Presentation skills: Have you got just one tip?

By Carolyn Crawford

This issue of presenting comes up for almost everyone at some point or other. Even if you’re not involved in the corporate world where it’s a daily occurrence, there’s no avoiding it forever. So invariably I have friends at some point tell me about an upcoming pitch or presentation and ask me for “just one tip” as they start to prepare. And my answer is always the same: “Have a message!”

One of the great joys of my work is the diversity of people and organisations I get to work with. Over the past two decades I’ve worked with very senior, highly experience and extremely confident management through to relatively timid or anxious graduate trainees. I’ve worked across a wide range of industries including mining, manufacturing, consumer goods, banking and finance, professional services and market research. And despite the differences in those environments and people, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt every presenter has in common and that I can guarantee we’ll need focus during our workshop, it’s the lack of a crystal clear, focused, bottom line message.

The funny thing is, we do it so naturally in so many other aspects of our lives. When we draw up house plans we have a detailed vision of what we want to build. If we embark on a fitness program we set measurable targets for our health and weight in a set period of time. When working out a business strategy we start with the end in mind – exactly where do we want to be in terms of size, finances and competitiveness at a set point in the future.

In fact, I was on the phone just yesterday to a friend who happens to be a small business consultant (that means he consults to small businesses, not that he’s 4’5” tall!). I talked about some of the changes taking place in F2F and I asked him for ‘just one tip’. And, you guessed it, he said “make sure you write down a crystal clear vision of where you want to be in four years time”!!

Perhaps the challenge with a presentation is that on the surface it doesn’t look like there’s a tangible, measurable outcome to achieve. I think many people simply see it as a chore to be gotten out of the way. Like the dishes. Their goal is simply to get it over with as quickly as possible.

So how do we measure the success of a presentation? What can we use as a viable, measurable target? We can’t measure success by the outcome of the meeting, whether we reached consensus or whether we got the desired budget for instance, because there are too many variables involved beyond the presentation itself. We need a way to measure the success of the presentation on its own merits, regardless of other factors that will influence the audience’s reaction or decision.

Better measures would include the level of engagement or perhaps the information-value of the presentation. Both are important but again difficult to measure. No matter how engaging the presenter, there will be audience members who are disengaged that day for personal reasons, whether work stresses or a bad night’s sleep. The information-value will vary from person to person depending on their current level of knowledge.

So the one bottom line that is genuinely tangible and measurable and that is almost entirely free from external influences, is whether we conveyed the message we wanted to. This measure is dependent solely on the clarity of our message in the first place, the rigour of our argument to support that message and the energy with which we deliver it. And there are very few excuses, short of a fire-drill part way through our presentation, for not achieving that result. It’s up to us! It’s within our ‘circle of influence’, where almost all other measures are outside of it.

So if that’s why we use the message as our measure of success, the obvious next question is “how do we write it?”

I’m going to give you therefore three steps for creating an effective message.

  1.  Write it – Script, word for word, a clear, strong, 1-sentence message that is actionable and beneficial to the audience eg “If we implement these process improvement measures by the end of financial year, we’ll gain 10-20% reduction in time and cost the following year”. Or “By allocating a dedicated resource to our team we will exponentially improve the quantity and quality of our output in the next six months”.Write it in conversational language that you’ll feel comfortable to deliver. It’s the only part of the presentation I recommend scripting and memorising.
  2. Keep it as your focal point – Put this sentence at the bottom of your planning page. Use it as a reference for the all the other information you include. Nothing gets included unless it directly helps to prove this one sentence message. It is your true north. Your guiding star!
  3. Say it – This is your conclusion, the big moment that your audience are waiting for. They WANT to know what the point is for them and the action they’re required to take. They don’t want to have to figure it out for themselves based on assumption and innuendo.Too many people get shy about ‘asking for the business’. They feel uncomfortable about being direct, clear and explicit about the action they’re asking of their audience. If you don’t say it, they won’t get it. If you download a lot of good information and hope on a wing and a prayer that they’ll jump to the right conclusion, you’re not going to get the outcome you’re after. Be warm, be diplomatic, be nice, but be clear and overt, not covert.

Voila! There’s your one tip. If you have a clear message, you’ll feel more focused, directed and confident and your audience will walk away with a clear, tangible takeaway. Which means you’re already a stronger and more successful presenter than most of the population.

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