The three Ps guide to a perfect presentation

 

As Henry Ford confided: "The greatest secret of business success is how results gravitate toward the person who can communicate ideas persuasively." It is vitally important therefore that we know how to present ourselves and our material. Presentations are an integral part of every manager's job. Unfortunately however, poor presentations are also terribly common. The reality is that good presenters hold our attention, get the point across and win the business.

For many, the fear of giving presentations ranks above all others. But even the best presenters have to contend with nerves, sweaty palms, "dead laptops", faulty projectors, trailing wires and occasionally, the unreceptive audience. So why do it? The answer is simple: the gain is worth the pain. A good presentation is a very powerful way to persuade, inform and entertain in a way that no other medium can match. Perfect presentations are based upon three key ingredients: Preparing Your Material, Preparing Yourself and Preparing for your Audience.

Preparation is the key. Mark Twain put it best: "It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good spontaneous speech." So you need plenty of time to prepare properly. Firstly, decide on your objective: What do you want to achieve? Do you want the audience to buy your product? To take strike action? To vote for you? What should your audience know or think at the end of your presentation? This end point is your crucial starting point.

Now you have to "brainstorm" - that is, consider all the points to include in your talk. This is made so much easier nowadays via the search facilities on the Internet. The online library facilities at most educational and professional institutes make extensive data banks immediately accessible. Don't worry if you have too much material. What you exclude now may "save your bacon" at question time. Having amassed the material it's time to structure it. List all the main blocks of information on a single sheet, study them and you'll find that a logical structure begins to emerge.

For example, it may be that you'll review the background to the topic, proceed to explain the current state of play and then prescribe how things should be done in the future. If you are trying to persuade your audience to agree to do something then it might be appropriate to define the problem you face, evaluate the various solutions, propose your solution, anticipate likely objections, present a plan of implementation, take questions and then wait for their decision. By having a structure your presentation is now like a story with a definite Beginning, middle and end.

If you don't have a structure your audience may agree that: "A presenter who is going nowhere normally gets there." So put them in the picture at the very outset. As the saying goes, you can even: tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them, - then tell them what you've told them.

Audio-visual aids can also boost your impact. But remember, they are just a means to an end. Unless your presentation meets its objective, has good strong content and is structured appropriately, no audio-visual aid in the world will help you.

How will the presentation start? The shuffle of papers, the dried-up marker, the nervous giggle as your acetates fall to the floor will all be part of the show if you're not careful. Greet your audience at the very start. The opening words are the most important. So your first task is to get their attention with a good catchy opening - hook them in with bait. But if you're not careful your presentation will end in disaster. Like the opening, it has to be effective. It's as important as the close of a sale - don't leave without the order, the promise of an order or the prospect of further contact or action.

People buy people first. That first impression, as you stand up and walk out in front of the audience, will be created by your visual appearance, including what you wear. Smart speakers pause, breathe and cast an eye over the audience with a gentle smile, and then swing into it.

This confidence is built by good research and preparation, practice, arriving on time and preparing the venue. If you feel that you look good, confidence in the delivery will be enhanced. Don't worry about feeling nervous, but - paradoxically - quite the opposite. You should be worried if you don't feel nervous. An indifferent approach is often the hallmark of poor presentations.

Presenters are judged by the response of their audience. Yet many presenters fail to "connect" with them. If you do the job well the applause and the follow-on business will be generous. So do your homework. Who are your audience? What positions do they hold? What influence do they have? What will influence them? What do they know about you and your subject - what do they need to know? What do they expect to get from your presentation? What threats and opportunities do they face? What is their normal everyday language? How can you help them?

Peppering your presentation with true stories, anecdotes and analogies will bring it to life and help keep your audience awake. Good speakers are genuinely excited and put their message across so well that they really seem to believe in what they are saying. If you're not all that enthusiastic about what you have to say, why should your audience be?

Watch your body language. For example, speakers who synchronise their hand movements with their words communicate more effectively. Try varying your voice impact, via pace, pitch, emphasis and even the use of silence. Surprisingly silence can have a great effect when used properly. So be prepared to "pause until it hurts". When it precedes or succeeds a key point, or a question put to your audience, it will have maximum effect. Experienced presenters often prefer to take questions during their talk. This maximises audience participation. But if it's early days for you, leave them until the end - but let your audience know when they can ask them.

It is also true that the best presenters ignore many of these "best practice" guidelines. Being a powerful presenter is about being yourself and developing your own personal style. However don't start off by breaking all the rules - as you may live to regret it.

Dr Gerard McMahon is a lecturer in Human Resource Management at the Faculty of Business, Dublin Institute of Technology. E-Mail: ppl1@indigo.ie