Seven Words Towards Better Presentations

Best Practices, CEO Corner : Article

Most of the movies I go to are pretty good.

Same thing for most of the plays I attend.

But here’s the cold, hard truth. Most of the business presentations I go to are pretty awful.

On one hand, it’s not a surprise. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that with public speaking ranked as the number one fear of most adults—with death number two—at a funeral most people would rather be the one in the coffin rather than the one giving the eulogy.   

But the reality is that with a little thought and preparation, anyone—and I do mean anyone—can do a lot better.

I recently talked with our team at Virtual and boiled down better presenting to seven words. (OK, the seven words have a whole bunch of other words around them. But it does start with just seven words.)

The first word is plan. I watch this one play out all the time. Someone has to do a presentation, and the first thing they do is sit down at PowerPoint and start spitting out slides.  Have a plan. Think about what you’re trying to do with the presentation: Are you trying to explain something? Are you trying to persuade? What’s the purpose?

The second word is open. I hate the trite advice of “Open with a joke.” Here’s a news flash—some people just aren’t funny. But do think about an opening for your presentation that connects with the audience. For a great example, watch Cameron Russell’s TED talk. After 90 seconds of her talk, you want to hear more. How often is that the case in a business presentation?

Third is passion. I recently blogged about lessons from watching Bruce Springsteen. Passion is atop the list. If you don’t show that you care about your subject matter, why should your audience?

Fourth on the list is storytelling. The brain is wired to hear stories differently. Stories are a great way of connecting with an audience. Another great TED talk to watch—Ken Robinson’s talk on schools and creativity. He tells a story about Gillian Lynne at the 14:50 mark of the presentation. I guarantee when you watch it the story will stick with you and you’ll be able to retell it. Think about it—how many slides filled with bullet points could you remember and retell to someone?



That brings me to number five. Karaoke. And that’s the first word to avoid—what I fondly call “business karaoke.” I would put 90% of the presentations I see in this category. Bullets on the screen. Someone reading me the bullets. Often while they look at the screen. Think about how your slides can reinforce what you say without literally being what you say. Two great books on this—Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nancy Duarte. You don’t have to be a graphic designer to make this workyou just need to have a plan and think about the points you’re trying to reinforce.

At this point, you’re ready for number six. That’s practice. For some, that’s walking through the full presentation aloud. For others, it’s hitting key points in your head. But do what you need to do to become comfortable with the material—and the surroundings and circumstances of the presentation. Take a moment to check out the room where you’ll be presenting. If you have slides, take a look at the clicker. And keep working to learn. I read books—there’s a new one out by TED Curator Chris Andersen. I watch TV—the Bartlett speeches on The West Wing were brilliant. And I study history—watching speeches from RFK and others to learn more of how people who knew much, much more than seven words about presenting practiced their craft.

Now all that’s left to do is perform. Note, not “present.” But “perform.” A performer has passion. A performer thinks about their craft. A performer strives to connect with the audience. Think about yourself as more than a presenter for that period of time; you’re a performer.   

Will these seven words alone turn you from sounding like boxer Larry Holmes to sounding like Oliver Wendell Holmes? Nope, but it’s a startcontinuing down the road is up to you.

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