If you're in marketing, you have to know how to speak to a room full of people to be successful. It's that simple. That room might be filled with four of your colleagues or 10,000 strangers. It might be a client pitch, an internal planning meeting, an industry thought leadership conference, or even a TED Talk. But no matter where you're presenting, the requirements on your end are the same: You need to be able to present yourself and your ideas in a confident, impressive manner and draw in your audience to move those ideas forward.
For some people in our industry, presentations are their passion. They seek the spotlight. They send out speaker abstracts and proposals to any event that will receive them. They relish the theatrics that come along with client pitches and other meetings that require formal presentations. They love commanding a room. And because of their experience in such environments, most of these people are pretty polished.
This article isn't for those people. It's for the other 95 percent of people in our industry (and, arguably, the other 99.99 percent of people everywhere). The ones for whom presentations are, at best, a necessary evil -- a part of the job, but one that is reluctantly accepted. It's for the data folks who dread presenting the latest analytics to the creative and media teams. It's for the new social media manager who just got asked to do a presentation on Facebook marketing opportunities at the company's executive retreat. And it's for the rising agency star whose boss is encouraging her to "get out there" and become an authority at industry events.
There's nothing I can tell you that will keep you from sweating through your shirt before giving that all-important presentation. Nerves are a part of the game. Nearly all of the seasoned presenters that I've met and presented with still get nervous before taking the stage. This isn't a bad thing -- the adrenaline can be useful. But you'll find that your nerves are a lot easier to keep in check when you are thoroughly prepared and following some specific presentation best practices. Let's take a look at what those are. (And for you seasoned presenters out there, please add your own tips in the comments section below.)
Don't just wing it. That might seem obvious. But it's a mistake that people make constantly, especially when presenting information at internal meetings. But even if you're just giving your weekly team update around the conference table, you should come prepared. If you don't, you're likely to miss pertinent points and bore people with unnecessary details. You might even look like you just don't care.
When it comes to client pitches and industry event presentations, the nature of the event forces you to prepare to some degree. You likely are expected to have notes, a slide deck, or visual aids of some sort. But while most people agonize over the content of these supplementary materials, too few people put the same effort into preparing themselves.
For formal presentations, it's important to say your presentation out loud at least once before the main event. Your speech probably sounds awesome in your head. But it might sound really stupid when it comes out of your mouth. Wouldn't you like to realize that ahead of time? Practicing out loud will also help build your confidence and identify tricky tongue twisters that you might want to avoid or spend some extra time mastering. If you can find a small practice audience in a friend or significant other, do it. It's nice to get feedback, even if that feedback is only body language. If you can't find any audience volunteers for your practice run, present to your cat or a plant. It doesn't matter. Just say it out loud.
In addition, even if you prefer to talk off the cuff during presentations, rather than sticking to a script, you need to build in an emergency fail-safe. That means having notes on you, even if you never take them out of your pocket. Knowing they are there in case your mind suddenly blanks can go a long way in helping you feel prepared. It's a safety net, y'all.
Presentation format and content
A lot of people hear "presentation" and think "PowerPoint deck." To some people, they're one and the same: "How on Earth could someone consider speaking in front of a group without the support of a PowerPoint deck?!"
But I urge you to consider it. Will a slide deck strengthen your presentation? Or are you using it simply because that's what people do? Don't give in to PPT peer pressure. A boring slide deck can actually sink what might otherwise be an interesting presentation. If you're simply listing what you're going to be saying in bullet form, it's probably not necessary. Only build a slide deck if the visual aid is going to enhance your message.
And here's another blasphemous statement for you: Consider not using PowerPoint. There are other tools out there, and some of them might be simpler and better suited to your needs. I, for one, prefer Google Drive presentations. They're simple, slick, and easier to share.
Regardless of the presentation format you choose, try to use as many graphics and as few words as possible when building your slides. Again, the deck should be a visual complement for your presentation, not a replacement for you. It's also an opportunity to inject some visual humor into your presentation. In doing so, go broad. Presentations are not the place for avant-garde humor. They're the place for funny cat photos and "dad jokes" that lampoon 10-year-old pop culture. And if your own sense of humor doesn't translate in a presentation, use someone else's. Drop in a meme photo of a quote from a well-known comedian, and you're golden.
Also, before you finalize your presentation, print out all your slides, lay them on the floor, and look at them as a whole. That might sound silly and archaic ("you mean actually use paper?"), but it can help you identify ugly or inconsistent slides that might be hard to spot when scrolling through one by one.
In addition, make sure your presentation is organized logically with a title, clear headers and sections, a conclusion, and contact information. You might even consider having a table of contents up front. It makes skipping around a lot easier when people start asking questions. And let's hope they do ask questions -- that's the truly interesting part. In fact, whenever possible, make sure people know that your entire presentation is a Q&A. As much as you love to talk, people don't like to hear you drone on and on. So try to get your audience involved with every slide.
OK. So you've done all the necessary preparations. Your slide deck (if you need one) is a visually compelling, appropriately humorous, well-organized work of art. Now it's time to get up and charm the pants off of everybody in the room. Beyond simply speaking clearly, there are a few things to keep in mind.
For one, don't cross your arms. It sounds obvious, but people do it all the time, and it instantly tells your audience that you don't want to be there. It closes off the conversation -- and you should be thinking of your presentation as a conversation.
Use some foul language if you're the kind of person who can curse without sounding silly. Don't cross the line into the potentially offensive (maybe try to keep "gods" off your "damns"), but a few colorful word choices can let your audience know that you're not a stuffed shirt and help put the room at ease. That said, don't overdo it. You're neither a sailor nor George Carlin.
And finally, when the presentation format does allow for others to participate (as in a meeting or client pitch), don't be afraid of silence. In fact, sometimes shutting up is the most useful thing you can do. Presenters are often tempted to fill every lull with meaningless jabber. But if you resist the temptation and build some pauses into your presentation, you'll likely find that other people will pipe up. And if they do, you'll get some useful feedback that will help shape your presentation as you go to better appeal to the audience.
"Closeup microphone in auditorium with people" image via Shutterstock.