In early 2001, I was asked to prepare a presentation for senior executives at Microsoft. Our goal was to determine why our sales education programs were seeing such low adoption rates, explore options to remedy the situation, and ultimately expand our global relationship. The only thing was, I'd barely logged 60 days in my new role.
During my presentation, I announced that the company had achieved a low return on its seven-figure programs investment and said we were willing to help them improve. The leadership team got defensive. I endured a heated, loud banter among the top leaders, and then quietly returned to my seat.
Within 24 hours of that meeting, Microsoft asked my boss to remove me from the account.
I was disappointed that I wasn't able to persuade those execs to see things differently, but it was clear why I got the reaction I did in retrospect: They didn’t even know me, let alone trust me.
Fifteen years later, high-stakes pitch meetings and presentations look a lot different than they typically did back then. But lately, as I travel the world and speak to conference audiences, I see many speakers' presentations falling flat for different reasons. Some of the most common approaches out there still miss the fundamentals I'd overlooked as a new hire trying to win over Microsoft.
It's easy to lose sight of the basics of persuasive delivery in an onslaught of snappy diagrams and loads of data. But audience impact usually gets lost with it. Based on the number of presentations and marketing plans I’ve critiqued over the past year or two, I'm seeing a rush to present facts and figures at the expense of rapport-building. When this happens, speakers can't earn hearts and minds of their audiences.
The most memorable presenters keep things simple. They tell stories about successful initiatives. They inspire others to be better and bolder. They avoid dumping heaps of data on listeners. Here are three tried and true, low-tech tips for winning over your audience—which still work no matter what other presentation styles may be in vogue.
No matter what transformation you're arguing for—whether it's a new CRM system, a cost-savings initiative, or a modern video strategy—don't forget that it's going to disrupt the status quo. There's a high likelihood that your listeners will resist that change. When presenters only share the good news, they hide their human, vulnerable side.
This discourages detractors and doubters from voicing their concerns—and from offering the sort of candid feedback you actually need in order to make a stronger case. Ignoring their reservations will put the brakes on what you're trying to accomplish with your presentation.
More willingness to anticipate and address this resistance might have rescued my Microsoft relationship. In hindsight, I could have woven this into my introductory remarks: "I know some of what I’m about to share will surprise you, and possibly upset you. Stop me when you have questions, and let’s work through it together."
As I navigate the hectic fall conference season and annual budget-planning cycle, I’m turned off by software screenshots and performance dashboards, usually containing minuscule, 12-point fonts. Chances are I'm not alone. It's hard seeing the detail on the slides, let alone the point all that data is meant to drive home. Squinting to make sense of it all, your audience will get frustrated. Their minds will wander. They'll stop listening.
Effective presenters often win hearts and minds by showing just a single image or word on a screen while they tell a story. So skip the data dump. Instead, you might consider hiring a professional designer to create eye-succinct, eye-catching (rather than migraine-inducing) slides. Personally, I follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule. Or skip the slides altogether, and use (gasp!) a flip chart—yes, that can still be just as effective as any slide deck.
You’re activating two-way conversations, not a one-way data dump. So make your presentation a conversation by pausing to ask the audience questions. Encourage self-reflection. You can even incorporate a few brief exercises that require your audience's active participation. Pause from time to time and ask them whether your points make sense. These are some of the basics that are easy to miss, and they don't require huge data sets or flashy multimedia.
You also need to select your words carefully, even as you open your presentation up to a more casual back-and-forth. A single gaffe can undermine your intentions. Last month, while attending the Digital Summit in Washington, D.C., I watched as an executive lost an audience with just a single word. The speaker was outlining how the company had successfully driven more visitors directly to its main website, versus through intermediaries. "Don’t use intermediary websites" the presenter said. "They will not allow you to control your customers’ experience."
The simple use of the term "control" caused the audience to flinch. Some even shook their heads in disbelief. The prevailing sense in the room was that companies needed to let digitally savvy, mobile customers control their own experience at any time, in any place, and on any device. The speaker may have agreed with that, too, but it wasn't the idea that came out.
So as you prepare for your next big presentation, keep the fundamentals in mind: Be authentic and vulnerable, and be impeccable with your written and verbal communication. These may sound like old-fashioned ideas—and they are. But they're still around for a reason. These speaking basics are arguably even more powerful than ever in today’s digital world. Just ask my former Microsoft client.