Peter Shea, a plant controller for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), knew it was time to shine. He’d been summoned to Wilmington, Delaware to the boardroom of ICI Americas to make a five-minute presentation on his value to the company. Shea wanted to capture the imagination of the 18 senior executives in the room so he devised an intriguing metaphor. His factory was like a race car, he suggested, and his job was to keep it running fast. Bad idea. The executives cut him off after four sentences and asked him to leave (the room, not the company). “I lost it,” he cringes. “I wilted and died.”
Dave Jensen of Search Masters International is an executive recruiter who focuses on the biotechnology industry. He was giving a presentation in San Diego, to the Society for Industrial Microbiology, and he wanted to charge up the crowd. So he opened with a joke from a book of speaking tips. Bad idea. “It just died,” he laments. “It wasn’t very funny. And industrial microbiologists aren’t a funny group to begin with. When you lose something in the first two minutes of a talk, you just can’t get it back.”
Darryl Gordon, a multimedia guru with Kenneth C. Smith Advertising of La Jolla, California, was invited to demonstrate the power of digital technology to 60 ad agency presidents. So he decided to give his presentation off a computer — complete with colorful slides, bright graphics, and lots of sound. Bad idea. He flipped on the “power” button and nothing happened. It took 15 minutes to load the presentation onto a spare machine. “Every second of that 15 minutes felt like a lifetime,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget it.”
Presentations have become a ubiquitous ritual of corporate life — and for good reason. As more work becomes teamwork, what you know is less important than how well you communicate it. “We have really bright people who think up incredible things,” says Michael Fors, a corporate training manager at Intel who teaches the company’s popular course on presentations, “but if they can’t make their ideas understandable for other people, what good are they? It takes real presentation skills to translate this technology.”
The absence of those skills, Fors might have added, can have serious career repercussions. More than ever, young people are making high-stakes presentations to the most senior executives in their companies. One of the quickest ways to freeze your progress up the ladder is to foul up a big presentation. “People five or six levels down in the organization present to the CEO today,” says Rae Gorin Cook, who teaches presentation skills to executives at companies such as Hewlett-Packard, SmithKline Beecham, and Mobil. “Most of them are terrified. The typical scenario is an up-and-comer, someone in their 20s or 30s, who gets in front of top management and gets beaten up. Be prepared.”
What follows, then, is Fast Company’s eight-point program, based on insights from the best experts around, to help you prepare for your next presentation. Don’t expect a list of “can’t miss” openers or lame tips about visualizing people in their underwear. The best presentations seem effortless, but they’re the results of well-designed technique and lots of practice. Now that we have your complete attention ?
1. Incite, don’t inform.
Effective presentations don’t end with nodding heads and polite applause. They end with action. The most important question to ask before any presentation is, “What do I want my audience to do and how do I convince them to do it?”
David Gunby, a leadership trainer at EDS, has taught a course on presentations to more than 1,200 of his colleagues over the last few years. “Even ‘informational’ presentations are more powerful if there’s a persuasive end in mind,” Gunby says. “It might just be, ‘How do I persuade people to use the information I’m giving them?'”
Of course, aiming to persuade is different from actually persuading. At the level of strategy, Intel’s Fors says the best presentations answer basic questions that few presenters ever bother asking: What’s my core message? How does that message benefit my audience? What barriers are there to people accepting the message? What common ground (values, experience, goals) do I share with the audience? When I finish, what do I want the audience to do? “Presentations are about objectives, benefits, and actions,” Fors says. “It’s really that simple.”
At the level of tactics, presentation-consultant Rae Gorin Cook urges people to design slides as tools for persuasion rather than sources of information. Her basic advice: think like a journalist. “Don’t ‘title’ your slides,” she argues, “write ‘headlines.’ If you’re giving a talk on quality, don’t label a slide ‘Frequency of Parts Replacement.’ Use a headline, ‘Parts Replacement Decreases with Value Engineering.’ It clarifies your argument and keeps people focused on the message.”
2. Don’t talk to strangers.
It’s hard to persuade an audience when you don’t know who’s in it — their backgrounds, interests, goals, pet peeves. At EDS, Gunby urges his colleagues to conduct informal research a few days before they make a presentation. He calls it CYA: Cover Your Audience. “You should know as much as you can about who you’re speaking to,” Gunby says. “What are their expectations? Where are they positioned on the issue? What’s their knowledge level? What are their demographics and cultures?”
Being serious about CYA means being willing to scrap your presentation if that’s what the audience wants. Last spring, marketing executive Clyde Kesling was asked by some colleagues to make a presentation on EDS’s strategic-planning methodology to a prospective client. In the spirit of CYA, he began by outlining the presentation and asking for feedback. The audience said their real challenges involved people, not strategy. So he invited a colleague to give a completely different presentation. “The salespeople were floored,” he says, “but I was delighted. It drives me crazy when people assume they know what their audience wants to hear. Lots of people don’t find out until the end of the presentation, which is the wrong time.”
Fors urges presenters to do their research in small groups. He says most presentations at Intel begin with an informal ritual called a “walkabout.” The speaker arrives early to collar members of the audience in the meeting room, a hallway, even nearby cafeterias. The presenter describes the core message, finds out what else people need to hear, and probes for objections. “Walkabouts seem like informal one-on-ones,” says Fors, “but they’re really mini-presentations. You don’t make a presentation cold at Intel. It’s part of our culture to be critical, even cynical. This lets you get ready for any concerns people might have.”
3. First (and last) impressions are everything.
Every presentation guru makes the same point: the two most important parts of your presentation are the first 30 and the last 15 seconds. Everything else is, no matter how substantive, is utterly forgettable if the presentation starts or ends badly. “People make a decision in the first 30 seconds about whether they’re going to listen to you,” says Cecilia Macdonald, who teaches executives at AT&T, Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard, and other companies.
Warning: capturing your audience’s attention up front does not mean telling a joke or entertaining them. Macdonald learned this lesson the hard way when she delivered a presentation on how to manage time more effectively. She wanted to do something different — to grab people’s attention — so she began her talk with a skit. She pretended to be disorganized by fumbling with her papers and looking generally disheveled. It worked too well. “It destroyed my credibility,” she says. “Some people thought it was funny, but most just thought I was disorganized. I’ve never done another skit.”
A powerful close, Macdonald says, leaves the audience with something of value and relates directly to the opening. “If you opened with a story, complete the story at the close,” she says. “If you opened with a statistic or quote, restate it at the end. People should walk away with something specific in mind.”
A final point on which the experts agree, and which almost no one follows, is that presenters should always finish early. It creates positive feelings in the audience that can influence how people feel about your message.
4. Simpler is better.
Maybe it’s our talk-show society. Maybe it’s the allure of multimedia technology. Whatever the cause, too many presentations are too long, too slick, and too convoluted. Rae Gorin Cook recently asked top executives at six large companies how people could present more effectively to them. The response was overwhelming: Make your presentations shorter and more candid.
According to Cook, the twin virtues of simplicity and candor should influence every aspect of a presentation. “The most memorable slides are the simplest,” she argues. “Most executives find jazzy slides suspect. ‘Why are you screwing around making overheads with five colors when you should be making better products?.'”
And don’t try to spare people’s feelings by being nice, she adds, just tell it like it is: “‘Nice’ people are being run over,” Cook warns. “A younger generation is getting to the point and telling the truth in a straightforward way. Thirty-minute presentations are being cut back to ten-minute briefings to vice presidents or the CEO. Senior people don’t have time to learn about your topic. They just want to know how they can help you.”
5. Perform, don’t present.
It’s comforting to think that if you master the substance of a presentation by developing a compelling argument, marshaling great evidence, and creating simple overheads, you’ll be guaranteed to wow your audience. It’s also wrong. According to Cecilia Macdonald, the impact of a typical presentation is 55% visual (how you look), 38% vocal (how you talk), and only 7% verbal (what you say). In other words, you don’t deliver presentations, you perform them.
More and more companies are taking this idea literally. Belle Linda Halpern, cofounder of the fast-growing Ariel Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers three-day workshops to executives from Mobil, Deloitte & Touche, CSC Index, and other blue-chip clients. Unlike most presentation consultants, Halpern doesn’t have a background in human resources or corporate communications. She’s a cabaret singer who performs in nightclubs and spends most of her summers on tour.
Why would companies seek out such an unlikely source of advice? “Singing is about making a connection with people,” Halpern says. “It’s also about telling a story. That’s what people do when they’re presenting.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. You don’t have to join the cast of Rent to make effective presentations. The most important attribute of a good performance is avoiding the pitfalls of a bad performance. These pitfalls are so common that the gurus have labeled them. For example, don’t start your presentation by pacing around like a caged animal or dancing with happy feet. Instead, imagine you’re stuck in cement. To avoid the dreaded figleaf pose, imagine there’s water dripping down your arms.
Being stationary, almost rigid, at the outset “shows people that you’re in command,” says Brian Carlsen, who teaches a presentations at Anderson Worldwide. “Plus as you begin to speak, it brings energy directly into your voice.” And don’t try to make eye-contact by becoming a sprinkler system that scans the audience from left to right and back again. Instead bowl down the pins by making such strong eye contact with the people up front that the people behind them also feel connected. “Presenters should look one person square in the eye and hold that contact for at least five seconds, or one complete thought,” Carlsen says. “It’s almost like having mini-conversations with specific members of the audience.”
6. The show must go on.
The “performance factor” is a big reason so many presentations have become multimedia extravaganzas. Computer-generated graphics, high-quality sound, real-time visits to the Internet all provide the makings of a great show. “Most presentations are execrable,” complains Richard Katz, a software evangelist who travels the country making presentations for Intuit. “Even if they transmit information, they do it in a way that’s close to water torture. It’s my job to engage people at an emotional level. People have been trained by television. They need multiple sources of information. There’s no excuse for not using multimedia technology.”
Katz, who presents to more than 20,000 people a year, leaves few weapons out of his techno-arsenal. “My typical presentation is an hour long,” he says. “I run around the audience. I wear a wireless microphone. I use a Sony TR500 video camera to show home movies. I use an InFocus 220 projector, hooked up to either a Windows or Macintosh computer.”
It’s a great show — until the show stops. So many multimedia presentations have run into so many problems that a new industry is sprouting up: rapid-response teams that rush to the scene of crashed presentations. In Minneapolis, a 12-person company called the Geek Squad has built a booming business on the misery of high-tech presenters. “If you’re giving a computer presentation be prepared for problems,” warns founder Robert Stephens. “Ask yourself, ‘What would I do if my computer didn’t work? Or if I couldn’t get an Internet connection? Or if the Web was bogged down?'”
Most people only ask those questions after they’ve experienced a personal disaster. Two years ago, for example, Katz was scheduled to make a presentation to an audience of about 100 people. He felt self-assured enough that he waited until he was on the airplane to install the presentation onto his computer. He landed, drove to the auditorium, and couldn’t get the presentation to work. “I hadn’t backed up my hard drive,” he says, “so it was a total disaster. I canceled the meeting and came back a month later. It was not fun.”
That experience changed Katz’s routine forever. “You won’t find me at a presentation today without a second hard drive,” he declares. He also carries an extension cord, spare bulbs for his projector, and lots of other backup equipment.
Advertising executive Darryl Gordon, the multimedia guru whose presentation crashed, is also a changed man since that dark day in Philadelphia. His “emergency kit” includes Norton Utilities, CD-ROM versions of popular graphics applications such as Persuasion and Macromedia Director, and backup copies of the presentation itself on a Zip drive and a CD-ROM. “If all hell broke loose, I could still give my presentation,” he says confidently.
7. There’s one in every crowd.
Your presentation’s gone great. You invite questions from the audience — and suddenly it’s World War III! Maybe it’s a rival from another department who’s out to get you. Maybe it’s a competitor who can’t resist taking a shot in public. No matter. One hostile question, handled poorly, can erase the goodwill created by an hour’s worth of flawless presenting.
How do you handle a hostile member of the audience? The first rule, says Dave Gunby of EDS, is to disagree without being disagreeable. “When there’s conflict,” he says, “the audience roots for the underdog — and that’s not usually the person standing on stage.
Don’t pick a fight. I like to repeat and rephrase the question, including the emotions that accompanied it. This way the questioner knows I’ve heard him. That alone can defuse some of the negativity.”
Intel’s Mike Fors suggests agreeing to answer the question in detail — after the presentation ends. “You’re the person standing in front of the audience,” Fors says, “so if you lose control of the presentation, you’re the one who loses. The audience usually sides with a presenter who offers to take a difficult issue offline. Most people don’t want to hear an argument.”
Valerie Herbig, a presentation expert with Andersen Worldwide, offers a third technique. Answer the question in real time, she says, but don’t address the questioner directly — speak to the entire audience instead.
“And be sure to end by making eye contact with someone who’s not the questioner,” she adds. “That’s counterintuitive; people want to answer directly and say, ‘Did I answer your question?’ But you may be encouraging an ongoing exchange with that person. They come back and say, ‘But what about this objection?’ Suddenly you’re having a two-way conversation with 100 other people present.”
8. Practice, practice, practice.
The simple truth about presentations, like almost everything else in business, is that the only way to get better is to practice. What’s painful is that most people only have one way to practice — in public, by giving presentations. That’s a mistake. Delivering five lousy presentations doesn’t mean the sixth is destined to be great. Even if you get a little better each time, the damage you’re inflicting on your confidence (not to mention your reputation) might exceed what you’re learning.
The fastest way to get better at presentations is to find a coach. The combination of privacy, videotape equipment, and expert guidance can lead to big improvements in a short period of time — without unnecessary public embarrassment.
Happy Rowe, a stockbroker with Tucker Anthony in Boston, used to dread making client presentations, even though she was required to deliver one every month. The experience was always the same: a pounding heart, sweaty palms, strange fluctuations in her voice that turned sentences into questions. “If I wanted to move forward in my career,” she says, “I knew that I had to be more aggressive and come across strongly.
So Rowe signed up with a speaking consultant who videotaped her presentations and used visualization techniques to create a positive end state. Rowe began visiting her coach about two years ago. At first she made monthly visits, but she’s cut back as she’s become more comfortable. Still, she concedes, “I’ll be working on this for a long time.” She now practices routine presentations twice and new presentations up to six times.
Practice doesn’t end when you leave your coach’s office. Intel’s Michael Fors advises everyone who takes his course to seek out opportunities to practice: “Our slogan is, ‘If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.'” Most Intel factories and offices have Toastmasters Clubs so employees can practice making presentations. And lots of Intel people practice at home — in front of their families, the mirror, even their stuffed animals. “The animals won’t talk back,” Fors says. “And if they’re still nervous, they can always picture the stuffed animals in their underwear.”
Eric Matson is a member of the Fast Company editorial team.
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