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How to Ace ANY Presentation

Businessman, presenting growing graph, statistics

Tomorrow I will fly to Europe to attend my company’s bi-annual partner conference, an event that brings together over 150 of our best European customers to present our strategy and new product development initiatives. As VP of Product development, I will be the main speaker during many of the major presentations. At this point in my career, I am a veteran at delivering presentations and public speaking, but this will be the first time I will be presenting in front of an audience that predominantly doesn’t speak English.  So, am I nervous? A little bit, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.

It hasn’t always been this way. When I first started my career and was told I needed to prepare a presentation I literally didn’t know what to do. I graduated college in 2002 but never had to create a PowerPoint presentation as part of my coursework, so I was completely lost on how to pull together the graphics and text on a single page. Knowing that the only path forward in the corporate world was to develop my presentation skills, created and executed a development plan to achieve that goal. Today, I have successfully presented multiple times to large (500+) audiences, in high-stakes situations (pitching $100M+ acquisitions to the CEO and Executive Committee of Fortune 50 companies), presented to customers in order to close major deals, and even presented across cultures and geographies.

Below is a list of best practices I have learned that you can use to create better presentations and are applicable for both small, informal presentations (an update to your manager or team) all they way up to large, formal external presentations (speaking at an industry event).

  1. Understand the goal of your presentation. This seems obvious, but most presentations fail because they have no clear purpose or lose sight of their purpose. Is your presentation to inform, ask for approval, drive a key action, or something else? Understand your goal and ensure all of your content and comments support your goal.
  2. Understand your audience. To whom are you presenting and what information do they need in order for you to fulfill your goal? What is their level of understanding and what questions might they ask? Try to anticipate the needs of your audience to ensure your content and comments will fulfill their needs.
  3. Tailor your messaging to your time limit. How many of you have gone to a ½ hour long presentation and the speaker’s PowerPoint has 75 slides? The presenter gets through 10 slides before they run out of time? We all have and it is annoying. A good rule of thumb is 1 slide for every 5 minutes of presentation.
  4. Ensure YOU are the focus of the presentation, not your content. This one is important. Weak/Insecure speakers hide behind their content and want to focus audience attention away from themselves and onto their slides as a defense mechanism. Strong/Confident speakers want the audience to focus on them and use their content to support, not carry, their message. Which brings me to my next point…
  5. Less is more! Slides should be visual with very little text, and the goal of each slide should be to reinforce the point you are trying to make. Go watch an Apple presentation when they announce a new product. Notice something? There are almost no words! Why? They want you to focus on the product, which is exciting, and not words, which are boring. Also, putting lots of text and detail on a slide is an invitation for audience members to ask questions which 1. You may not be prepared to answer, and 2. Will derail your presentation.
  6. Whenever possible, “pre-sell” your audience. This is particularly important when major decisions are being made. You should share your content with each key stakeholder PRIOR to the presentation to get their feedback and drive alignment. If your “formal” presentation is the first time key decision makers have seen your content, you are not likely to get the result you are looking for.
  7. Focus on Flow. A good presentation is an argument and should have a logical flow and structure. Start with an executive summary, followed by the main content, and ending with another summary. Clearly state why you are there, what is needed and why.
  8. Practice, Practice, Practice! The single best way to develop your presentation skills and build confidence is to practice as much as possible. The best ways to practice are:
    1. Join Toastmasters. Seriously. Many large companies offer Toastmaster meetings over lunch or after work and it is a great way to get comfortable speaking in a public setting.
    2. Practice the “pitch” instead of trying to memorize a “speech.” A pitch is what you are trying to accomplish and why and you should be able to articulate it in your own words and support it with data from the top of your mind without any slides or supporting content. A speech is a memorized set of words. Speeches come across as wooden and inflexible. Also, if you are a nervous speaker and you forget the next line in your speech, you are likely to freeze up and panic. If, instead, you focus on mastering what it is you are trying to accomplish, the words will come naturally.
    3. Whenever possible, practice in the space where you will be presenting. This will not only help you understand any potential IT issues, it will help you practice in the real world situation. For example, practicing in your hotel room is radically different than speaking on a platform in front of 500 empty chairs with blinding lights shining in your eyes. Blinding lights shining in your eyes is never a comfortable experience, but it is much easier to deal with if you practiced in that environment previously.
    4. Try out your presentation and get feedback. Be careful here, because the goal is not to have people nitpick and make you self conscious, but to get you confident in your pitch so that you can make it as strong as possible. If you are nervous about presenting tell your “trial” audience of coworkers, peers, etc. so they are aware and can provide positive feedback.
  9. Understand that something will likely go wrong. Last year, during a presentation to about 450 customers, the computer crashed in the middle of my presentation and took about 10 minutes to restart. Not cool. However, because I was focused on my pitch (and not the slides) I was able to carry on with minimal impact. In short, bad things happen: IT fails, jokes don’t go over well, you get an unexpected question for which you are not prepared, etc. Just roll with the punches and do the best you can. If you get an unexpected question, resist the urge to make up an answer on the spot. Instead, state you don’t know but will get an answer (and don’t forget to follow-up).
  10. Conduct a Post Mortem. After the presentation, ask for (and be receptive to) honest feedback. Make a list of what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what you would do differently next time. If you are presenting publicly, watch a video of your presentation. Seek to make every presentation better than the last and you will surprise yourself with how quickly you will improve.
  11. Celebrate Success. If the presentation went well and you closed the deal/got the green light/delighted the audience, take a minute to celebrate your success. Presentations are hard! Take a minute to reward yourself and your team for a job well done.

Like all of success, creating great presentations requires strong planning, discipline and practice. If you follow the steps above your next presentation, whether to your manager or an audience of 1000 people, will be much stronger. More importantly, building your presentation skills will put you on the fast track for success in the corporate world.

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