As consultants we spend much of our time thinking, researching, calculating, designing, devising, writing, and doing other tremendously serious, but usually solitary, things. There comes a time, though, when we must present our findings to our clients and make our case. We sometimes do this through a report (which I’ll blog about separately) but very often we must present our findings in person, at a meeting, either through informal discussion, or formally using a ‘presentation’, often a PowerPoint presentation, full of bullet points, graphics and other tricks of the trade.
A presentation must:
- Inform as to facts
- Advance an argument (with stated assumptions)
- Persuade as to a course of action, or clearly lay out choices
It’s not so different from selling, in that whilst serious substance is undoubtedly necessary it is almost never sufficient. People buy from people they like. Similarly, people are persuaded by people they like.
Oddly, this is true also of musical performance. LLP Group used to sponsor an instrumental competition (I am an oboist myself) and I attended every competitor’s performance. After a while I could predict an interesting and successful performance before the music even began. It was a matter of how the musician moved, engaged with the audience, and so on. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule, not least Susan Boyle, whose dowdiness gave no hint of her glorious voice. But the point is that presentation isn’t just about substance, it’s also about style.
As for PowerPoint presentations, I am one of the world’s worst audiences. PowerPoint has made us all dull. It fools us into thinking that it’s what’s on the screen that matters, not how we present ourselves.
I attend software conventions all over the world and after more than thirty years in the business I feel almost physically sick when the lights go down and the bullet points start rolling. If I can, I sneak out of the auditorium and fortunately I’ve never had to sit an examination on the content.
So, whilst cogent argument and succinct presentation of the salient facts are essential, you must also entertain. Never be dull. Presentations are a performance and must be approached as such. This doesn’t mean knock-about humour. Rather, it means being brief, being personal, being enthusiastic, being yourself and above all it means engaging with the audience.
Not everyone is initially good at this, but these skills can be acquired, and practised, and perfected.
I’ve often suggested that a PowerPoint presentation should never be longer than ten minutes, but I regularly exceed this limit myself. The important thing is to try to make it as short as possible and keep it simple.
What are the important questions to ask yourself and things to think about when preparing and presenting a PowerPoint presentation?
- Who are your audience? What are their expectations? What style do they expect (in Zurich they’re formal, in Naples they’re not)?
- Who are the most important members of your audience?
- How much time do you have? Always check with the audience before you start.
- Adopt a simple structure that reflects the logical structure of your argument (for example, scope, assumptions, facts, options, priorities, recommendations).
- Start your presentation by saying what you’re going to present (so that the audience knows your direction of travel), present your case, and then end your presentation by saying what you’ve said. People remember structures and shapes more easily than facts, so if you make the shape of your presentation clear, they might even remember some of the detail that hangs off it.
- Don’t present detail if it can’t be grasped immediately. You can always provide detail separately, later.
- Don’t be repetitive.
- Never write long sentences on your slides
- Never read what’s on the slide, especially if you’re presenting detail. Your audience is probably literate and can read for itself. For example, you can just say, ‘Here are some facts relevant to my argument,’ and then leave a few seconds for the audience to read them. Your bullet points are for talking around, not for reading verbatim. How often I’m in an agony of boredom whilst a presenter laboriously drones through bullet point after bullet point when I’ve already read them.
- Use simple graphics where possible but don’t cram them with detail. They must make sense from the back of the room.
- Be consistent in your use of fonts and styles, and make sure everything is visible to everyone in the room.
- Don’t be tempted to use too many clever effects – bullet points that bounce, screen transitions that resemble shutters, etc. Such things were fun fifteen years ago, but nowadays they are tedious.
- Never turn to look at the screen. Check that the technology is working when you’re setting up, but then trust it. Better to look at your audience if you can see them, and, when you need to, at the notebook in front of you that’s running your presentation.
- Communicate with your audience. Force reaction to your most important points by looking your audience in the eye, and even asking for feedback. Ask, ‘Is that clear?’ from time to time before moving on from one point to another.
- Don’t be derailed, if you can avoid it. If there’s interruption or heckling from the audience, then engage with the speaker briefly and then ask that discussion be postponed until you’ve finished. ‘Let me just get through what I wanted to say, and then I’ll happily discuss what you’ve said in more detail.’ Or, ‘I’ll get to that in a few minutes, so please just bear with me for a while.’
- Talk simply and as if you’re talking one-to-one, as if it’s a conversation. Leave pauses, when you must. Rapid panicky patter is disastrous.
- Be amusing if that comes naturally to you, but don’t tell jokes if that’s not something you naturally do well. Be yourself.
- Reinforce your company branding, values and guidelines, or, at least, don’t breach them.
- BE BRIEF
- BE CLEAR
- DO NOT BE DULL
If you follow some of these guidelines there’s a chance that something from your presentation will stay in the minds of your audience.