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Presentation skills: 5 secrets of the pros

Presentation skills: 5 secrets of the pros Bronwyn Saglimbeni

Let's face it. At most organizations, presentation skills are uneven, at best. You have the rock stars of PowerPoint who seem to enjoy a cult-like devotion within the company, and an uncanny ability to make things happen and influence outcomes. And then there's everyone else.

Well, here's the good news: Sure, some of these rock stars are naturally gifted at storytelling (visually or verbally), but the reality is, good storytelling is not relegated to the cool kids. It's an inherent skill we all posses and have always possessed since the beginning of civilization, across literally every culture in every country. It's practically in our DNA. It's just that we've forgotten the fundamentals. In the spirit of restoring each of you to your storytelling greatness, here is a reminder of the five secrets "rock star" presenters know:

1. Be devoted to your audience
We all have a dangerous tendency to look at things through the prism of "What do I want to say? What do I want to show them?" And no offense to those of us in the digital marketing field, but we loooove to talk about our ideas and our work. Instead, try asking, "What does this group of people need to know, do, and feel as a result of this presentation?" and "How can I help this group of people do their jobs better? How can I help them become smarter?" By working backwards using your audience as the point of departure, a very different presentation will emerge. If you meet your audience's needs first, yours will be met ten-fold. Just don't forget what I affectionately call the Cheap Trick Principle: "Surrender, but don't give yourself away." Don't lose track of who you are and what your style is, in the pursuit of pleasing everyone, which leads me to...

2. Be you
The digital space is filled with some of the smartest, funniest, and most irreverent people in the world. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find humor and irreverence in most presentation situations. I've sat through presentations featuring some of the industry's top creative minds at big conferences, and have been bored within an inch of my sanity. But know this: Whenever a presentation feels low energy and dull, it's because the presenter is not actually presenting themselves. They are trotting out their "serious grown up" personas or the "we really have to win this pitch" personas. If you're not sure who you are exactly, or what your authentic voice is, you're not alone. Just think of how many dull presentations you sit through in a given week. There is a reason for this pervasive problem: Boring feels safe. It takes guts to be fearlessly yourself. But as an audience, we deserve the real you -- especially if you're trying to convince us of a new idea (or to write you a really big check).

3. Use PowerPoint/ Keynote, but do not rely on them
While books like "Presentation Zen" and "Slide:ology" have been a God-send, they have also sparked an almost religious devotion to developing the "perfect deck." As a result, I'm seeing quite a bit of what I like to call "Keynote narcissism." This happens whenever you see someone pouring hours into developing a gorgeous presentation, when the audience really just wanted a 10 minute update.

If your audience values time above all, pour your creativity into cultivating a sense of elegant but purposeful restraint. Having said that, PowerPoint and Keynote are powerful tools when they are used to help your audience to remember the content. John Medina's fantastic book, "Brain Rules" tells us that our visual sense trumps all other senses. This really does explain why we all go into zombie mode when someone throws up a slide full of text. High quality imagery, when used properly can create a mood, and help you make a deep impression into people's minds and memories. If you feel you must use lots of words, best to rely on a handout or leave-behind. 

I'll never forget the time I saw someone present a case study on her work with a major technology brand (think big, beloved consumer brand). She was incredibly proud of what they'd accomplished, and wanted the rest of the agency to see what her team had done. She then marched up and did the usual "Challenge, Solution, Result" slides in a 14-point font with a few supporting visuals. I always look at audiences to gauge the energy level during presentations, and what I saw was a group of people trying to be polite while checking blackberries and yawning behind their fists. Trust yourself. The truest part of you has a damn good sense of what will move an audience. 

(For those of you saying, "Yeah, but I deal in ROI and metrics. I'm not a creative!" I suggest you watch this little gem, courtesy of TED. Hans Rosling has showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that statistics and numbers can be made visually compelling).

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4. Give them a role to play
Adults learn more when they are able to share their own experiences, knowledge, and insights during the learning process. The last thing an adult learner wants is to be preached to.

I challenge you to ask your audience questions and encourage interaction during your presentation. And not just, "So those are our ideas. What do you think?" Don't be afraid to solicit feedback early and often, and involve people in the process. Work on your active listening skills. The more elaborately your audience can interact with a concept or message, the more likely they are to remember it. (If you are interested in reading more about adult learning, a great place to start is "The Power of Mindful Learning".)

For those who are saying, "But it's not that kind of meeting" or, my favorite, "It's just too large a group"; unless you're talking to a class of prepubescent boys, you can trust your audience with a question, and a small group discussion. They will come back when called, and you can pretty much guarantee that folks will come forward with wonderful insights that build on what you're saying. Give your audience credit for what they know, and a channel for communicating these experiences back to you. 

5. Cut to the chase
Sometimes we can spend an inordinate amount of time during presentations with the wind-up. We may describe market forces at play, or how the social media landscape is changing (really? Do we have to rehash this every single time?). But the truth is, unless your audience has literally been hiding under a rock without Wi-Fi, chances are, they know what you're talking about, and just wish you'd get to the point.

Unless it is truly new information, keep the wind-up to a minimum. Think one sentence. Barely a slide. Force yourself to dive into the meat of your discussion as early as you possibly can. This can free up important space for interaction later.

I say that 99 percent of the time, people want to love your presentation. They want to get absorbed in a story, an idea, and to become a part of something larger than themselves. So dig deep, remember who you are, and go out and speak your piece.

Bronwyn Saglimbeni is principal at Bronwyn Communications.    

For nearly 15 years, Bronwyn has worked with clients to improve their public speaking and media relations skills, challenging them to bring out more of themselves in their communications. Bronwyn is known for her playful, irreverent approach to...

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Commenter: Slim Symes

2010, March 22

Best Coments on the page!
As an Architect of twenty years , my best presentation was at my City Council,I wrote a song and played my ukulele.The melody and a message drew applause of not just the 5 people infront of me but the 50 or so in the hall. Conquer with concise confidence.