How your oral presentations can win the audience and the deal

Public speaking can be an angst-filled endeavor but with a plan and preparation you be a star. Here are eight critical steps for making your oral presentations a powerful tool for winning more business.

Most of us have had memorable public speaking episodes that we’d rather forget. I escaped one when I dropped out of a communications class in college. It was a simple solution to avoid delivering speeches in an auditorium filled with my Boston College peers.

Later in graduate school, I was unprepared for a systems analysis and design presentation—caught in that awkward place between trying to memorize my speech and winging it. It was one of the most embarrassing moments my life.

“At a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

--Jerry Seinfeld

More than 30 years later, I find myself coaching others on how to overcome their fears to be star presenters. Here are some of the key tips that resonate best with our deal-winning customers.

Strong opening...stronger closing

Evaluators size you up even before you open your mouth. Consider starting off with a bold statement, a short personal story, or a high-level theme statement that grabs the attention of the audience. Make a favorable, and memorable first impression. Avoid the typical, “Good morning, my name is Jane, and I’ve been a program manager at <your company name here> for the past umpteen years”.

No matter what you do, don’t start your presentation with a corporate capability (all about us) slide—unless the customer specifically requires it.

Too many presentations end abruptly, without a logical finish or connection to the opening. Link the end of the presentation back to the beginning with a strong finish that the audience will remember. Carefully script the closing with the two or three most important points that you want to make or actions you want your audience to take. Your dramatic close should be the perfect segue to the next speaker or a call to action.

Organize your thoughts

Presentation development is much easier if you know the subject area well. However, knowing too much about a topic makes it more challenging to communicate your message efficiently and effectively. This is especially true if your topic is complex.

Do the audience a favor by organizing your thoughts into logical groups to make your message easy to understand and remember. Use analogies for abstract or confusing concepts. Keep it simple with no more than the most important points, in a logical sequence that the audience can understand and appreciate.

Hara hachi bu

Most presentations metaphorically stuff 15 pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound PowerPoint sack. Put strict limits on the number of words or bullet points per slide. Use larger font sizes. Insert audio or video clips to emphasize major points.

If you are using software to deliver your presentation, keep the slides simple. Garr Reynolds, PresenationZen, suggests applying the Japanese philosophy of hara hachi bu (eat only until 80 percent full) to limit the amount of information on each slide.

Create additional white space by presenting two slides instead of one. For complex slides, use simple animation techniques that reveal your points in a logical sequence of building blocks (top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside).

For PowerPoint presentations, select the text you want to reveal and select “Appear” from the Animation tool bar. Create slides that have no more than 3-5 major points that can be delivered in two minutes or less.

Write it down

Once you have a good idea of the major points you want to make on a slide, write them down (longhand) preferably on 3x5 index cards. Writing it down (as opposed to typing it out) significantly improves your ability to remember your script.

The cards are much easier to handle than flipping through 8 ½ x 11 pages and force presenters to focus on key trigger words. Once you gain general familiarity with the content, the cards provide the verbal reference cues during dry run rehearsals if you get stuck or forget a point.

As the presentation date draws near, you should be so familiar with the slides and the talking points that you will no longer need the 3x5 cards.

Tell a story

Stories are very powerful. They are a part of being human that dates back to our early beginnings and the passing of values from generation to generation. We are wired to tell and listen to stories. Stories are memorable and motivational.

They are compelling and dynamic. Stories build trust and help your audience visualize, engage, and be more receptive to your message with physical and emotional reactions that are real. Build credibility and likeability with a few short stories or anecdotes about your successes, failures (lessons learned), and passion for what you do.

Don’t underestimate the power non-verbal communication

Believe it or not, body positioning, posture, gestures, and paralanguage (intonation, pausing, laughing, smiling) are 90 percent of the message.

Smiling is a simple and effective way to dramatically improve your presentation. Smiles are contagious. People who smile more are considered more intelligent, more likable, more trustworthy, and more likely to be convinced by your presentation calls to action.

Start and end your presentation with a smile! Get a few laughs in between and you’ll be a non-verbal communication hero before you know it.

Practice, practice, and practice some more!

No one is perfect and the audience is not expecting professional presenters. The best way to deliver the most effective presentation is to develop it with careful (meticulous) detail and to practice it until you can do it in your sleep.

When you get to the point when you think you’ve reached perfection, practice it one or two more times. Practice by yourself, practice in front of a mirror, practice in front of a peer, and practice in front of your presentation team or stakeholders.

Practicing makes you a better presenter and helps your orals team better too by creating more group cohesion and collaboration. Your customer will notice.

Connect with your audience

Presenters who don’t practice enough rely too heavily on their notes or their slides as a crutch. This is an immediate and obvious turn-off for your audience.  No matter what you do, always keep your focus on the audience.

Don’t ever look at, point to, or face the projection screen. Connect with the audience by getting as close as comfortably possible to them. Reach out to them (physically and metaphorically). If there is a podium set-up consider alternative positioning. For example, step down from the podium or have audio visual technicians remove it completely. Strategically place your laptop between you and your audience at table height and use it as a prompter.

What’s Next?

If you follow these tips, you’ll take a giant leap toward overcoming your presentation fears and being a star presenter.

The next steps are up to you. Reading this article will be a waste of time if you don’t take any actions to become a better presenter. Pick the two or three tips that resonate with you the most. Make a plan to apply these tips to you next presentation. Relax, have fun, smile, capture the attention and imagination of your audience, and win your next deal.


NEXT STORY: When will M&A be great again?