If you are a professional, entrepreneur, manager, or leader, you are in the business of selling your ideas. Whether you are answering the query, “How’s the project going?” or making a formal presentation, you have a chance to establish an executive presence. Here are six tips for improving the substance and style of your presentations.
Don’t “let down” for sit-down presentations.
You may make many presentations to only a few people seated around a table or desk. But there may be no correlation between audience size and importance of the outcome. So, consider the group’s expectations.
Don’t assume that because the audience is small, its members do not expect a quality presentation with visuals and the works. Since you are seated around a desk or table—at eye level—you must convey your enthusiasm, assertiveness, and authority through your facial expressions, posture, and voice. Sit comfortably erect, leaning slightly forward to show attentiveness and enthusiasm for your subject. Sit back to convey openness to questions.
Position yourself to maintain eye contact with everyone in the room. Do not get stuck between two listeners. If possible, remove any physical obstacles that block vision or create “distance” between you and your audience.
Ask relevant questions with a clear purpose.
When you open with a relevant question, make it clear where you are trying to lead the discussion. Explain the benefits or the point of knowing the answer. Only focused questions seem worthy of an answer. To be persuasive, ask a question that showcases a benefit: “How much time do you spend preparing these charts?” Follow up: “With our software, you can generate such a chart in one minute.”
Raise a question: “Do your managers enjoy performance appraisals?” Give a response: “Using this survey, we can identify performance problems objectively before they become serious.” Invite others to “try on your idea.” Since people can’t try new ideas on over old ones, you have to persuade people to put aside the old policy, equipment, or training, and give the new idea a fair trial. Ask: “Are you open to discussing something new?” Help others to play with an idea first discuss what-ifs, who-withs, where-necessarys, whys, and how-tos. Asking a question to test others’ openness will allow them to “toy” with an idea before committing to “buy” it.
When asking your question, always give a context, structure, or purpose. If people know why you are asking, they may supply helpful information that you haven’t even thought to ask. Focus may determine whether you build rapport or destroy a relationship or opportunity—whether people are put off or persuaded by your presentation. When you know your listeners are biased against what you have to say, ask for a suspension of judgment. Diplomatically, acknowledge the situation. Your listeners will give you a fair hearing.
Select quotations from both the famous and the unknown
Quotations create impact by adding the words of a recognizable authority. They are usually succinctly and colorfully worded, crystallizing the key idea better than most presenters could. Check out Web sites that put quotations at your finger-tips. Don’t overlook comments by lesser-known individuals. For example, if you are speaking on current problems in the industry, you might interview and share “person on the street” comments gathered from remarks overheard at your trade-show booth. These may be anonymous or attributed remarks, depending on which is more important to your point—what they said or who said it.
If you are talking about industry trends, you might extract comments from “Letters to the Editor” in a professional journal. If you are talking about feedback on your benefits, you might pull comments from recent telephone interviews with employees. If you’re talking about customer service training, you might add comments from your help desk logs and from complaint emails to make your point. The status of the author of the remark may not be as important as the comment itself.
Never let facts speak for themselves.
Facts need interpretation. According to Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” People can make numbers mean almost anything. Interpret your facts so that your listeners draw the conclusions you intend. Use both rounded and exact numbers. Exact numbers sound more credible; so, if you want the numbers to be both credible and memorable, use the exact number first, and then round it off. Use graphs, charts, and demos to make the numbers come alive.
Determine whether to use a positive or a negative appeal. Consider “You’ll live longer and feel better if you exercise” versus “If you don’t exercise, your chances of getting heart disease increase by 42 percent.” Both appeals work—but not always with the same audience.
Identify which appeal works best. Use meaningful proof. Don’t waste time gathering proof of your points only to discover that your audience does not agree that the studies, surveys, focus-group findings, or work samples prove anything. Make the proof meaningful to those whose opinions count.
Use persuasive devices that aid retention
Use slogans, metaphors, similes, analogies, allegories, parables, fables, stories, and antitheses to encapsulate, clarify, and aid retention. Slogans capture a key point in a memorable way. As you repeat your slogan during the presentation, you add emphasis to the key message. So, if you want to create a theme for your initiatives, select a slogan to make it memorable. A metaphor is a word or phrase substituted for another to suggest similarity. For example: “Time is money.” A simile compares two things with the words like or as. The more complex the idea, the more important it is to simplify and illustrate by comparison. Visual or emotional analogies help audiences follow you step by step. To reverse thinking, try using antitheses. Opposite ideas juxtaposed in the same sentence create thought-provoking grabbers.
Weed out generalities, cliches, and platitudes. More is not better. Make your points specific, and support them with facts. Substitute fresh wording for cliches. Do not put your audience to sleep with platitudes. If you tell a story, know your reason for doing so: to illustrate a point, to entertain, or to build common ground. By knowing the purpose, you also will understand the time and effort you should devote to telling it. Never use a $100 story in a three minute time slot to make a nickel point.
Remember that timing indicates emphasis.
Spend 10 to 15 percent of your time on the opening, 70 to 85 percent on the body, and 5 to 10 percent on the closing. This allows time up front in the introduction to grab attention, “win over” a hostile or uninterested group, and establish credibility. If your presentation includes an involved action plan, that section most likely should be part of the body of your presentation, and your close should focus on the final persuasive push toward the decision to act.
You may need to cut. In doing so, always keep the audience’s preferences in mind. As John Brockmann put it, “Most houseplants are killed by overwatering.” Never ramble on past the point of high impact. Anything you say after your point of close dilutes your impact. Do not ramble on with anticlimactic drivel. Say it and stop.