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"We Don’t Do It That Way." Tips for More Effective Presentations


Last updated 8/5/2010

“Good morning, my name is Jack. I’m here to talk about the budget for 2006 and here’s my first slide . . .Blah, blah, blah .  Are there any questions? No? Well, then, uh, thank you.”

Yawn. Does the above litany sound familiar? Perhaps my biggest battle with clients is over the organization of their business presentations. For some reason, they have a tendency to reject the notion of a detailed, focused introduction and conclusion. Yet, once they try this time-tested technique, most people agree that they both sound more convincing and feel more confident.

So, in case you hold views similar to those of my clients or, if the voice of your business school communication professor no longer echoes in your brain, I offer the following refresher course in effective presentations.

“But, in our organization, we just don’t do presentations that way.” Yes, I’ve heard that one before. Nevertheless, consider Jack’s all-too-typical presentation. Do you think his audience is engaged? No. Do they know what his presentation is about? Yes, sort of, in general. Does the audience know specifically and personally what’s in it for them to listen? Absolutely not. Did they pay attention well enough to ask a question? Probably not. Do they know what they are supposed to do now? Um, that would be a no. Do they feel like the speaker cares about them at all. Nope.

So, perhaps he needs another approach. Jack (or anyone else who’s listening—try this:
  • Do Your Homework. Of course, you will not begin selecting material until you have reviewed what you know about the situation (problem, corporate culture, external environment) and your audience (who they are, what their concerns are, what you want them to do). This prep work will help you focus your presentation only on the information that is most relevant.
  • Use Your Introduction to Get Your Listeners Involved. You must accomplish three things in your introduction:
  1. Attention grabber: Engage your audience’s attention and arouse their interest
  2. Agenda: Tell your audience exactly what you are going to talk about
  3. Benefit: Encourage your audience to listen by telling them, specifically and personally, why they should listen to you; i.e., what’s in it for them

Start with a great attention grabber. Becoming comfortable with an attention grabber seems to be one of the hardest obstacles for a speaker to overcome. However, you have many, many options. The only rules are that the attention grabber must :

  1. Relate to the speech
  2. Be appropriate for your audience. (I still remember the student who wrote S-E-X on the board and then said, “Now that I have your attention, I’m going to talk about . . .” Neither relevant nor appropriate.)

Here are some appropriate options:

  • A startling statement or statistic (if it supports the argument you are making in your presentation)
  • A rhetorical question (if you are sure the audience would answer the way you want)
  •  A quotation (if you can deliver it smoothly)
  • A story (if you have time)
  • A humorous anecdote (as long as it’s not a joke that could insult someone in your audience)

An old standby is a reference to the occasion or event where you are speaking (if you can relate it to the purpose of your speech). However, if someone introduces you, you might have to say something in response to the introduction before you actually begin your presentation. Refer to the occasion at that time, then pause, look at your audience, and deliver a better, more dynamic attention grabber from the list above.

Avoid attention grabbers that sound apologetic, might offend, or employ gimmicks. And, no, your wonderful voice or contagious energy or great new suit are not attention grabbers.

Tell your audience what you’re going to talk about. You have more options here. You may choose to simply share the purpose for your talk. If you are doing a longer presentation, you should run down the agenda items. However, be careful that you don’t scare your audience away with too much information up front. For example, if you are talking about reorganization, you might say that you are going to discuss the plans for the roll out and, then, the impact on everyone. If you are too explicit about your agenda, you may disclose information that you need to explain first.

Make it about them. I can’t overemphasize the importance of answering your audience’s question, “What’s in it for me?” The benefit may be obvious to you, but never assume it’s obvious to them. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of stating a benefit for the company but not for the individual listeners. So, ask yourself, “Why, specifically and personally, should my audience listen to me speak?” Then tell them exactly that.

Keep the body simple. Most people do a pretty good job with the middle of the presentation. You know what you need to say. You will do better, however, if you remember some key ideas:

  1. Keep main points to a minimum. I’m a “three point” person unless I have a really good reason or a really long time. For example, my strategic communication model has five main points, and I use that for case analysis.
  2. Organize information based on your goal. Are you informing, persuading, giving bad news? Be sure that everything you say helps you meet your objectives.
  3. Select material that focuses on benefits for your audience. Don’t just talk about an idea or a process. Tell the audience what that idea means to them or how the process affects their work.
  4. Enhance your points with slides, numbers, examples, stories—anything that will help your audience remember what you’ve said.

Leave a Lasting Impression. You should accomplish three last things in the conclusion portion of your presentation:

  1. Summary: Explain exactly what you want your audience to remember
  2. Action: Tell your audience exactly what you want them to do
  3. Final statement: The final, lasting verbal and visual impression you want to make on your audience

What do you want them to remember? Summarize the essence of the main points, not the headlines. The biggest mistake I have noticed over the years is the tendency to summarize only the solution, not the problem, too. Be sure you remind the audience of all the most important points you’ve made.

Do you want your audience to ask questions? This is a good place to put Q&A. You can also take questions before your summary or after your action step, but always end with your final statement, not an unprepared answer to a random question.

What do you want them to do? Be specific here so there is no misunderstanding about your expectations. Review your introduction. Does the action step in your conclusion reflect the purpose for your speech?

What do you want to leave with your audience? This is your last shot. Save your most memorable words. Repeat your slogan. Show the picture of your ideal world as a result of your proposed solution. What you show, what you say, and how you say it should be a triple-powered display that insures you have made your point.  Pause. Then, you may say, “Thank you.” Your audience members, of course, will be on their feet, applauding.

I promise you, this technique works every time. And perhaps, in the future, the common phrase about presentations in your organization will be, “We want to do it your way.”