Some experts estimate that you have an initial 15 seconds – maybe 20 – to hook your audience for your business presentation.
And with a kaleidoscope of modern-day distractions, you face an uphill battle.
In that short window of less than a minute, while they’re sizing you up, you must blast into their minds. You must get them über-focused on you and your message.
So how do you go about hooking and reeling in your audience in those first crucial seconds?
Think of your message or your story as your explosive device. To set it off properly, so it doesn’t fizzle, you need a detonator.
This is your “lead” or your “grabber.”
This is your detonator for blasting into the mind.
This is a provocative line that communicates to your listeners that they are about to hear something uncommon.
With this provocative line, you create a desire in your audience to hear what comes next. The next sentence . . . and the next . . . until you are deep into your presentation and your audience is with you stride-for-stride.
“Thank you, thank you very much . . .”
But they must step off with you from the beginning.
You get them to step off with you by blasting into the mind. You don’t blast into the mind with a stock opening like this:
“Thank you very much, Bill, for that kind and generous introduction. Friends, guests, associates, colleagues, it’s a real pleasure to be hear tonight with so many folks committed to our cause, and I’d like to say a special hello to a group of people who came down from Peoria to visit with us here this evening, folks who are dedicated to making our world a better place, a more sustainable world that we bequeath to our children and our children’s children. And also a shout-out to the men and women in the trenches, without whose assistance . . .”
That sort of thing.
Folks in your audience are already checking their email. In fact, they’re no longer your audience. And you’ve heard this kind of snoozer before, far too many times.
Why do people talk this way? Because it’s what they’ve heard most of their business lives.
You hear it, you consider it, you shrug, and you think that this must be the way it’s done.
You come to believe that dull, monotone, stock-phrased platitudes comprise the secret formula for giving a keynote address, an after-dinner speech, or a short presentation.
You come to believe that a listless audience is natural.
Not at all!
So How to Hook Your Audience?
The key is to do a bit of mind-blasting.
You must blast into their minds to crack that hard shell of inattention.
You must say something provocative, but relevant. You must grab your listeners and keep them. You must arrest their attention long enough to make it yours.
Something like this:
“The gravestone was right where the old cobbler said it would be . . . at the back of the overgrown vacant lot. And when I knelt down to brush away the moss and dirt, I could see my hand trembling. The letters were etched in granite and they became visible one by one. My breath caught when I read the inscription–”
Or this . . .
“There were six of them, my back was against the hard brick wall, and let me tell you . . . I learned a hard lesson–”
Or this . . .
“I was stupid, yes stupid. I was young and impetuous. And that’s the only excuse I have for what I did. I will be ashamed of it for the rest of my life–”
Or this . . .
“At the time, it seemed like a good idea . . . but then we heard the ominous sound of a grinding engine, the trash compactor starting up–”
Or this . . .
“She moved through the crowd like shimmering eel cuts the water . . . I thought that she must be a special woman. And then I knew she was when she peeled off her leather jacket . . . and, well–”
You get the idea.
Each of these mind-blasters rivets audience attention on you. Your listeners want to hear what comes next.
Of course, your mind-blaster must be relevant to your talk and the message you plan to convey. If you engage in theatrics for their own sake – just to hook your audience to no good end – you’ll earn the enmity of your audience, which is far worse than inattention.
So craft an initial mind-blaster to lead your audience from sentence to sentence, eager to hear your next one. And you will have succeeded in hooking and holding your listeners in spite of themselves.
There is no such thing as an inherently uninteresting topic. Nor is there an inherently interesting topic.
Interest is something that you generate, combining your unique gifts and training to create something special that appeals to the audience. Whether your audience is the CEO, a potential client, the Rotary Club, or your fellow students.
That’s your job. In fact, that’s what you’ll be paid to do upon graduation.
Interesting Topic? That’s Your Job
Cases are not assigned to you in B-School to interest you. No one cares if they interest you.
That’s not the point.
Whether you find your topic personally interesting or not is irrelevant. It’s your duty to craft a talk that interests the audience, perhaps even captivates the audience.
Persuades the audience.
We all would love to be spoon-fed “interesting topics,” wouldn’t we? But what’s an “interesting” business presentation topic?
I’ve found the following to be true:
The students who complain about never getting an interesting topic actually do get assigned those topics – topics that are rich with potential and ripe for exploitation. Some folks don’t recognize them as “interesting” because their store of information and context either is absent or is untapped.
So they invariably butcher a potentially interesting topic and miss every cue and opportunity to craft a great presentation.
It’s time to recognize that you simply want an interesting topic for yourself . . . not so you can do a bang-up job for the audience.
The Tenpenny Nail – A Powerful Presentation Topic
The upshot is that if you don’t take presenting seriously, then you won’t do anything different for an “interesting” business presentation topic than you would for a “boring” topic.
The creative challenge is greater, in fact, for presenting on the topic of tenpenny nails than it is for, say, the Apple iPhone. The initial perception might be that the iPhone is more inherently “interesting.”
It’s hip. And familiar.
Students gravitate to the topic like bees to flowers.
But give me a student who gladly takes a business case that involves tenpenny nails and who weaves a compelling, imaginative, and professional presentation, and I’ll show you a future business star.
The best students recognize the drama and conflict and possibilities in every case. They craft an interesting presentation regardless of the topic.
How do you generate interest? How do you mine a case for what is dramatic, different, uplifting, unusual? Public speaking master James Winans provides several suggestions from almost 100 years ago:
[I]nterest is, generally speaking, strongest in old things in new settings, looked at from new angles, given new forms and developed with new facts and ideas, with new light on familiar characters, new explanations of familiar phenomena, or new applications of old truths.
It actually requires thought and a broadening of context.
It requires the extension of horizon, and the expansion of the personal frame of reference.
In short, the learning of new stuff, which is always more difficult than relying upon what we already know – the tried and the true and the comfortable.
The Nature of the Beast: The Interesting Topic
And as an aside, what would you do with the topic of tenpenny nails if you were assigned the task of demonstrating to the general public, say, their value to the building industry? Are these the three-inch nails that take their name from the original price-per-100? I always thought so.
But an alternative explanation says the name has nothing to do with price.
Instead, it has to do with . . . . Well, when you deliver a presentation on nails, you’ll find the answer. The name, by the way, dates from the 15th Century, the same century as the invention of the Gutenberg printing method.
But do you really know how to launch a powerful presentation?
Consider for a moment . . .
Do you begin confidently and strongly? Or do you tiptoe into your presentation opening, as do so many people in school and in the corporate world?
Do you sidle into it? Do you edge sideways into your show with lots of metaphorical throat-clearing.
Do you back into it?
Do you actually start strong with a story, but let the story spiral out of control until it overshadows your main points? Is your story even relevant?
Do your tone and body language and halting manner shout “apology” to the audience?
Do you shift and dance?
Are you like a turtle poking his head out of his shell, eyeing the audience, ready to dart back to safety if you catch even a single frown?
Do you crouch behind the podium like a soldier in his bunker?
Do you drone through the presentation, your voice monotone, your eyes glazed, fingers crossed, actually hoping that no one notices.
A Bad Presentation Opening
I viewed a practice presentation that purported to analyze a Walmart case. The lead presenter was Janie. She began speaking, and she related facts about the history of the company and its accomplishments over the past 40 years.
She spoke in monotone. She flashed a timeline on the screen. Little pictures and graphics highlighted her points.
I wondered what all of this might mean.
I waited for a linking thread.
I waited for her main point.
As the four-minute mark approached, my brow furrowed. The linking thread had not come.
The linking thread would never come . . . it dawned on me that she had no point. At the end of her segment, I asked a gentle question.
“Janie, what was that beginning all about? How did your segment relate to Wal-Mart’s strategic challenges in the case at hand?”
“Those were just random facts,” she said.
“Yes!” she said brightly.
And she was quite ingenuous about it.
She had recited a litany of “random facts,” and she thought that it was an acceptable way to begin a business case presentation. I do not say this to disparage her. Not at all. In fact, she later became one of my most coachable students, improving her presentation skills tremendously.
She has since progressed to graduate school. And now she delivers powerful presentation openings.
But what could convince a student that an hodge-podge of “random facts” is acceptable at the beginning of a presentation? Is it the notion that anything you say for a presentation opening is okay?
Let’s go over the beginning, shall we?
The Right Presentation Opening
Together, let’s craft a template beginning that you can always use, no matter what your show is about. When you become comfortable with it, you can then modify it to suit the occasion.
You begin with your presentation opening. Here, you present the Situation Statement.
The Situation Statement tells your audience what they will hear. It’s the reason you and your audience are there. What do you tell them?
The audience has gathered to hear about a problem and its proposed solution.
Or to hear of success and how it will continue. Or to hear of failure and how it will be overcome . . . or to hear of a proposed change in strategic direction.
Don’t assume that everyone knows why you are here. Don’t assume that they know the topic of your talk. Ensure that they know with a powerful Situation Statement.
A powerful situation statement centers the audience – Pow! It focuses everyone on the topic.
An Especially Powerful Situation Statement
Don’t meander into your show with chummy talk.
Don’t tip-toe into it. Don’t be vague. Don’t clutter your presentation opening with endless apologetics or thank yous.
What do I mean by this? Let’s say your topic is the ToughBolt Corporation’s new marketing campaign. Do not start this way:
“Good morning, how is everyone doing? Good. Good! It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’d like to thank our great board of directors for the opportunity. I’m Dana Smith and this is my team, Bill, Joe, Mary, and Sophia. Today, we’re planning on giving you a marketing presentation on ToughBolt Corporation’s situation. Again, thank you for your attention and time. We’re hoping that—”
No . . . no . . . and no.
Direct and to-the-point is best. Pow!
Try starting this way:
“Today we present ToughBolt’s new marketing campaign — a campaign to regain the 6 percent market share lost in 2009 and increase our market share by another 10 percent. A campaign to lead us into the next four quarters to result in a much stronger and competitive market position 12 months from now.”
You see? This is not the best intro, but it’s solid. No “random facts.” No wasted words.
No metaphorical throat-clearing.
No backing into the presentation, and no tiptoeing. Just an especially powerful and direct statement of the reason you are there.
Put the Pow in Power!
Now, let’s add some Pow to it. A more colorful and arresting introductory Situation Statement might be:
“Even as we sit here today, changes in the business environment attack our firm’s competitive position three ways. How we respond to these challenges now will determine Toughbolt’s future for good or ill . . . for survival or collapse. Our recommended response? Aggressive growth.
“We now present the source of those challenges, how they threaten us, and what our marketing team will do about it to retain Toughbolt’s position in the industry and to continue robust growth in market share and profitability.”
Remember in any story, there must be change.
The very reason we give a case presentation is that something has changed in the company’s fortunes. We must explain this change. We must craft a response to this change. And we must front-load our intro to include our recommendation.
That is why you have assembled your team. To explain the threat or the opportunity. To provide your analysis. To provide your recommendations.
Remember, put Pow into your beginning. Leverage the opportunity when the audience is at its most alert and attentive.
Craft a Situation Statement that grabs them and doesn’t let go.
Let’s explode the presentation soft skills myth right now.
When higher education folks label something a “soft skill,” students automatically drop that “soft skill” to the bottom of the learning priority list.
It becomes something to “pick up along the way.” And if you don’t actually learn the “soft skill,” well . . . so what?
It is, after all, a “soft skill.”
This is hokum of the worst sort, but it’s the attitude of many young people, including my daughter, who ought to know better. One of those “soft skills” is the set of skills required to deliver an especially powerful business presentation.
Business Presentation Soft Skills Myth
One reason that you see so many bad business presentations is this pervasive presentation soft skills myth.
These skills are apparently so “soft” that one of my former colleagues believes he can inculcate adequate presentation skill in, as he says, “30 minutes.”
Such is the myth of the soft skill.
This suggests that skill at business presenting is somehow “softer” than, say, accounting. It therefore needs less attention or development.
It must be somehow “easier.” It must be simply a matter of opinion.
It’s probably something that can be “picked up along the way.”
Many people believe this. It can needlessly limit the early careers of young people, who form a wrong impression of the craft of speaking publicly.
Public Speaking – excellent public speaking – is tough.
To deliver a superb business presentation is one of the tougher tasks, because it often requires coordination with others in a kind of ballet.
The Reality of Business Presentation Skills
And it requires practice, just like any other discipline.
But invariably, the “soft skill” label moves it down the priority list of faculty and college administrators and, hence, of the students they serve.
I can quickly gauge the attention on business presenting skills at an institution by simply watching a cross-section of presentations.
To be generous, student business presentations are usually poor across a range of dimensions.
They come across most often as pedestrian. Many are quite bad.
The great embarrassment is that the majority of business students have untapped potential for becoming competent and especially powerful business presenters.
And yet they falter.
They never realize that potential, because they never progress out of the swamp of poor business presentation skills.
Some students pass through the business school funnel with only cursory attention to business presentation skills. Perhaps I’m too demanding, and the degree of attention I’d like to see just isn’t possible.
But . . .
But the craft of business presenting needs only the proper focus for it to transform young people into capable and competent presenters.
And some institutions get it right.
I’m blessed to serve an institution that takes business presentation skills seriously.
My school’s winning results in case competitions demonstrates this commitment to preparing business students to excel in the most-demanded skill that corporate recruiters seek.
A coterie of professors, particularly in finance, recognizes the power bestowed by sharp business presentation skills.
And they emphasize these skills far beyond the norm in most schools.
Administrators, too, insist that students pass through rigorous workshops that inculcate in students the presenting skills to last a business lifetime.
Presentation Skills = Powerful Brand
The results can be phenomenal. Merely by exposure to the proper techniques, students gain tremendous personal career advantage.
By elevating business presentation skills to the same level of the sub-disciplines of, say, marketing, operations, or risk management, B-Schools can imbue their students and faculty with the appropriate reverence for the presentation enterprise.
One result of this is the molding of young executives who tower over their peers in terms of presenting skills.
With regard to presentations and so-called “presentation tips,” I deal with two large groups of people.
For descriptive simplicity, let’s call these two groups “Natural Born” and “McTips!”
“Natural Born” and “McTips!” represent two extreme views of what it takes to become an especially powerful and superior business presenter.
Neither view is remotely accurate. And neither group is what might be called enlightened in these matters.
Members of both groups are frustrating and irritating in their own ways and completely self-serving.
Here is why . . .
Tale of Two Errors
We often look for folks to excuse us from what, deep down, we know we ought to do, or what we can do.
If we look hard enough, we find what we search for, and excuses are extremely easy to find. Let’s look at these two excuses that hold us back from fulfilling our potential as especially powerful presenters.
The first view would have us believe that great speakers are born with some arcane and unfathomable gift, combining talent and natural stage facility.
The first view would have us believe that Bill Clinton sprang from the womb declaiming that he feels our pain.
That Ronald Reagan was born orating on lower capital gains taxes.
That Oprah Winfrey began her talk show career in kindergarten.
If these great speakers were born with rarefied talent, then how might we become like them if we haven’t the genes for it? Business Presentation Tips? Doesn’t this sound foolish?
If the first view holds that great speakers are born with a gift, then quite logically this view leaves the rest of us to strive with middling presentation skills.
It’s an excuse for us not to persevere. Why bother to try?
Why not, instead, hire some of these natural born speaker types to do the heavy presentation lifting?
The rest of us can skate along and pretend that we’re not actually lazy . . . or frightened . . . or disinterested . . . or unambitious.
The second view is the opposite of the first.
This “McTips!” perspective would have us believe that delivering effective presentations is a snap.
The Second View . . . Presentation Tips!
So easy, in fact, that one of my colleagues assured me confidently and with not a little hubris that he could teach his undergraduates “everything they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes.”
He also assured me that “all that other stuff you talk about is B.S.”
Has the presentation landscape changed so much that what was once taught as a fine skill is now mass-produced in 30-minute quickie sessions of speaking “tips”?
I actually saw a headline on an article that offered 10 Tips to Become a Presentation God!
Have the demands of the presentation become so weak that great presenting can be served up in McDonald’s-style kid meals . . . “You want to super-size your speaking McTips?”
In the 1800s, public speaking was refined to an almost-art; “elocution” was the new science/art, and departments of elocution and public speaking flourished in universities throughout the land.
In Philadelphia, on Walnut Street in fact, the National School for Elocution and Oratory became a Mecca for would-be stars of the pulpit, the stage, the bar, and the political wars in the 1890s. It published books like this one.
On into the first decades of next century, public speech was regarded with respect and a high-skill to be mastered with much study and practice.
The fact is that despite however much we might wish otherwise, today’s PowerPoint high-tech software multi-media offerings cannot change the fundamental truth that it is still you who must deliver the presentation.
So no . . . you cannot learn “everything you need to know about presenting in 30 minutes.”
You cannot become an especially powerful presenter at the fast-food drive-in window, unless you want to ply presenting at the lowest common denominator. Unless you want to become one of the multitude of mundane slide-readers who populate every business and law firm from New York to Nashville, from Boston to Baton Rouge, from Savannah to San Diego.
Ask yourself . . . if learning to deliver top-notch presentations is so fabulously easy, then why are 9 out of 10 presentations such awful forgettable bore-fests? (and that’s a kind estimate).
The Third View – The Power Zone
There is a third group, and it is destined to remain small.
This group is privy to the truth, and once you learn the truth about presenting, you can never go back to viewing presentations the same way. Consider this pop culture analogy from the 1999 film The Matrix.
In The Matrix, humans live in a world that is not what it seems. In fact, everything they believe about the world is false. Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) promises to reveal the truth to Neo (Keanu Reeves) about his existence.
Morpheus offers Neo a Blue Pill and a Red Pill. The Blue Pill returns him to his old state of ignorance. The Red Pill reveals the secret, and once he learns it, Neo cannot return to his old life.
The process of presentation discovery is much like the red-pill/blue-pill choice that Morpheus offers to the young computer hacker Neo . . .
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Likewise, you can stop reading this article this instant – the blue pill – and return to the righteous and relaxing world of “Natural Born” or “McTips!” Both viewpoints allow the average presenter to remain mired in mediocrity with an excuse that sounds plausible.
One perspective means you don’t try at all, while the other means you offer token effort as befits a low-level pedestrian task.
So, if you decide to take the Blue Pill, close this site and go your own way. Bon voyage! I wish you a hearty good-luck and Godspeed, and perhaps you will be happier for your choice.
But if you are one of the few who thinks for a moment . . . “Hmm. What if the Professor is right?”
Then . . . Take the Red Pill
Then you can read on to the next brief paragraph – the red pill – and be forever stripped of the excuse for mediocrity. For the truth is in the Power Zone, and once there, you will never be satisfied with your old presentation life again.
You cannot go back.
That’s the paradox, the Curse of Freedom. It is completely within your power to seize the fruits of great presenting. It’s your choice.
You can launch an auspicious presentation career right now, right this minute. Or you can dismiss this site as yet another fraudulent claim to revealing secrets to you . . . only to have it exposed as a method that requires you to actually do something.
A method that transforms you.
Choose the Red Pill. Step boldly into the Power Zone.
The Power Zone is the province of the privileged few who understand the truth that anyone can become a great presenter, with the right kind of hard work and the willingness to become a great presenter.
To join this third group requires you to take on a new state of mind.
If you already carry this view, that’s superb. If you don’t . . . you can decide now to adopt it or forever be relegated to the other two groups – believing you’re not good enough, or believing you are good enough when you’re actually not.
Public presentations – great presentations – require study and practice and preparation and technique. Not “presentation tips.”
A deep philosophical, academic, and professional history undergirds public speaking. This history informs the very best presenters and their work. You dismiss it only to your great loss.
No, you need not become a scholar of public speaking.
In fact, few people have that deep an interest in the subject and even fewer can claim that kind of knowledge today.
But what you can and should do is this: Open your mind and heart to the possibilities of found treasure.
You actually can become a capable presenter. You can become a great presenter. When you enter the Power Zone, you are both cursed and blessed with knowledge. This knowledge represents two sides of the same coin.
You are cursed with the knowledge that the only limitation you have is you. You are blessed with the knowledge that you can become a good – even great – speaker.
An especially powerful presenter.
Now, you have no other real excuse. It’s totally up to you.
For the ultimate guide to developing your personal brand as an especially powerful business presenter, CLICK HERE.
Perhaps it’s human nature that leads us to search for single answers.
The search for the Global Solution has gone on as long as men have searched for the Philosopher’s Stone (and perhaps even longer, but not jotted down).
Likewise, this is the case for business presentations.
No Easy Way Out
We seek easy solutions, the quick fix, the “secret” to turn a drab, staid, listless presentation into one that brims with vigor, zest, and elan.
An especially powerful presentation.
Failing that, perhaps just something that can flog a bit of life into our tired efforts.
One evening, we may see a memorable, delightful, scintillating presentation. It’s a show that engages us, that sparkles with memorable visuals and that implants core ideas and powerful notions in our minds. A great presentation!
What made it a great presentation?
Many folks answer with one – maybe two reasons. This is akin to medieval alchemists searching for a method to transform lead into gold.
A shortcut to wealth.
And so we contrive abstractions and unsatisfactory responses:
The speaker was interesting.
The topic was relevant and au courant. Torn from today’s headlines!
It was the audience . . . he had a good audience!
But none of these easy answers yield something that we can actually use . . . something we can operationalize in our show.
This is because no easy answer exists.
No one reason. No single technique.
There is no business presentation alchemy. Except in the notion that we must get lots of things right.
The superb business presenter does 100 things right, while the bad business presenter does 100 things wrong.
What are the “100 Things?”
Is it exactly 100?
Of course not, no more than great writing consists in getting exactly 100 things right, instead of getting them wrong.
For any talk, it could be 90 things, or it could be 150 things. Or something else.
The “100 things” trope suffices to convey that great presentations are planned and orchestrated according to set principles that can be learned, and those principles consist in proven practices.
Lots of them.
Practices that replace unthinking habits.
Techniques of posture, voice, syntax, gestures, topic, presentation structure, your expression, confidence, your movement . . . all of these done well or done poorly combine to yield either an especially powerful presentation . . . or a dud.
Go to Scott’s Lessons, the book that inspired and taught Abraham Lincoln as he grew into one of America’s great orators, and you will find a wealth of powerful techniques to transform even the most mundane of speakers into a champion.
More than 100 things? Surely.
The important lesson is that great presenting is assembled from the verbal and non-verbal construction materials we select.
Lots of mistakes make for awful shows. Getting those 100 things right yield a show that’s spectacular for no single, discernible reason. It’s the power of synergy.
Take just one aspect of your show – the way you stand. Have you ever thought about it? Where you stand? How you stand?
If you’ve never given it thought, then you’re likely doing it wrong. To learn how to adopt the perfect (for you) stance, go here and the secret shall be revealed. And you’ll have learned a handful of the essential 100 things to launch you on your way to presentation power.
The next step, of course, is to actually do it. In your next presentation.
More of the 100 Things that constitute Business Presentation Alchemy here.
We sometimes cloister ourselves in our discipline, our job, our tight little world, forgetting that other fields can offer especially powerful insights.
For me, it means sitting in on classes taught by my colleagues. It means reading outside my specialty area. It means exposure to doctrines I don’t rightly believe, but probably ought to understand.
How will this help in preparing my own classes? At this point, I can’t be certain. But I know it will. At some point.
And that’s the beauty and potential of it.
I do know that it will enrich my store of knowledge so that my own presentations continue in 3-dimensional fashion. They’ll be connected to the “real world” – textured, deep, and richer than they otherwise would have been.
It will do the same for yours. And it will likely aid in your development into an especially powerful presenter, imbued with professional presence.
For more on how to give interesting, and especially powerful, business presentations, click HERE.
Given the number of long, dull, pedantic, repetitious, boring, confusing – bad – presentations I see both inside and outside of the business school, I suspect there must be some common law tradition that speaks to the topic.
Bad Business Presentations are Everywhere
Bad business presentations can be a career-killer. Of course, no one will tell you this.
A conspiracy of silence surrounds bad business presentations and the people who give them. And yet, Bad Business Presentations are given everywhere, sprouting like kudzu along a North Carolina highway . . .
. . . and because they are everywhere, we think that bad business presentations must be legitimate.
They must be the norm. They must be bad, because that’s just the way it is.
But this is heinous myth, and this myth perpetuates itself like some kind of awful oral tradition.
You see a bad business presentation that some people praise as good. It looks like this . . .
Some Vice President from a visiting company stands in front of you, hands gripping a lectern. He reads from slides with dozens of bullet points taken from a written paper and pasted onto PowerPoint slides. He alternates looking at a prepared text in front of him and turning to look at a projection screen behind him. He rarely looks at you.
A Wasteland On the Screen
Unreadable spreadsheets appear on the screen. Legions of tiny numbers march in cadence.
The presenter reads slide-after-slide verbatim, his head turned away from you. You realize, finally, that he is reading the slides together with everyone in the audience.
The slides are unreadable or irrelevant.
It’s a bad presentation, and you can’t remember a thing except the three texts you received during the presentation as you checked your iPhone between yawns.
You could legitimately ask yourself, “Is this all there is?”
If bad business presentations are the norm, you scratch your chin and perhaps you think “That’s not hard at all.” I can be as bad as the next person.
Cobble Together a Few Slides
Cobble something like that together, and you think you have a business presentation.
And why wouldn’t you think that?
It seems to have all the elements: A speaker-reader of slides (you), a PowerPoint display on the screen with writing on it, some numbers, and a five-minute time slot to fill with talk.
But what you actually have is something awful.
You don’t know what you want to accomplish . . . or why.
You have no idea what you should say . . . or why.
And you don’t view yourself as benefitting from the process in any way. Instead, you see it as something painful.
Because it is painful.
It’s a bad business presentation that is painful and awful because of the way it’s been explained to you.
Because the explanations are incomplete. Because you never get the whole story. Teaching you how to deliver a cogent, competent, powerful business presentation is always someone else’s job.
This can be a problem because your career often hinges on how well you can present. And if you present badly, you needlessly handicap yourself.
I Feel Your Pain
Sure, there are “presentation”courses. But it seems that the good folks who actually provide you some sort of presenting instruction in school are often disconnected from your business courses.
They teach you “How to give a speech” or “How to introduce yourself.” But you don’t have the opportunity to engage in a complex group business presentation.
Oftentimes, these folks aren’t even in the business school. They can’t show you how to incorporate business content into your presentations – things like the SWOT, value chain analysis, financial analysis, PEST, Five Forces, and such like.
And on occasion, professors in your business courses demonstrate the same malaise that plagues business at-large.
For most of your professors, presenting is secondary. This makes sense, as each faculty has a specialty or functional discipline he or she is charged with teaching.
Business “presenting” is no one’s functional discipline. So it goes unaddressed, orphaned to expediency and neglect.
It’s the same in the corporate world. Your presenting woes are the same woes that scourge the American business landscape.
Boring, dull, numbing . . . all of this is equated wrongly with “serious.” Consequently, we get the bad business presentation as the standard.
The Malaise in Corporate America
I attended a business conference on the west coast not long ago. I had the misfortune to witness some of the worst speaking I have ever heard coupled with use of incredibly bad visuals PowerPoint visuals.
Busy slides with tiny letters.
Listeners shifting in their seats.
Motionless speakers planted behind a lectern.
Aimless and endless talking with seemingly no point.
Cramped and crowded slides.
No preparation and no practice attended these presentations.
Papers shuffling in the audience, because handouts were given prior to the talk.
This is more common than you might imagine.
Communications consultant Andy Goodman conducted major research on the issue in 2005, surveying more than 2,500 public interest professionals and asking them to evaluate their presentation viewing experiences.
The average grade public interest professionals gave to the presentations they attended was C-. The average grade given to the visuals that respondents observed in presentations they attended was also C-.
Survey respondents were asked to recall presentations they had seen over the last few months. They said they were more than likely to see a bad business presentation as to see an excellent one.
This is the current state of presentations in corporate America and in business schools. Is it uniformly bleak? No, of course not.
Glimmers of Hope . . . Gigantic Opportunity
Generalizations are just that – general in nature.
I have seen enough fine presentations to understand that, somewhere, superb instruction holds sway. Or, at the least, young people whose early development has trained them for the stage have found their way to the business platform. Good for them. But for the most part, it is as I have described here.
And this opens up magnificent opportunity for you.
Now that you understand the situation and why it exists, it’s time for you to join the ranks of superior presenters. Becoming a superior presenter means gaining incredible personal competitive advantage that is difficult to imitate.
By investing your presentations with passion, emotion, and enthusiasm, you deliver especially powerful shows with persuasive power. Presentations that are anything but dull. So . . .
It’s time for your debut.
Time to break the Law of Bad Business Presentations.
Most presentation practice is bad, but you avoid this in favor of our Third P: great presentation practice that yields a stellar performance.
Wait . . . what do you mean that some types of practice are “bad”?
How can you possibly say, Professor, that such a thing as “bad presentation practice exists?”
Aren’t you pleased that folks are at least . . . practicing?
In fact, bad practice is pernicious.
It’s insidious, and at times can be worse than no practice at all. It can create the illusion of improvement and yet be a prelude to disaster.
Check yourself out . . . then shun the Mirror
Practice is one of those words that we never bother to define, because each of us already “knows” what it means.
Certainly your professor thinks you know what it means, since he urges you to “practice” your presentation prior to its delivery.
But what does it mean to “practice?” Doesn’t everyone know how to practice?
How do you practice?
Have you ever truly thought about it? Have you ever thought about what, exactly, you are trying to accomplish with your practice? Do you make the mistake of that old cliché and “practice in the mirror?”
Don’t practice in the mirror. That’s dumb.
You won’t be looking at yourself as you give your talk, so don’t practice that way.
I say it again – that’s dumb.
The only reason to look in a mirror is to ensure that your gestures and expressions display exactly as you think they do when you employ them. Other than that, stay away from the mirror.
Practice – the right practice, good practice, proper rehearsal – is the key to so much of your presentation’s success. And your ultimate triumph.
The Russians have a saying much akin to one of ours. We say “practice makes perfect.” The Russians say “Povtoreniye mat’ ucheniya.”
It means “Repetition is the mother of learning.”
And it’s great advice.
Presentation Practice Leads to Victory
The armed forces are experts at practice. Short of actual war, this is all the military does – practice for its mission in the most realistic conditions that can be devised.
And in doing so, the military arms our warriors with the confidence and skill necessary to accomplish the actual missions assigned to it.
Likewise, we must practice in the most realistic conditions that we can devise for ourselves, and in doing so we reduce our apprehension and uncertainty.
We gain confidence.
The nerves that go with public speaking are like the nerves a soldier feels as he walks through a minefield – he fears a single misstep will trigger an explosion.
But once the minefield is traversed a single time, the path is clear. With a clear and predictable path, the fear evaporates.
The danger is avoided.
Confidence replaces fear.
Presentation Practice Eliminates Fear
Likewise, once you have practiced your talk, your fear dissipates. Once you have practiced it exactly like you will deliver it, straight to completion without pause, then you will have reduced the unknown to manageable proportions.
The gigantic phantasmagoria is shrunk.
Your way through the minefield is clear. And the fear evaporates.
Does this mean that you won’t have butterflies before a talk? Or that you won’t be nervous? Of course not. We all do.
Before every game, professional football players are keyed up, emotional, nervous. But once the game begins and they take the first “hit,” they ramp-up confidence.
Likewise, a bit of nervousness is good for you. It ensures your focus. But it’s good nervousness, borne of anticipation.
It is not the same as fear.
And so we see that the key to confidence is knowledge and preparation.
We lack confidence when we are unsure. With every practice, we gain confidence. And all the while we rehearse diligently, remember this dictum . . .
Sear This into Your Mind
Practice exactly the way you deliver your presentation.
I mean this literally.
Stage your practices, both individually and as a group, as close to the real thing as you can. Make it as realistic as you can. If you can, practice in the room where you will deliver your show.
You want as much pressure as possible.
One of the most prevalent and serious practice mistakes is to restart your presentation again and again when you make a mistake. Do not start over when you make a mistake . . .
When you stumble, practice recovering from your error.
This should be common sense. You must practice how you respond to making an error. How you will fight through and recover from an error. Then, if you stumble in your presentation, you will have the confidence and prior experience to weather the minor glitch because you will have faced it before.
Think of it this way. Does a football team practice one way all week, and then employ a completely different game-plan on game-day?
Let me repeat that, because it is so misunderstood and ignored.
Your business presentation is a completely different product than your written report.
It’s a different mode of communication.
Do you wonder how this is possible, since you prepare the business presentation from a written report? How can the products differ significantly simply because one product is written and the other visual and vocal?
They are different in the same way that a film is a completely different product than a novel, even if the story is supposedly the same.
It’s different in the way that a play read silently from the page differs from a play acted out on stage.
You operate in a different medium.
You have time constraints.
A group is receiving your message.
A group is delivering the message.
You have almost no opportunity for repeat.
You have multiple opportunities to miscommunicate.
In short, you are in a high-risk environment and you are vulnerable. You’re far more vulnerable than you might be in a written report, where the risk is controlled.
Look at the chart below.
These differences between the written report and the business presentation are, to many people, insignificant.
Many folks believe that there is no difference.
And this is why those same folks believe that delivering a presentation is “easy.” It consists of little more than cutting and pasting a written report’s points onto a half-dozen cramped slides, and then reading them in public.
As absurd as this might appear in print, it actually has currency. People believe this, because they’ve not been told otherwise.
Numbers Trump All?
Finance people are especially prone to this habit, believing that the “numbers tell the story.” As they prepare the business presentation, one thought trumps all . . .
The more numbers, the better.
The more obtuse the spreadsheet, the tinier the font, the more complex the chart, the more stuff packed on each slide . . . the better.
Such a vague, incomprehensible, numbers-heavy mess seems to be the currency of many business presentations.
It’s wrong, and it’s wholly unnecessary.
Part of your preparation is the crafting of clear, compelling, and on-point graphics that support your message . . . not obscure it. Rid your presentation of chart junk. Zero-in to achieve what I call über focus.
“How come I never get assigned an interesting topic?”
Perhaps you’ve said that? I’ve certainly heard it.
“How come I never get assigned an interesting topic?”
Now, whether any topic is inherently interesting is irrelevant to your task. It’s your duty to craft a talk that interests the audience.
Business cases are not assigned to you so that they will interest you.
Your tasks as a project manager or consultant don’t come to you on the basis of whether they interest you.
No one cares if they “interest” you.
That’s not the point.
We all would love to be spoon-fed “interesting” topics. But what’s an “interesting” topic?
I have found the following to be true:
The students who complain about never getting an interesting topic actually do get assigned inherently interesting topics. They don’t recognize them as interesting.
And they invariably butcher a potentially interesting topic as they prepare the business presentation.
And they miss every cue and opportunity to craft a great show.
Moreover, it is your job to presenting an especially powerful and scintillating presentation, regardless of the topic.
Face it. If you don’t take presenting seriously, then you won’t prepare any differently for an “interesting” topic than you would for a “boring” topic. You simply want an interesting topic for yourself . . . not so you can do a bang-up job for the audience or client.
Let’s shed that attitude.
Great presenters recognize the drama and conflict and possibilities in every case. They invariably craft an interesting presentation whether the topic concerns tenpenny nails or derivatives or soap.
Crank up Interest
How do you generate interest? Public speaking master James Winans provides several suggestions:
[I]nterest is, generally speaking, strongest in old things in new settings, looked at from new angles, given new forms and developed with new facts and ideas, with new light on familiar characters, new explanations of familiar phenomena, or new applications of old truths.
The typical start to a presentation project is . . .
. . . procrastination.
You put it off as a daunting task. Or you put it off because you believe you can “wing it.” Or you lament that you don’t have an “interesting topic.”
Let’s say that your task is to provide a SWOT within the body of a group presentation, and your time is 4-5 minutes. What is your actual task here as you prepare the business presentation?
Think about it.
How do you usually approach the task? How do you characterize it?
Here is my guess at how you approach it.
You define your task as:
“How can I fit X amount of information into this limited time?”
In your own mind, the objective is not to communicate clearly to your audience. Your only objective is to “fit it all in.” And if you “achieve” this dubious objective, then in your mind you will have succeeded.
Unfortunately, your professor might agree with you, since many b-school professors look only for “content.” They do not evaluate whether the content has been communicated clearly and effectively.
And this is what is missing – you don’t analyze how or why or in what way you can present the information in a public forum.
If a written paper has already been produced, this complicates your task.
You feel the irresistible allure of cut ’n’ paste.
The result is less than stellar, and you end up trying to shovel 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound pail. And this result is predictable.
Your slides are crammed with information.
You talk fast to force all the points in. You run over-time.
You fail to deliver a star-spangled presentation for lack of proper preparation.
This Time, Procrustes has it Right
Take the Procrustean approach when you prepare the business presentation. This approach is named after Procrustes, a figure from Greek mythology. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the myth this way:
He forced passersby to lie on a very long bed and then stretched them to fit it. If they were too tall to fit his bed, he sawed off their legs. Using Procrustes’ own villainous methods, Theseus killed him.
Surely Procrustes was a villain, what with sawing off people’s legs or stretching them to fit an arbitrary standard. In modern-day parlance, it has retained its negative connotation with the term “Procrustean solution.”
“Procrustean solution” is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived stricture.
A common example from the business world is embodied in the notion that no résumé should exceed one page in length.
But in this case, let’s give Procrustes a break.
Your Procrustean Solution
Take a Procrustean approach and forge an especially powerful presentation. Consider this:
We have no choice in the length of our presentation. It’s four minutes. Or five minutes.
That’s our Procrustean Bed. So let’s manipulate the situation to our benefit and to the benefit of our audience in our presentation preparation.
We’re not stretching someone or something. And we’re not hacking off legs.
We are using our minds and judgment to select what should be in our show and what should not be in our show.
And if you find the decision of what to include too difficult, then let’s do even more Procrustean manipulation. Pick only three major points that you want to make.
Here is your task now:
Pick three points to deliver in 4-5 minutes. If you must deliver an entire SWOT, then select one strength, one weakness, one opportunity, and one threat.
Why do we do this? Here’s why:
If you try to crowbar an entire SWOT analysis into a four-minute presentation, with multiple points for each category, you overwhelm your audience.
They turn off and tune you out. You will lose them, and you will fail.
Presenting too many points is worse than delivering only one point.
Especially Powerful Paucity
If you present, say, a total of 5 strengths, 3 weaknesses, 4 opportunities, and 3 threats, no one remembers it. None of it. And you irritate your audience mercilessly.
Your presentation should present the results of analysis, not a laundry list of facts on which you base your analysis.
The SWOT is, in fact, almost raw data.
You want the audience to remember how you massage the data, analyze it, and arrange it. You want the audience to remember your conclusions.
You take information and transforming it into intelligence. You winnow out the chaff and leave only the wheat.
You reduce the static and white noise so that the communicative signal can be heard.
You are panning for gold, washing away the detritus to find the nuggets. When you buy gold, you don’t buy the waste product from which it was drawn, do you?
Do you buy a gold ring set in a box of sand?
Of course not, and neither should you offer up bucketfuls of presentation sand when you present your analytic gold to your client.
As you prepare the business presentation, you sift through mountains of information, synthesize it, compress it, make it intelligible, then present it in a way that is understandable and, if possible, entertaining.
Digest this Preparation guidance, try it out in your next presentation, and watch yourself produce and deliver the most powerful presentation of your young career.
If you have spent any time at all in this space, you already know about the “Seven Secrets of Power Presenting.”
Now, you might head-scratch and wonder how the “Seven Secrets” mesh with the “Three Ps of Business Presenting.”
A fair question.
For Especially Powerful Presentations
The “Principles” referred to are the Seven Secrets, the pillars of your transformation into an especially powerful presenter.
Learning and improving on the Seven dimensions of power presenting is essential to your presentation quest in a broadest sense.
You don’t improve on the seven dimensions of presenting overnight . . . it requires application and adoption of the proper habits of behavior.
This may appear intuitive, but too often I see students who appear to understand the seven secrets but do not apply them for a host of reasons. Perhaps good reasons, in their own minds.
And yet, the choice cripples them in their presentations.
When it comes to individual presentations, you must apply your principles. And this means preparation.
It means practice.
Don’t assume that you know what I mean by preparation and practice, because we likely have different conceptions of both, and I’m betting you’ll like the results you get from the approach presented here.
So, settle in . . . and for the next couple of days, we will explore the Three Ps of Business Presenting and how their assiduous application can transform you into the Especially Powerful Presenter that you always knew you could be.
Stripped of humanity. Stripped of the qualities that make it interesting, stimulating, and persuasive.
The potential richness, energy, vigor, and power that is provided by purposive movement is absent.
Crude Stick-Puppet Presenting
We are left with cutout figures, like stick puppets. You’ve seen stick puppets. They’re crude, flat little figures pasted onto sticks and then used in a child’s display to convey a story.
Rudimentary as it gets, the puppets shake and move up and down as someone voices dialogue from somewhere offstage.
Today’s business presentations are sometimes no better than stick-puppet presenting. Call this the 2-D presentation.
Stick-Puppet Presenting is characterized by a zombie-like figure crouched behind a lectern, gripping its sides.
Or a speaker who reads from a laptop computer and alternately looks at a projection screen behind him, citing it verbatim. If any movement occurs, it is unconscious swaying. Or rocking, or nervous happy-feet dancing.
Perhaps there is a bit of pacing back-and-forth to fulfill some ancient advice mumbled to the speaker years earlier: “Move around when you talk!” And so the stick-puppet presenter wanders about the stage.
This is worse than no movement at all. It adds one more irrelevant distractor to an already deteriorating situation.
But we want movement . . . the right kind of movement. We want to accelerate from 2-D to 3-D presenting. One powerful step in that direction is the addition of proper movement.
The addition of proper movement to your presentation can imbue it with energy, depth, richness, and enhanced meaning.
So in the next series of posts, we’ll analyze this component – “movement” on the stage in support of your presentation.
Do you invest your topic with energy and elan, regardless of whether it’s shampoo or sugar or ship-building?
What is it that fills you with the thrill of discovery, the adrenaline of newness?
What can compare with the natural high of applying yourself to a task that excites you?
What generates those endorphins? What brings a smile to your face involuntarily? What furrows your brow?
Is it “world hunger?” Or European soccer?
Is it social injustice? Is it political theory? Is it comic book collecting? Chess? Numismatics? Tennis? Travel to exotic locations? Helping others solve problems?
Writing essays? Fashion design? Financial manipulations? Reading and then reflecting on a good book?
What’s your passion? Do you even have one?
Is your Presentation Passion buried?
Likely as not, your passion has been buried under a ton of necessity, the debris we call the business of life.
f you find that your passion is buried, then this is the time to rescue it as one of the most potent factors in delivering your most powerful presentations.
Once you explore your own visceral feelings, your passion, it becomes that much easier to invoke presentation passion in your show.
To exhibit genuine enthusiasm for the subjects of your shows.
Can you generate presentation passion? Of course you can. Will it be “artificial” passion? Of course not. Passion is passion is passion.
Unless you have passion for a subject and demonstrate that passion, you will always be at a disadvantage with respect to those who do.
If you are in competition with several other teams pitching a product or service to a company for millions of dollars – and there is no noteworthy difference in the quality or price of the service – then how does the potential customer decide?
If he sees a real passion for the work in one team, if he feels the energy of a team driven to success and truly excited about the offering, don’t you think he’ll be inclined to the team that stirs his emotions? The team that makes him see possibilities?
The team that helps him visualize a glorious future?
The team that shares his love and passion for his product or service and sees in you a shared passion for achieving something special in partnership?
Reread the previous paragraph, because it encapsulates so much of the presentation passion that is absent in presentations today, and so much of what is needed.
Centuries of Presentation Passion
Passion has served as a crucial element in verbal communication for centuries. Here are two of my favorite quotations on its power:
“True emotional freedom is the only door by which you may enter the hearts of your hearers.”
Brees and Kelley, 1931
“Earnestness is the secret of success in any department of life. It is only the earnest man who wins his cause.”
S.S. Curry, 1895
Recognize in yourself the capacity for passion. Recognize that you have the wherewithal to embrace even the most staid material, the “dullest” project.
Remember always that it is you who make it better. You who invest it with excitement.
You are the alchemist.
Many times you hear an “interesting” presentation about an “interesting” topic. It’s well-done, and it engaged you.
And you wonder why you never seem to get the “interesting” projects.
It’s your job to make it interesting
Have you ever admitted to yourself that you might be the missing ingredient? That perhaps it is your task to invest a project with interest and zest?
That what makes a project “interesting” is not the topic . . . but rather the interaction between material and presenter.
Ultimately, it is your task to transform a “case” or business situation into an interesting and cogent presentation. It’s your task to find the key elements of strategic significance and then to dramatize those elements in such a way that the audience is moved in powerful and significant ways.
And you don’t need an “interesting” case to do it.
You just need presentation passion. More on how to develop especially powerful presentation passion here.
Let’s move from the realm of what you do and say in front of your audience to the realm of how you actually appear to your audience – presentation appearance.
Likewise, let’s immediately dismiss the notion that “it doesn’t matter what I look like . . . it’s the message that counts.”
In a word . . . no.
This is so wrong-headed and juvenile that you can turn this to immediate advantage. Adopt the exact opposite perspective right now to achieve incredible presentation competitive advantage.
But I’d wager that most folks your age won’t, particularly those stuck in liberal arts, for better or worse.
Much more dramatic to strike a pose and deliver a mythic blow for “individuality” than to conform to society’s diktats, eh?
Well, let those folks strike their blows while you spiff yourself up for your presentations, both in public and in private job interviews, and gain a superior competitive advantage.
The Upshot – Presentation Appearance
Here is the bottom line. Your appearance matters a great deal, like it or not, and it is up to us to dress and groom appropriate to the occasion and appropriate to our personal brand and the message we want to send.
“Slob cool” may fly in college – and I stress may – but it garners only contempt outside the friendly confines of the local student activities center and fraternity house.
Is that “fair?”
It certainly is fair.
You may not like it. It may clang upon your youthful sensibilities.
You’re on display in front of a group of buyers. They want to know if your message is credible. Your appearance conveys important cues to your audience. It conveys one of two chief messages, with no room to maneuver between them.
First, your appearance telegraphs to your audience that you are: sharp, focused, detailed, careful, bold, competent, prudent, innovative, loyal, energetic . . .
or . . .
Your appearance telegraphs to your audience that you are: slow, sloppy, careless, inefficient, incompetent, weak, mercenary, stupid.
Moreover, you may never know when you are actually auditioning for your next job.
That presentation you decided to “wing” with half-baked preparation and delivered in a wrinkled suit might have held in the audience a human resource professional recommended to you by a friend.
But you blew the deal. Without even knowing it.
Think. How many powerful people mentally cross you off their list because of your haphazard, careless appearance?
How many opportunities pass you by?
How many great connections do you forfeit?
Your Choice . . . Choose Well
Granted, it’s up to your discretion to dress in the first wrinkled shirt you pull from the laundry basket, but recognize that you may be paying a price without even knowing it.
Your appearance on the stage contributes or detracts from your message. So, as a general rule, you should dress one half-step above the audience to convey a seriousness of purpose. For instance, if the audience is dressed in business casual (sports coat and tie), you dress in a suit. Simple.
But beyond your presentation, you are always on-stage.
You are always auditioning.
And you are creating your personal brand one wrinkled shirt at a time, one exposed pair of boxers at a time.
Or . . . clean, professional, sober, serious, decisive, thoughtful, and bold.
Personal appearance overlaps into the area of personal branding, which is beyond the scope of this space, but two books I recommend to aid you in your quest for appearance enhancement are You, Inc. and The Brand Called You.
Both of these books are worth the price and filled with stellar advice to propel you into delivering Especially Powerful Presentations enhanced by a superb presentation appearance.
We’re all familiar with the droning voice of the numbing speaker who rarely varies pitch, tone, or pace of a talk and who quickly loses us in monotony – and delivers the Boring Presentation.
In like fashion, you can be visually monotonous.
Visual monotony – either of repetitive constant movement . . . or of no movement whatsoever.
We know well the “rocker” and the “swayer.”
We know Mr. “busy-hands” and the “Foxtrotter,” who quicksteps in a tight little dance. Perhaps you have seen the occasional great Stoneface, but he is a rarity today.
The Right Movement
Movement can enhance or cripple your presentation. But you must engage the right kind of movement.
Before you begin agitated hopping about the stage willy-nilly, recognize that you should incorporate movement into your presentation for quite specific reasons. Your movements should contribute to your presentation by reinforcing your message.
At the risk over over-alliterating, you should mesh your movements with your message.
Remember that every single thing you do onstage derives its power by its contrast with every other thing you do. If you move all the time, like a constant pacing jungle cat, it becomes the equivalent of white noise, and your movements contribute no meaning whatever to your presentation.
In fact, your movements become a distraction, leeching energy and attention from your message. It, too, becomes a form of visual monotony.
Kiss of Sleep for the Boring Presentation
Likewise, if you remain stationary 100 percent of the time, the result is visual monotony. You lull your audience into inattention, especially if you combine verbal and visual monotony in a single presentation – The Kiss of Sleep . . . for your audience.
Those in theater know this principle well.
In his very fine Tips for Actors, Jon Jory intones that: “Your best tool to avoid this dangerous state is variety. Three lines of loud need soft. Three lines of quick need slow. A big dose of movement needs still. Or change your tactics.”
So, think of movement as one more tool in your repertoire to evoke feeling from your audience and to convey a powerful and persuasive message. And avoid the boring presentation.
The secret is not Movement alone . . . the secret is keen, decisive, proper, and exquisitely timed Movement.
Class had ended, and I was giving final feedback for a group that had just presented their business case and did so without presentation drama.
Not a bad group presentation by any means, but individual students needed work, and I like to give advice that young folks can carry with them beyond the classroom and on into the workaday world.
Not just advice, mind you, but nuggets that can confer personal competitive advantage for a lifetime.
As I briefed the presenters, a colleague entered the classroom and stood by, listening in. He’s a smart man. I respect him for his knowledge of finance.
A curious fellow, too.
He took in my feedback as I advised students to eliminate a verbal gaffe called the “rising line” or the “verbal up-tic,” as I call it. I was demonstrating this awful turn of voice.
The Verbal Up-tic or “uptalk” as it is sometimes called, is a verbal pathology that afflicts at least 50 percent of young presenters and is manifested by transforming simple statements of fact into questions. The Brits call this the “Moronic Interrogative,” and you can probably guess that it is not a compliment.
By eliminating this awful verbal tic, you take a giant step toward presenting excellence.
My students packed up and left, and my colleague stepped up beside me.
“Well! All this drama! It looks and sounds like drama class.”
By now, I’m accustomed to the raised eyebrow of colleagues who look askance at some of the techniques I advocate. It goes with the territory. There is, after all, a kind of lock-step sameness in the faculty view of business presentations.
Deviations from the barebones structure are not appreciated nor are they recognized for the value they can add.
“You could well say that, Roger . . . there’s a big helping of drama here. It’s much like putting on a show. It’s why I call my presentations ‘shows’ and my students my ‘show-people.’”
Because this, in essence, is what visual and verbal communication is all about and how it differs drastically from written work.
It’s no accident that I use the word “show.” This is what we do when we give a presentation . . . when we present. We don’t deliver a presentation; we present.
The presentation is not something behind you on a screen. The presentation is not on a whiteboard or butcher paper. It’s not on a flip chart.
The presentation is you.
A large part of you is how you express yourself – your presence, your expression. We are at our best when we incorporate presentation drama into our projects, and this is the catalyst that provides the grist for our expression and enthusiasm.
By drama, I do not mean the phony excitement and angst of “relationships” gone wrong, the depression of being brought low by a downer “text,” the anxiety of the “drama queen” or the pomposity of “King Drama.”
I mean the “dramatic situation.”
Life. Variety. Intensity. Color.
You have drama inherent in any situation where there is conflict or the potential for conflict.
We in business, engaged as we are in competing to provide goods and services to our customers, are blessed with dramatic situations.
Business cases are chock full of drama – conflict, suspense, turning points, great decisions. You simply must learn to recognize them and to bring them out. It does not mean exaggerated behavior during your presentation, as noted by one of my favorite Speaking Masters of all time, Grenville Kleiser:
This is not a recommendation of paroxysms of feeling, wild gesticulation, tearing and combing of the hair with the fingers, violent pacing up and down the platform, and other manifestations of old-style oratory, happily now obsolete, but rather to suggest a power which, when properly used, will give life, variety, intensity, and color to the spoken message.
Life. Variety. Intensity. Color. These are what you strive for.
This theatrical aspect of presenting can, in theory, surely be overdone. But given the staid status of business presenting, the danger of this in business presentations is nil.
I never see overdone business presentations, but I’d surely welcome one.
You can harness dramatic techniques to your business presenting style, and a number of books delve into this. One of the finest books available on the subject is Ken Howard’s Act Natural, and I strongly urge its purchase if you are serious about taking your presenting power to a whole new level by incorporating presentation drama.
The speaking secret of expression is an advantage that should be yours and not just restricted as a privilege for those toiling in the theater or in film.
Remember that you have incredible power at your disposal in the form of expression that makes use of drama.
A curl of the lip.
A raise of one eyebrow.
Sincere furrows in the forehead.
Speaking Master Joseph Mosher gave us one key secret to expression in 1928, and we would be wise to recognize his observation of the importance of the mouth and eyes.
[T]here is no one element of gesture which furnishes as unmistakable and effective an indication of the speaker’s thought and feeling as does the expression of the mouth and eyes. The firm-set mouth and flashing eye speak more clearly than a torrent of words; the smile is as good as, or better than, a sentence in indicating good humor; the sneering lip, the upraised brow, or the scowl need no verbal commentary.
The secret power of presentation drama is yours for the taking. You need only seize it to develop an especially powerful presentation.
It’s nothing more than an add-on, right? Something perhaps nice to have, but unessential to the point of our presentation.
The fact is that you cannot separate sincerity from your appearance. You can’t disaggregate movement from your inflection. From your volume.
From your nuance.
And you cannot separate your words from gesture.
So let’s add the power of gesture to our words to achieve superior messaging.
What’s a Presentation Gesture?
A wave of the hand.
A snap of the finger.
A stride across the stage with arms outstretched to either side.
A scratch of the chin.
An accusatory finger.
A balled fist at the proper moment.
These are all gestures that can either enhance or destroy your presentation. Destroy your presentation.
Professional presentation coaches understand that most of the information transmitted in a show is visual. This is a result of the presence of the speaker.
An audio recording of a talk is not nearly as powerful as an actual live presentation. Executive coach Lynda Paulson is spot-on when she notes the power of gestures to persuade an audience . . . or to alienate an audience, because “at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal. It’s what people see in our eyes, in our movements and in our actions.”
Whether the percentage is accurate or not, undoubtedly, gestures provide energy, and accent.
They add power, emphasis, and meaning to our words.
Throughout the history of public speaking, the finest communicators have known the importance of the proper gesture at the proper time.
Especially Powerful Presentation Mastery
Entire books, in fact, have been written about gesture and the power it can bestow. But most of this knowledge resides in the recesses of libraries waiting to be rediscovered. See, for example, Edward Amherst Ott’s classic 1902 book How to Gesture.
Gesture is too important to leave to chance. Certainly too important to dismiss with the airy “move around when you talk.” Let’s understand exactly what it means.
In 1928, Joseph Mosher defined gesture in a way that guides us even today: “Gesture may be broadly defined as visible expression, that is, any posture or movement of the head, face, body, limbs or hands, which aids the speaker in conveying his message by appealing to the eye.”
Gesture in your presentation should be natural. It flows from the meaning of your words and the meaning you wish to convey with your words.
We never gesture without reason or a point to make. Typically, the emotion and energy in a talk leads us to gesture.
Without emotion, gesture is mechanical. It’s false. It feels and looks artificial.
Communicating Without Words
Presentation Gesture is part of our repertoire of non-verbal communication. You have many arrows in the quiver of gesture from which to choose. They can imbue your presentation with power.
On rare occasion, can imbue your presentation with majesty of epic proportions.
Yes, “majesty of epic proportions.”
For if you do not begin to think in grand, expansive terms about yourself and your career, you will remain mired in the mud. Stuck at the bottom.
Proper gesture increases your talk’s power and lends emphasis to your words.
In fact, gesture is essential to take your presentation to a superior level, a level far above the mundane. You limit yourself if you do not gesture effectively as you present.
As with every craft, there is a correct way to gesture . . . and a wrong way. Without a clear notion of how gesture can enhance our presentations, we are left with aimless ejaculations that can distract and leech away the power of our message and the audience’s confidence in our competence.
Accordingly, here are several of the more common examples of bad gesturing involving just your fingers. These are so common that I cannot but believe that someone, somewhere is training folks in these oddities, and it’s the equivalent of self-sabotage.
Control Those Fingers!
Under no circumstances engage in “finger play.”
This is a habit many people develop unconsciously as they try to discover what to do with their hands. You know you should do something with your appendages, but no one has told you what. So you develop these unconscious motions.
Many different activities come under the heading of “finger play.”
Tugging at your fingers. I suspect that we all carry a “finger-tugging” gene embedded deep in our DNA that is suppressed only with difficulty.
Bending your fingers back in odd manner. This is a ubiquitous movement, universally practiced. It consists of grasping the fingers and bending them back, as if counting something, and then holding them there for a spell. It’s almost a finger-tug, but more pronounced.
Waving your hands around with floppy wrist movement. This is not only distracting, but the wobbly wrist action creates a perception of weakness and uncertainty.
Simply by eliminating these commonplace pathologies from your own presenting, you strengthen by subtraction.
The Power of Presentation Gesture
Why would you want to “gesture?” Aren’t your words enough?
To add force to your points. To demonstrate honesty, decisiveness, humility, boldness, even fear. A motion toward the door, a shrug, a lifted eyebrow – what words can equal these gestures?
While its range is limited, gesture carries powerful meaning. It should carry powerful meaning; this form of nonverbal language predates spoken language. Said James Winans in 1915:
Gesture, within its limitations, is an unmistakable language, and is understood by men of all races and tongues. Gesture is our most instinctive language; at least it goes back to the beginning of all communication when the race, still lacking articulate speech, could express only through the tones of inarticulate sounds and through movements.
Imagine the powerful communication you attain when, at the proper moment, your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine.
You attain a powerful communication moment when your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions align with the message and your visual aids to wash over your audience, suffusing them with emotion and energy. Be spare with your gestures and be direct. Make them count.
Look for more detailed analysis on the gestures available to you in this space in coming days.
Your presentation voice is one key to an especially powerful business presentation . . . or a disastrous one.
Your voice and your appearance are the constants that pervade your presentation from start to finish.
Voice is one of the seven dimensions along which we measure the Power Presenter, and a strong, clear, confident voice is one of the seven secrets of powerful presenting.
Paradoxically, we take our voices for granted.
Because we do, this nonchalant attitude can undermine us and destroy all of our hard work.
But you can become quite a good speaker, a presenter whose voice exudes confidence and is welcomed by the ear. Speaking Master Grenville Kleiser tells us that:
“If nature has not endowed you with a good speaking voice, you can do much toward acquiring one. The organs of speech can be trained, like any other part of the body, by assiduous attention and practice.”
You can do many things to improve your presentation voice – your articulation, your power and range, your force and tone.
If you decide that you want to move to an advanced level of presentations and are drawn to improve your voice’s quality through study and practice, many books and videos and recordings are published each year to help you along.
Much of the best writing on voice improvement was produced in the years when public speaking was considered an art – between 1840 and 1940 – and the advice contained therein are about as universal and timeless as it gets.
The reality is that the human voice is the same now as it was 100 years ago (2,000 years ago) and responds to the proven techniques developed over centuries.
Ready to Change your Presentation Voice
It’s time to recognize that your voice is not a sacred artifact, nor is it some precious extension of your very being.
It’s an instrument with which you communicate. You can sharpen your communication skills by developing a powerful presentation voice. And because most people are oblivious of their own voices, simply thinking of your voice in this way will improve its quality.
Working to improve it with the exercise will improve its quality dramatically.
Let’s consider here just two things you can do to improve your voice. Nothing extreme at all. And actually quite fun, if you approach it the right way.
We have two goals.
First, we want to rid your voice of the chronic crack and rasp. It’s called vocal fry when it’s done intentionally to imitate reality TV personalities. That crack and rasp is a symptom of meekness – no confidence. Do you have this crack and rasp? If not, congratulations and let’s move along. But if you do . . .
“In addition to relaxing the throat muscles, the speaker should make a special effort to vocalize every particle of breath passing over the vocal cords. There should be no wheezy leakage of air.”
Push air across your vocal chords and complete your sentences. Don’t trail off at the end of every sentence with a croaking sound like folks on Disney Channel.
Second, we want to deepen your voice. Why? Like it or not, deeper voices are perceived as more credible. A Stanford University study, one among many, gives the nod to deeper voices:
Our studies show that directions from a female voice are perceived as less accurate than those from a male voice, even when the voices are reading the exact same directions. Deepness helps, too. It implies size, height and authority. Deeper voices are more credible.
Now, should things be this way? Is it “fair” that deeper voices have some kind of advantage?
Deeper Presentation Voice? That’s not fair!
It’s no less fair than that some people are taller than others or larger or faster or rate perfect scores on the SAT. It’s neither fair, nor unfair. It’s simply the reality we’re dealt. If you want to devote your life to fighting for “voice equality,” you have my support. Have at it, and Godspeed.
If, on the other hand, you want to deepen your voice a bit so that you gain personal competitive advantage, then let us analyze what the deep-voice reality means to us.
It means that a deeper presentation voice is more desirable for presenting, regardless of who presents, male or female. Now, the very fact that you are armed with that information empowers you.
When you decide to act on it, it adds to your personal competitive advantage.
Many simple and effective exercises exist to deepen and enrich your voice.
A simple awareness of your own voice-cracking should be enough to remedy that issue. Record your voice, and listen critically. A personal coach can help, or even a trusted confidante as concerned with voice as much as you. Listen to each other, coach each other, and work together to achieve an improved voice.
No, your voice is not a sacrosanct. Voice is the second secret – the second dimension along which speakers are assessed.
 Grenville Kleiser, “How to Speak Well,” in Radio Broadcasting (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1935) , 42-43.
 George Rowland Collins, Platform Speaking (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923), 33.
 Suter, J. K. (2003). Der Eindruck vom Ausdruck–Einfluss paraverbaler Kommunikation auf die Wahrnehmung von Nachrichtensprechenden [The impression of expression – the influence of paraverbal communication on the perception of newsreaders]. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Bern, Switzerland.
 Anne Eisenberg, “Mars and Venus, On the Net : Gender Stereotypes Prevail,” (The New York Times, 2000), http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/SI110/readings/Cyberculture/Eisenberg.pdf
Your ready position is the default stance you assume when giving your talk, when not emphasizing a point with movement and gesture.
Think a moment about how you stand while you give your talk.
I refer to the time when you’re not moving about the stage to emphasize this or that point.
This especially powerful ready position is your anchor, your life preserver in a storm. Your safe harbor.
Powerful . . . Confident . . . In command
When you stride to the stage, move to the command position in front of the lectern and facing the crowd.
Now, plant yourself as you would a paving stone in a garden. Plant yourself firmly, as a stone, with feet shoulder-width apart, weight evenly distributed, shoulders squared. Plant yourself as a deeply rooted Redwood.
Do not slouch or put more weight on one foot than on the other. Point your toes slightly outward. Neither slump, nor stiffen. Shoulders back, head up, expectant.
Do not allow your head to settle down betwixt your collar bones. This compresses your neck like a collapsed concertina. It cramps your voice box and cuts the flow of air that you need to speak.
At this point, let your hands hang loosely at your sides . . . (in a moment, we’ll give you something to do with your hands).
Walking and pointing and looking and eye-contact? Forget it for now.
Forget it all for now.
First, you must seize control of yourself and adopt your strong, basic stance and make it your habit.
You must control all of those little tics and habits and nervous gestures that leech the strength from your presentation. The tics and habits that telegraph your nervousness and lack of confidence.
What tics and habits, you say? Every young presenter has at least some of them and the ready position can help remedy the following pathologies.
Do Not cross your leg in front of you while you balance on the other. This “standing cross” is more prevalent, for some reason, among female presenters than among males. Some males have this habit as well. This is a particularly debilitating movement from both the standpoint of the audience and for you. It projects instability. And it makes you feel unstable.
Do Not cock your hip to one side – this is called a “hip-shot.” Again, this action undermines your foundation. This hip-shot posture degrades your presentation in multiple ways. It shouts nonchalance. It denotes disinterest and impatience. It cries out to the audience a breezy bar demeanor that is completely at odds with the spoken message you want to convey.
Do Not engage in little choppy steps. This side-to-side dance is common. It telegraphs nervousness.
Do Not slump your shoulders. Few things project lack of confidence like rounded shoulders. Slumping shoulders can be a reflexive response to nervousness that leads to a “closed body position.”
Again. Stand in one place, your feet comfortably shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed outward. Arms at your sides.
Your Foundation – Your Ready Position
Your goal at this point is to maintain a solid physical foundation. To project an image of confidence to the audience and to imbue yourself with confidence in point of fact. You begin to do this with your stance – solid and confident.
Now here is the most important guidance for your Foundation “Ready” position.
Stand as described, and place your left hand in your pants pocket, out of the way. This position should be your default position. Putting the hand in your pocket gets it out of the way and keeps you out of trouble. Moreover, it projects confidence.
If you have no pocket, ease your left hand a bit behind you and to the side. No, not in a military posture, but enough to disengage it. If you are left-handed, of course disengage your right hand.
And, no, it is not “unprofessional.” This position carries a multitude of positives and no negatives. You never go wrong with this position.
It imbues you with confidence and keeps you copacetic. To your audience, it projects competence, confidence, reassurance, and sobriety: “Here is someone who knows his/her stuff.”
This is your Ready Position.
Everything else you do flows from this position. Practice your two-minute talk from this position and do not move.
Stop and think. When you are ready to make a point that is crucial to your thesis . . . When you are ready to shift subjects or major ideas . . . then—
Then, step to the left while addressing the people on the left flank. Talk to them. Then, step to the right and address those on your right. Hold open your hands, palms up. Walk toward your audience a step or two. Look them in the eyes. Speak to individuals.
Then, step back to the center and retake your ready position.
Let your movements emphasize your points. When you gesture to a portion of the audience, step toward them in a kind of supplication.
And always always, always go back to the ready postion. I have seen dozens of young speakers transformed into capable, confident speakers by virtue of this alone.
How is that possible? By removing the doubt associated with “How will I stand.”
This powerful and stable ready position imbues you with confidence, your first step toward building positive energy within yourself.
The Ready Position — it’s your safe harbor in a sea of presentation uncertainty.
You want to project strength, competence, and confidence throughout your presentation, and an especially powerful technique is to utilize “power posing” as the basis of your stance.
Stance is the first of our Seven Secrets to especially powerful presenting and is fundamental to projecting your strong image.
Let me preface with assurance that I do not expect you to stay rooted in one spot throughout your talk. But at the risk of sounding clichéd, let us state forthrightly that it is impossible to build any lasting structure on a soft foundation.
Your Foundation – Power Posing
This foundation grows out of the notion of what we can call “power posing.”
Let’s build your foundation now and learn a little bit about the principle of power posing, which has been researched and popularized by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy.
How do you stand when you converse in a group at a party or a reception? What is your “bearing?” How do you stand before a crowd when you speak?
Have you ever consciously thought about it?
What is my pose? Sheepish? Mincing? Unsure? Domineering? Awkward?
How you stand, how you carry yourself, communicates to others. It transmits a great deal about us with respect to our inner thoughts, self-image, and self-awareness.
Whether we like this is not the point. The point is that we are constantly signaling others non-verbally.
You send messages to those around you. Folks around us take their cues based on universal perception of the messages received.
What is true in small groups is also true as you lecture or present in front of groups of four or 400.
Whether you actually speak or not, your body language is always transmitting. If so, just what is the message you unconsciously send to people?
Have you thought about the silent and constant messages your posture radiates?
Recognize that much of the audience impression of you is forming as you approach the lectern. Your listeners form this impression immediately, before you shuffle your papers or clear your throat or squint into the bright lights.
They form their impression from your walk, from your posture, from your clothing, from your grooming, from the slightest inflections of your face, and from your eye movement.
This has always been true. Speaking Master Grenville Kleiser said in 1912 that, “The body, the hand, the face, the eye, the mouth, all should respond to the speaker’s inner thought and feeling.”
Defeat? Ennui? Melt-down?
Do you stand with shoulders rounded in a defeatist posture?
Do you transmit defeat, boredom, ennui? Do you shift from side-to-side or do you unconsciously sway back-and-forth?
Do you cross and uncross your legs without knowing, balancing precariously upon one foot, your free leg wrapped in front of the other, projecting an odd, wobbly, and about-to-tumble-down image?
Call this defeatist behavior non-power posing.
Your posture affects those who watch you and it affects you as well. Those effects can be positive or negative.
Posture, of course, is part of nonverbal communication, and it serves this role well. The audience takes silent cues from you, and your posture is one of those subtle cues that affect an audience’s mood and receptivity.
But posture and bearing are not simply superficial nonverbal communication to your audience.
Another effect is in play, and it can be insidious and can undermine your goals . . . or it can be an incredibly powerful ally to your mission.
It is this: Your body language transmits your depression, guilty, fear, lack of confidence to the audience.
It also enhances and reinforces those feelings within you. Most often, if we fear the act of public speaking, the internal flow of energy from our emotional state to our physical state is negative.
Negative energy courses freely into our limbs and infuses us with stiffness, dread, immobility and a destructive self-consciousness.
We shift involuntarily into damage-limitation mode.
It cripples us.
Your emotions affect your body language. They influence the way you stand, the way you appear to your audience. They influence what you say and how you say it.
Reverse the Process
But . . .
You can reverse the process.
You can use your gestures, movement, posture, and expression to influence your emotions.
You can turn it around quite handily and seize control of the dynamic, and this is the secret at the core of power posing.
Instead of your body language and posture reflecting your emotions, reverse the flow. Let your emotions reflect your body language and your posture. Consciously strike a bearing that reflects the confident and powerful speaker you want to be.
A venerable psychological theory contends this very thing, that our emotions evolve from our physiology. It’s called James-Lange Theory, developed by William James and the Danish physiologist Carl G. Lange. Speaking Master James Albert Winans noted the phenomenon in 1915:
Count ten before venting your anger, and its occasion seems ridiculous. Whistling to keep up courage is no mere figure of speech. On the other hand, sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers. . . . [I]f we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward movements of those contrary dispositions which we prefer to cultivate.
Much more recently, a Amy Cuddy’s Harvard study substantiated James-Lange Theory and found that power posing substantially increases confidence in people who assume them while interacting with others.
In short, the way you stand or sit either increases or decreases your confidence. The study’s conclusion is unambiguous and speaks directly to us. Harvard researchers Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy and Andy J. Yap say in the September 2010 issue of Psychological Science that:
[P]osing in high-power displays (as opposed to low-power displays) causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power holders — elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk tolerance and feelings of power.
In other words, stand powerfully and you increase your power and presence. You actually feel more powerful. This finding holds tremendous significance for you if you want to imbue your presentations with power.
In our 21st Century vernacular, this means you should stand the way you want to feel. Assume the posture of confidence. Consciously affect a positive, confident bearing. Square your shoulders.
Affix a determined look on your face. Speak loudly, firmly, and distinctly. In short, let your actions influence your emotions.
Seize control of the emotional energy flow and make it work for you.
So what is a confident posture?
Let’s begin with a firm foundation.
For any structure to endure, we must build on strength. And I mean this both in the metaphorical and in the literal sense with regard to business presentations.
You must not only project strength and stability, you must feel strength and stability. The two are inseparable, and a moment’s thought reveals to you why.
Consider the confident speaker.
To appear unstable and fearful before an audience, a confident speaker must take a conscious effort to strike such a weak pose. Likewise, it would take a conscious effort for a person, who has planted himself firmly in the prescribed confident posture, to feel nervous, uncertain, or unsure of himself.
The key is to adopt the confident pose and maintain it relentlessly against all of the body’s involuntary urges to crumple and shift, to equivocate and sway.
The point and the goal is to establish a foundation that exudes strength, competence, and confidence.
Essential to this goal is that you know the difference between open body language and closed body language. It is the difference between power posing and powerless posing.
This strong personal foundation is your ready position, your standard posture for your presentation. It serves as the foundation for everything else to follow.