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Presenting with impact – a matter of life or death? How to be a Better Communicator part V

By 22nd September 2014July 18th, 2023Blog, Shaping interactive conferences
How not to run a company presentation

Fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death for many of us, at least if you believe surveys on this sort of thing

A bad presentation can indeed be the death knell of a project, promotion or even career. But it doesn’t have to be like that; you don’t have to die in a hail of bullet points.

In this blog, fifth in a series of six on the essential skills of employee engagement for leaders and managers, we explore some powerful if less well-known tips and techniques to help you present with impact – and avoid those near-death experiences.

Start with the end in mind

First things first. Resist the obvious temptation to dig out a set of slides you’ve used before, that you think “might just do the trick”. You can spend hours trawling through folders, files and back-up drives only to discover, when you eventually find the presentation, it wasn’t quite what you thought it was and isn’t fit for purpose.

Instead, invest time thinking through what you are trying to achieve – in other words, start with the end in mind. Do you want to sell a product or idea, inspire action or even promote yourself? Whatever your purpose is, write it down. That way, as you go along, you can check that everything you include is aligned to what you want to achieve.

Then ask yourself what would success look like both for you, the presenter, and for your audience. How would you feel? What would you do? How about the audience – what would they think and what would they feel as you finish? And, crucially, what action would they take? These are your outcomes. Again, write them down.

Know your audience

Next, what do you know about your audience? If the answer is not much, then do your research. What do they know about your topic already? What do they need to know? What might motivate them to take on your point of view? Are they detail people or big picture types? What is their attention span?

Finding out will help you identify the best angle of attack. I like to keep in mind the words of the late Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” And as Ken Haemer of AT&T put it: “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter ‘To whom it may concern’.”

It’s worth stressing here that all this initial work – on your purpose, outcomes and understanding audience needs – can go on in your head and on with good old-fashioned pen and paper. There’s no need to fire up PowerPoint just yet; otherwise, before you know it you’ll be churning out slides without knowing where you’re going.

Structure your story

With your audience’s needs and your aims clear and writ large in front of you, it’s time to start structuring your ideas. Even now, resist the temptation to go to PowerPoint – it tends to force you to think in terms of detail when you need to be thinking first about telling a coherent story. Storytelling is in our DNA and a good story is what captures the imagination and attention of an audience. It’s at the heart of presenting with impact.

To help you develop your plot, try breaking open some Post-It notes for an initial brainstorm. I often use Post-It notes on a big cleared table in a bright, naturally lit room and use them to write down the key points – between three and five – that I want to make, one per Post-It. I then arrange them across the top of the table to act as headings. Under each heading, I use more Post-Its, this time a different colour, for supporting points, quotes, references, links to resources, etc.

One of the great things about Post-Its is how they seem to aid flexible thinking. It’s much easier to move them around to find where they make most sense in the arc of my story. It’s also a lot easier to screw up a Post-It and bin it compared to deleting an animated ‘masterpiece’ of a slide that I’ve become married to (and wouldn’t want to divorce!) After all, it’s often what you leave out rather than what you put in that makes most difference to the success of a presentation.

In like a lion, out like a lamb won’t steal a march

The world knows that we Brits are fixated by the weather. We often describe the month of March as coming: “In like a lion, out like a lamb”. I see too many presentations around the world that are March-like. The presenter spends a good while thinking through how to make an impact at the beginning of a presentation – nothing wrong with that – but then no time at all thinking about how to end it – which, incidentally, is when the call to action normally comes!

These presentations don’t end; they peter out, dribbling apologetically down the shirt of the presenter. I think effective presentations need to come in like a lion and go out like a lion, too – and with a loud roar in the middle just as the audience might be losing concentration. This addresses the effect of primacy and recency; people remember the beginning of a presentation and they remember the end (even a poor one), but drift off in the middle.

Of course you also need light and shade in a presentation and clear contrast between the two; it can’t be all fireworks.

There are some superb pointers about contrast in presentations, as well as other great presentation tips and techniques, in Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate – better still, watch her presentation on how to structure presentations in which she walks the talk.

What’s the point of PowerPoint?

Even once you’re clear on the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘who’, pause before you give in to the lure of slides. Is a standard PowerPoint deck really the best way to get your message across? If you want to stand out from the noise of other communications, remember there is life beyond PowerPoint – and I don’t mean Keynote or Prezi (which makes my head spin when badly used).

You could write a report, followed up by a meeting. You could create a provocation paper, then facilitate a debate and reach a conclusion. You could take a symbolic action. You could mimic a famous song or movie to make your message memorable.

Hey, you could even try speaking ‘unplugged’ without any slides at all. TED is a great place to see outstanding presentations. Few speakers who give TED talks rely on visual aids – unless it’s to show powerful images, quotes or information that’s best presented graphically. (And the best speakers almost always tell a story, often with a strong personal thread.)

Whatever method you use to get your message across, your audience might really appreciate a break from the standard plod through a 40-slide PowerPoint deck – and admire you for your boldness and creativity.

Key points on PowerPoint

You might still end up using PowerPoint, of course. But it’ll be a well thought through choice of visual aid to support you in making your points powerfully not because of lazy thinking or a robotic auto response.

When you do go down the PowerPoint route, please keep these very personal bugbears in mind:

  • Make it easily legible to all. Twenty-point text is the bare minimum. If you’ve ever heard yourself saying: “You can’t read this at the back, but…”, then you were getting this one wrong. It’s a visual aid, not a sight test!
  • No more than five lines per page.
  • Avoid the ‘explosion in a font factory’ look.
  • Don’t use every animation or transition ‘trick’ on the software; this is a business presentation not a cheap wedding video.
  • No clipart, or pixelated images – they look unprofessional.
  • Don’t use your slides as a script – your audience can read, too (they probably even dressed themselves this morning!)

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Whichever technique you go for, the key is rehearsal – rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! In the mirror, with a colleague who’s opinion you value and, if you can, in the room you are going to present in. Don’t let the environment itself trip you up, literally, as you fall over laptop bags on your journey to the front… or can’t work the tech, or the daylight washes out the screen, etc. You can rehearse away all these concerns and sleep better the night before your presentation.

And rehearse your first few lines especially well. Deliver them clearly, with confidence and conviction, and you’ll get off to a great start, those butterflies will fly in formation and your nerves can flutter off.

I was working with a coaching client recently, who put it very clearly: “You are a life saver. Before the coaching, I would have struggled to even enter an auditorium without feeling physically sick. Now I’m confident about standing on stage and sharing my messages at the global road-shows.”

This is the call to action bit… (Note it comes towards the end!)

Delivering presentations doesn’t have to be scary. Try following these tips and you might just shock yourself with how good you can be – and leave your audience reflecting on the horror stories of other presentations they’ve endured while you make a positive impact.

If you think you or your colleagues would benefit from some tailored presentation coaching from Axiom or our High Impact presentation workshop that we can deliver inside your organisation, then contact us.