal and a/v check). Shorter presentations, where every sentence and minute counts, can be much higher, because there is no room for fluff. Not unlike making a fine sauce, shorter presentations take longer to cook.

Now What? I understand fully that this is a serious investment of  time, but it is an investment that creates distinct advantages: You go “on stage” with a level of confidence that you’ve never felt before with a microphone in your face, and you gain serious competitive advantage.

For even more tips on better presentation design and delivery check out Nancy Duarte’s stuff and Carmine Gallo’s work. You may also want to engage a speaking coach to help accelerate your progress. Regardless of the path you take, make it a point  this year to be a bit more intentional and prepared with your presentations. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your audiences.

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