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Follow These Simple Rules to Crush Your Next Presentation

As leaders, you will need to present your thoughts, ideas, project updates to a myriad of people and committees. In fact, I was having coffee with an old friend last week and he complained that these days,he is seated in meeting after meeting, "clearing slide decks". I retorted by saying that, being an ex-Army General, he should be well acquainted with this process.

"Unfortunately", he replies, "it is nowhere near as smooth as it is in the Army. In the Army, there is structure in the process, and everyone knows what this structure is. So when we look at presentations, we know what information we are looking out for and when that information would be presented. In the corporate setting, there is no structure, so different people will have different ideas of what information is important, and what is not, and a simple presentation that should not take more than 10 slides, ends up being 30!"

I am sure some of you can identify with what my friend is experiencing. What is worse is that you end up spending so much time needlessly going through presentation slides to "get the right message" that you are completely sidelined from doing your primary job, which starts to pile up and forces you to work overtime, something you needn't have done in the first place, if everyone simply knew how to create and deliver, a good presentation.

The following comes from my 12 years' experience in the Army, the last three being in the Ministry of Defence, where I had presented policy papers, proposals and information to directors, chiefs, and ministers; as well as the ensuing 20 years as a corporate trainer and public speaker. I can say that I know a thing or two about presentation, and I share these 8 key ideas that you need to adopt to completely crush your next presentation.

1. Know your Audience

Your presentation to the Board of Directors would be totally different to the one to the sales people, even if the subject matter is the same. This is because each set of audience requires different things, is responsible for different things, and is made up of different people. So when dealing with different stakeholders, you will need to tailor your message differently. So while the key ideas for the Board of Directors is market penetration and compliance, the key ideas for salespeople are targets and incentives. Mixing the messages is a fatal flaw in presentations, and one that will lead to pure confusion. You might not get Board approval not because your idea was bad, but because the presentation sucked! You didn't meet their needs, addressed their concerns, and gave them confidence. So you need to know exactly who you are presenting to (right down to each individual in the audience, if possible), understand their points of view, what they want out of the meeting, and give them what they need to get the right response. This is really your first step in crushing your next presentation!

2. Create your own structure

As mentioned earlier, when there is structure, people know what to expect, where to look out for information, and when to ask appropriate questions. The presentation will flow more smoothly and members can engage in better and more concrete discussions. In presentations that don't seem to have any structure, it falls on you, the presenter, to create that structure. And when you have done that, to not only apprise all members of it, but you must also manage it. You cannot allow any member of the audience to usurp presentation leadership and disrupt the flow. Hence, before you dive into your presentation, establish the structure, the rules of engagement, and then get agreement from the audience, identifying any specific focus that they may need, and point them to where in the presentation that will be addressed. This will allow you to manage the whole flow much better.

3. Start with Why

This is Simon Sinek's famous book title where he gave us the secret to a good presentation - the Golden Circle.

As you can see, the why is the inner-most circle, and you start from there, working your way out. Hence, start your presentation proper by laying down why your audience is there, before you dive into how things will be done, and what specifically each person will need to do to contribute. If one doesn't know the reason - the intent - for being in your presentation, that person will be sitting there and listening to a whole bunch of words but not being able to frame them properly. This is a recipe for presentation failure. The why - the intent - of your presentation helps members of the audience understand what you are looking to achieve out of the presentation, and also allows them to see the impact of the information from their position, from their point of view. They can then pin the information in their own logical frame, and from there, make sense of your presentation. So always Start With Why.

4. Paint the current situation as a matter of fact

Next, give everyone an assessment of the current situation, warts and all. Remind them of how you got to where you are now, and how this is pulling you towards your stated intent, or pulling you away from it. Project out from where you are into the future, explaining the implications of the current situation. Once people have a handle of what is happening now, they can have an idea of what to do next. One thing you need to remember: the current situation assessment is not a finger-pointing, blaming session; even if there is one person to blame for it. It is presented so that everyone can accept the situation as it is, and build on from there. If the situation is good, then we want to look at ways to extend that; if the situation is not very good, then we want to look at ways to improve on it. It however is NOT a root cause analysis of the situation, trying to pinpoint fault and apportion blame.

5. Give options, and your recommendation

Every presentation must have an end-result, a goal. Be it to get someone to purchase something, or to get a committee to endorse a project, or to get senior management to sign off on an audit report, there is something that needs to be done at the end of the presentation. (If your presentation has no such requirement, then you really don't have a great intent in the first place!) As such, you will have to be explicit, giving options, and building a final recommendation that links closely to the current situation. Your recommendation must be the most compelling option, one that meets most, if not all, your situational constraints. This takes away any feelings of bias that the audience might have of you; after all, you have presented them with all the options, and made your recommendation based on meeting constraints. Unless you have not identified all the options, and there is a better one that alluded you but not the audience, there is no way they can NOT agree with your recommendation. This is how you will meet your intent for the presentation.

I'd like to end off with three technique points that will help you totally crush that presentation...

6. Use only key words and strong images

Please understand that your presentation slide is meant to help the audience focus on what you are saying; it is not a document for them to read. If you want them to read, then you should have just sent them a report instead. A presentation, by definition, presupposes you presenting the information. The focal point is you, not the slides. Hence, your slides must not distract the audience from paying attention to you. Your slide is there to emphasise your main idea, and hence should only contain key words. The fewer, the better (one is the best). If you are a good orator, like Steve Jobs, all you need is the one word. But, for us lesser beings, you might like to supplement that with a strong visual. If you have to present with a chart, then make sure that you chart is animated and shows only what you want the audience to see at that one time. Don't dump the whole chart onto the slide unless you want to give them a sense of the whole picture before diving deeper into each aspect.

7. Keep it short and sharp

Some of us have the tendency to ramble on, adding superfluous information in what would have been a great presentation. Contrary to some people's belief, more is not necessarily good. In fact, less is always good! Resist the temptation to add more clarifying information than what you had decided to put up on the slide. By keeping your message taut and succinct, not only do you keep the presentation on track, you lead the audience down the journey that you prepared for them. Just like a well organised tour in a new destination does not take you to see everything, instead building a strong experience story, so too your presentation. In crafting your story, and then sticking to it, you ensure that your audience sees what you see, and resists attempts to pull your presentation along the side-track. If indeed you feel the discussion moving off in a tangent, stop it immediately, realign the audience onto your journey, and then move down that. Keeping it taut will ensure that the amount of hijacking is limited, if not altogether eliminated!

8. Have a lot of time for audience to respond

Personally, I do not allow the audience to interrupt my flow too much. There will be interjections - especially when you are presenting to higher-ups - and if the answer to the question comes later, I will say that it will be addressed in a later part of my presentation, and I move on. If the question will not be addressed in a later part, I prefer to answer the question at the end of my presentation, providing just a brief response to allow the presentation to flow without a hitch. How brief depends on you and the question itself. But if you take too long to address that question, which truthfully, only the person asking is interested to know, you start to lose the rest of the audience. Hence, you have to control what information you want to share, when and at what point. Hence, you have every right not to answer the question at the point of it being asked; however, you must come back to it at the appropriate time, and address it fully. This is why you need to apportion as much time as you can for the audience to respond, ask questions, seek clarification. The more they do that, the greater will be their clarity, and the more aligned their response will be with your intent.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is an old joke that goes, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" and the answer, "Practice, Practice, Practice." Just as it requires practice pull off a sterling performance at Carnegie Hall, it takes practice too, to crush a presentation. But it does not have to be difficult, and you don't have to fear it. True, the less prepared you are for it, the less you know your subject matter, the less you can explain your project in simple terms, the more you are going to fail, the remedy is simple - practice, practice, practice. And by keeping these 8 steps in mind, and planning your presentation, refining your message, using as few words as possible, supplementing it with strong images, by keeping the presentation moving nicely along a well defined path, and then leaving enough time for interaction with the audience, getting buy-in, you will be well on your way to CRUSHING your next presentation!

I wish you all the very best!

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