Stanley K. Ridgley, PhD is one of the country’s foremost experts on delivering Business School Presentations and is the author of the award-winning 2012 book, “The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting,” the authoritative guide to delivering powerful business presentations in the nation’s business schools. He is also the faculty instructor for the course “Strategic Thinking” in the DVD series TheGreatCourses.com.
Dr. Ridgley brings to bear the most powerful instructional techniques from one of America’s great business schools and combines them with the lessons of military leadership and high strategy learned on the front lines of the Cold War as a Military Intelligence Officer.
You don’t start tuning your instrument for the first time when it’s time to perform a concert, and likewise, you don’t begin honing your presentation skills when it’s time to present. By the time of your competition, all of your team members ought to be thoroughly grounded in the principles of especially powerful presentations.
The principles offered here in this case competition guide.
This part of your competition prep should already be accomplished, with only a few review sessions to ensure everyone is sharp on the Seven Secrets: Stance . . . Voice . . . Gesture . . . Expression . . . Movement . . . Appearance . . . Passion.
Our case competition guide divides the preparation for the competition into three phases.
Phase 1: Lead-in to the Competition
You are made aware of the competition’s rules. You acknowledge and embrace the rules and what they imply. Your entire team should become intimately familiar with the parameters of the competition – think metaphorically and spacially.
Recognize that the problem has length and breadth and depth. Understand the finite limits of the context presented to you, what you can and cannot do. Think of it as an empty decanter that you fill with your analysis and conclusions on the day of the competition.
Later, upon receiving the actual Case, you will conduct the same process – recognize that the Case Problem has length and breadth and depth.
But now, prior to the competition, take stock of what you already know you must do . . . and then do most of it beforehand as the rules permit.
This includes embracing the problem situation long before you arrive on-site for a competition and before you receive the case in question. Learn the parameters of the context in which you will operate. The case competition guide breaks the competition environment into discrete elements:
Length of presentation
Total time available (set-up, presenting, Q&A, Close-out)
Number of presenters allowed or required
Visuals permitted or required
Sources you may use, both beforehand and during the problem-solving phase
You know that you will be required to provide analysis of a case and your results and recommendations. Why not prepare all that you can before you arrive at the competition?
Some competitions may frown on this or forbid it . . . fine, then do it when you can, at the first point that it is permissible. This way, you can spend the majority of your case analysis time filling in the content.
Follow the Case Competition Guide
Prepare your slide template beforehand according to the principles expounded here.
Business presentations have a small universe of scenarios and limited number of elements that comprise those scenarios. A well-prepared team that is composed of team members from different functional areas will have generic familiarity with virtually any case assigned in a competition. The team should have no problems dealing with any case it is presented.
Determine beforehand who will handle – generally – the presentation tasks on your team as well as the analytical portions of your case. The following is offered as an example of how the task might be approached:
As part of this initial process, prepare your slide template with suitable logos, background, killer graphics, and charts and graphs requiring only that the numbers be filled in.
Leading into the competition, it’s essential that your team be familiar with sources of data that you may be permitted to utilize in conducting your case analysis – market research, industry surveys, and such like. Familiarity with online databases like Business Source Premier, Mergent Online, and S&P NetAdvantage is necessary since not all schools may have access to the data sources you use most often.
No Place for the Unprepared
With respect to the delivery or your presentation itself, a case competition is neither time nor place for you to polish your delivery skills. You should have honed them to razor’s edge by now. As well, your orchestration as a team should be perfected before arriving at the site of the competition.
At the competition, you lift your performance to the next level in terms of application of all the principles, precepts, and hard skills you have applied in business school – finance, accounting, marketing, operations, strategy, analysis – and you apply them in a tightly orchestrated and professional presentation that pops.
If you have engaged the case competition guide successfully during the lead-up to the competition, then your taut case-cracking team will be ready when you are finally issued the case. A team ready to address the issues involved in the case problem.
George H. W. Bush might have called it “the vision thing.”
He beat me to it by about 20 years, and while it might have been a phrase suitable for ridiculing an uptight politician, I think it does capture its amorphous quality.
It seems that the vision thing is amorphous . . . to everyone but the visionary. To the visionary, the vision is clear, rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night.
And quite as hot.
At best, the visionary is surrounded by lesser minds whose feeble synapses cannot loop themselves about the vision.
At worst, they are idiots and obstructionists.
Our Visions . . .
Of course, we all have visions.
To us, our own visions are clear. They are indeed rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night.
And yes . . . quite as hot.
These are exciting visions, and visions that are bound to disappoint us as we make others aware of them.
For no one else understands. Because . . . communicating that vision may be as difficult as confecting it in the first place.
For every sympathetic ear lent to you by a fellow visionary who has been put through the meatgrinder of negativity, there are 100 naysayers eager to turn the crank on your vision.
No . . . 1000 naysayers.
Not that naysaying is always bad, mind you. All visions are not created equal, and some can be downright nasty.
The man or woman with a vision could easily be an artist or architect, or could well be a developer scarfing up land to lay down asphalt for a superhighway or to lay foundations for a new Trump Tower.
Or it could be an entrepreneur — wild-eyed, committed, driven by a vision.
Driven to Create
Or a would-be novelist with one good plot in him . . . or her. Or a dozen plots seething and straining at release from the prison of our poor imagination. A would-be novelist, driven to write. Or driven to distraction.
Is there so much difference between an entrepreneur and a writer? For novelists are entrepreneurs. Each time the bold writer casts a blank page upon the screen to begin a new tale, it is a fresh project, new to the world and unlike anything that has gone before. One hopes.
The endeavor requires a particular set of attributes. Determination, patience, acumen, imagination, education of a sort (not necessarily formal), experience in life, literacy. The ability to communicate . . .
This last, of course, is the trick.
For words are the medium most of us use to convey our vision, whether a novel or an idea for a product that does not yet exist. A product that meets a need that we do not yet know we have. A story that resonates with feelings we have not yet explored.
Even the painter must use words to “explain” his art to those unable to grasp its subtlety or significance — such explanation, by its very nature, is usually a forlorn exercise.
The vision thing. Our visions can be great or small, creative or mundane.
In my classes on business strategy, I talk about the vision thing in oblique terms. I actually broach the concept of businessperson as artist. The artistically inclined in my courses (and some liberal arts folks do slip in) look askance at the idea, and most of the fact-motivated business-inclined in my courses don’t seem to care.
Or, even if they were to care, simply do not understand the point.
The notion is not warmly received. Perhaps the point is nonexistent. Or strained. Or ludicrous.
Perhaps it is a futile exercise. Maybe it is something that I see that others do not. Even so, it is possible that this thing that I alone see does not necessarily have value.
No Boundaries to Creativity
But I do believe that there are no disciplinary bounds that contain creativity. Many of the products of advertising agencies abound with creativity – at least in their initial stages before the corporate leavening process strips away edginess and originality and anything which might prove too startling for public sensibilities.
For corporate leavening is designed to package knowledge in comprehensible, digestible bites. It is designed to link information seamlessly into the already-known world of popular culture, more to massage viewers with familiar verities and comfortable genuflections than to stimulate thought. It is the proverbial cooks spoiling broth.
So it is with business generally. There is an art to business, but it is never described as such lest such creativity be hooted from the room.This is the realm where ideas are “run up flagpoles” and such like, where outside-the-box thinking receives the obligatory tip o’ the hat, but where genuine “outside the box thinking” is neither expected nor appreciated.
The articulation of true thinking outside the corporate box is risible, if anyone unschooled in the unwritten corporate rules dares to give voice to such heresy.
This is the conundrum. The paradox.
Now, we all engage in pop-psychology from time-to-time, and this allows us to speak of the “average person’s” attitudes, beliefs, and reactions as if we, ourselves, are free of this “average person’s” afflictions. But indulge this hubris for a few more moments.
The conundrum is that when the artist, the visionary, thinks outside the box, it leaves others feeling threatened and insulted that they, themselves, are perceived as restricted to thinking inside this box.
Likewise, the average person tends to interpret his own inability to understand a vision as the other person’s quackery . . . whether the artist is a painter, composer, writer . . . or businessman.
There is a balance to be struck here.
Those of us without calluses on our fragile psyches can be wounded by the mass rejection of our vision, such rejection leaving us questioning our sanity and ability. Conversely, those of us informed by our own arrogance and too callused may be deaf to legitimate criticism or to gentle suggestion.
Thus, the conundrum of the vision. Visions are difficult.
Conundrum of the Vision
I said that not all visions are created equal. Not all are salutary or benign. Some are unsavory, insidious, dangerous, cold.
Others are just boring, derivative, smug, pale.
But I desire not to judge a man’s vision. Not hereabouts, anyway.
These problems of distinguishing good vision from bad are worth essays and books in their own right, essays and books that are perhaps beyond this scribe’s abilities to pen.
Rather, at this point, I call attention to the angst and anguish of the man who perceives that his vision cannot be grasped by others. His impatience with naysayers, his irascibility, his inability to compromise, his propensity to scoff rather than to explain. Ultimately, his resignation that any explanation will not be enough.
For if it were explicable to the average mind, then the average mind would have long ago seized upon the vision and made it corporeal.
That is yet another conundrum for the entrepreneur, the artist, the visionary. Perhaps it has always been this way, and it is not necessarily restricted to those of genius stature.
If the vision itself, indeed, is true art – an assemblage of something truly unique, then of course it will not be immediately apprehensible to the hoi-polloi.
And so not to sound haughty, perhaps it could be better said: “immediately apprehensible to us of the hoi-polloi,” to those of us not privy to the vision’s intricate fabric, the obscure linkages, the high concept that informs the few.
Beware the Sneer of the Wise
Let me issue a caveat that complicates the issue.
There are those in our lives who exhibit a raft of negative characteristics – irascibility, inability to compromise, the sneer of the wise – without the saving grace of having a vision or anything resembling it. But shrewd and clever folks are afoot, and they know the trappings of the visionary, the finery of the thinker, the vernacular of the annointed.
But he is hollow. And how to spot this poseur?
Again, I digress in the interest of clarity and refinement. Back to the point-of-the-moment, and that point is this:
Communicating the vision is incredibly difficult. It is difficult because of snags all along the communication chain. It is difficult because of flaws inherent in the visionary, in the medium, and in the those receiving the message. Given this, it is a wonder that useful communication occurs at all.
Think of the equation: An irascible, haughty, driven, and quirky entrepreneur attempts hurried and imperfect communication with an unresponsive, suspicious, and fallow audience.
For inevitably, the recipient of a fresh, new, insightful, electrifying, unique confection of art, vision, or theory will respond in predictable manner.
The recipient of this revolutionary information responds to the truly new by filtering the information through sensors that massage and mold it into images and words and reality that are already known. For it all has been heard before, seen before, considered before, and catalogued before.
Nothing is truly new . . . especially to the clever man, who for the most part has no personal stake in recognizing and processing novelty.
If perchance, an idea takes root, a theory is accepted, art recognized for its texture, nuance, and universalism . . . well, the problem of communication is instantly forgotten after the fact.
We’re All Geniuses . . . After The Fact
After the fact, of course, it is all different. We all recognize novelty, genius, the great idea after the fact. Long after the fact. It becomes “obvious.”
The unserious novels of Charles Dickens. The absurd notion that people might appreciate a service that provides overnight delivery, a service with the ridiculously stuffy name “Federal Express.”
In each of these dramatically different cases, an entrepreneur recognized something that others, perhaps much like us, could not or would not.
Entrepreneurs and novelists are usually driven people. I tend to believe that they are one and the same. Would-be authors are entrepreneurs. In fact, they are repeat performers, whether crafting fiction or non-fiction . . . every new book is an entrepreneurial effort.
They visualize what is not there, what others cannot see. Or can see only through a mist of reality that clogs the imagination. Imaginative and single-minded, they embrace their mission with religious zeal (and I do believe that those two words, religious and zeal, are joined at the hips, much as to “redouble one’s efforts”).
A touch of the maniacal, the obsessive, the glassy-eyed dreamer, the take-no-prisoners, uncompromising drive. The determination that compels one to rise each day to face the idea that no one understands, to embrace yet another day alone in one’s belief.
An attitude that says “do not tamper with this vision.”
This is, of course, the only way for entrepreneurs to succeed. If they were any other way, they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs.
Which brings me to the final point that is not so disentangled from what has gone before to be a standalone.
I have waxed on about communication and its difficulties. The word has become almost a cliché in that everything these days can be labeled a “communication problem,” even when the problem is not lack of communication, but rather too much accurate communication.
The “communication” conundrum I refer to afflicts anyone who would write to inform others, who would convey thoughts and notions and concepts.
In fiction, and even in non-fiction, I have noted a disinclination on the part of many undergraduates and some graduate students to edit their work. As if such editing is equivalent to the “corporate leavening process” I mentioned earlier.
They confuse the goal of clarity with senses-dulling censorship.
In their classic Elements of Style, Strunk and White touched upon this, and where Strunk and White are sometimes looked upon as too basic, their insights provide a solid technical foundation that many young writers would do well to absorb. Strunk and White observed a tendency among young writers to confuse spontaneity with genius, to affect a breezy, careless, even world-weary style.
I believe the modern vernacular for this is the “been there, done that” posture.
But of course, such an attitude leads to ambiguity and sloppiness in writing — whether one is conveying exactly a child’s appropriate emotion in a funereal scene, or whether one is conveying the impact of various liquidity ratios on a novel business model.
Invariably, what is communicated on the page is not what the writer believes he or she is conveying. First drafts are always afflicted with a primitivity of communication. Yet, ironically, the first draft carries for many writers an aura of spontaneity and genius that resists change.
First Draft for Spontaneity . . . Edit for Power
The solution? Editing.
If there is a single act that can improve this communication issue, it is careful and ruthless editing. Only through editing can clarity, focus, and especially powerful meaning be teased from the morass of words. This is a lesson taught on Storytellers many times, but it demands repeating.
The daily difficulties of communication abound. When the subject is new or the product unique, the obstacles increase dramatically, for all the reasons I have listed in such disorganized fashion. Through the act of editing, perhaps we can at least overcome one obstacle in the difficult task of communicating our vision.
The problems lie all along the communication chain – in the personality of the visionary, in the unique nature of the vision itself, in the inadequacy of the medium with which we communicate, and in the prejudices of the recipient.
Is there a formula to address all of these issues along the communication chain? Probably not. I certainly do not have the answer.
But at risk of sounding like the cookie-cutter b-school professor, let me iterate that the good news is that awareness of a problem and its proper identification is a giant step toward its resolution in our personal strategic planning process.
The more rarefied the vision, the more intractable and personal the issues we must deal with.
And as a result, I suspect that each of us must define our own problems and search out our own answers to our communication issues.
For only we can grapple with them and, ultimately, deal with them.
The business case competition puts you in front of Corporate America in naked competition against the best students from other schools.
No hiding behind a resume.
No fast-talking a good game.
No “national rankings.”
Just pure performance that puts you in the arena under lots of pressure.
Business Case Competition as Crucible
In case competitions, your business team delivers a business presentation in competition against other teams in front of a panel of judges.
Teams display how quickly, thoroughly, and skillfully they can ingest a case, analyze it, and then prepare their conclusions.
They then present their recommendations to a panel of judges.
Business case competitions vary greatly in the details, but they do have a standard format and purpose. The operative idea behind such competitions is to provide a standard case to competing teams with a given time limit and then to rate how well the teams respond.
There is, of course, no direct competition between teams. Rather, each team is judged independently how well it handles the assigned case and presents its analysis and recommendations. There is a time limit and specific rules.
All teams operate under the same conditions.
Business Case Competitions Far and Wide
Competitions can be internal to the Business School or involve teams from several different schools.
Sometimes there are several rounds of competition, with the final round typically judged by outside company executives. The teams prepare a solution to the case and deliver a written report.
Teams then prepare a presentation of their analysis and recommendations and deliver the timed presentation before a panel of judges.
The judging panel sometime consists of executives from the actual company in the case.
The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business is good about this in its renowned Global Business Case Competition. Twelve to fourteen schools from around the globe compete in this week-long event. Its 2010 competition featured a case written especially for the competition on the Boeing Corporation.
Executives from Boeing acted as judges.
One excellent aspect of case competitions that are judged by outsiders is that they provide a truer indication of the competitors’ mettle.
For the most part, they are far removed from the internal politics of particular institutions, where favored students may receive benefits or rewards related more to currying favor than to the quality of their work.
In some competitions, additional twists make the competition interesting and more complicated.
For instance, Ohio State University CIBER hosts an annual Case Challenge and creates teams from the pool of participants (i.e., members will be from different schools) instead of allowing the group of students from each school to compete as a team.
In this case, once students are assigned to teams, there is a day of team-building exercises.
The key to doing well in case competitions is to differentiate yourselves beforehand. This is much easier than you might imagine. Start with the Three Ps of Business Presentations. They provide a steady guide to ready you for your competition.
Principles . . . Preparation . . . Practice.
In subsequent posts, we deconstruct the business case competition to help you and your team prepare to your potential and deliver an especially powerful presentation.
Most finance folks believe that the finance presentation is king.
I’m skeptical of this hubris, but . . .
Financial analysis of the firm is essential, and there are few occasions when financial data do not make their way into a presentation.
With financial data, you can discover the firm’s profitability, general health, and potential. You can get reasonable answers to the question: “How are we doing?”
But . . .
. . . and it is an especially powerful but.
The results of your financial analysis invariably constitute the ugliest section of a presentation.
There is something about a spreadsheet that mesmerizes students and faculty alike. A spreadsheet splayed across the screen gives the impression of heft and gravitas.
A spreadsheet seems important.
It appears substantial. It gives the illusion of precision. Everyone nods.
As a presenter, you stare back at the screen behind you, at the phalanx of figures. You wave your hand at the screen with the words “As you can see –”
And then you call out seemingly random numbers. Your classmates or colleagues in the audience watch with glazed eyes.
It’s almost mystical.
Your professor sits sphinx-like. Some folks shuffle papers, actually digging through a handout you mistakenly distributed beforehand. Some check email, heads canted downward to their smartphones clasped below table-level.
No one has a clue as to what you’re talking about or how it actually relates to the real world.
You get through your finance presentation, finally, and you’re relieved.
And you hope that you were vague enough that no one can even think about asking a question. This is common.
And it’s Ugly Finance Presentation
There is a best way that makes things easier for everyone.
Three Steps: Orient, Eliminate, Emphasize
First, orient your audience to the overall financial context. If you take information from a balance sheet or want to display company profit growth for a period of years, then display the sheet in its entirety to orient the audience. Tell the audience they view a balance sheet. Walk to the screen and point to the information categories. Say “Here we have this number” . . . “Here we have this category.”
Second, eliminate everything on the screen that you will not talk about. You strip the visual down to the basic numbers and categories you use to make your point.
Third, emphasize the important points by increasing the size, coloring them, or bolding the numbers. You can illustrate the meaning of the numbers by utilizing a chart or graph.
If you follow this basic advice, you can improve the finance portion of your presentation immensely and be on your way to an especially powerful presentation.
After reading about the symptoms and hearing so much about handwringing over stage fright, if you weren’t fearful of business speaking before, you certainly are now.
When we speak of stage fright, we are really talking about the battle within ourselves as we prepare to deliver our presentation. It’s self-confidence versus self-doubt.
Confidence is one of those elusive qualities. It’s almost paradoxical. When we have it, it’s invisible. When we don’t have it, it’s all too apparent to us.
Confidence in public speaking is hard to come by. Or so we think. Let’s back into this thing called confidence.
Take the Trip Test
Have you ever stumbled on the sidewalk, your toe catching an impossibly small defect in the concrete, enough to trip you up? You stumble and stagger a bit. And then . . .
. . . and then do you glance quickly around to see who might be looking? Do you feel shame of some sort? If not shame, then . . . something that gives you to mildly fear the judgment of others? Even strangers. Or do you stride purposely forward, oblivious to others’ reactions, because they truly don’t matter to you?
Recognize this “trip test” as a measure of your self-confidence, your conception of yourself. Recognize that you don’t need the validation of others in what you do.
This doesn’t mean to act in ways immature and self-indulgent. It means charting your own course with your internal moral and professional compass and having the strength of mind and purpose not to yield to kibitzers, naysayers, and kneejerk critics.
Now, bring that strength of mind and purpose to the realm of business presentations.
For many, the audience is your bogeyman. For some reason you fear your audience. But understand that they are not gathered there to harm you . . . they are gathered to hear what you have to say. And 99.9 percent of them mean you well. They want you to succeed, so that they can benefit in some way.
Yes, even your fellow students want you to succeed. They want to be entertained. Please entertain us, they think. They are open to whatever new insight you can provide. And they know, for a fact, that they will be in your same place many times during their careers. They are fellow-travelers in the business school presentation journey.
So confidence is yours for the taking.
Confidence is not a thing. It cannot be grasped or packaged or bought. It’s a state of mind, isn’t it? It’s a feeling. When we get right down to it, it really is just the mental context within which we perform. What does it really mean to be confident? Can you answer that direct question? Think about it a moment.
See? We can’t even think of confidence outside of doing something, of performing an action. Our confidence – or lack of confidence – provides us the context of our activities.
Is it certitude?
Is it knowledge?
Is it bravery?
Is it surety?
Think of the times when you are confident. You might be confident at playing a certain sport or playing a musical instrument. It could be an activity.
Why are you confident?
Paradoxically, it’s the absence of uncertainty. For it’s uncertainty that makes us fearful. That, and the dread of some consequence – embarrassment or ridicule.
It should be recognized that many people do fear speaking before an audience. It is so universal and it is so pervasive that we must come to grips with it. This fear has made its way down through the ages. It has afflicted and paralyzed thousands of speakers and presenters who have come before you. Generations of speakers have tackled this fear. George Rowland Collins is a speaking master who recognized the phenomenon in 1923 and its awful effect on the would-be presenter . . .
The very first problem that faces the average man in speech-making is the problem of nervousness. To stand up before an audience without a scrap of paper or a note of any kind, to feel the eyes of dozens and even hundreds of people upon you, to sense the awful silence that awaits your own words, to know that you must depend upon yourself and yourself alone to hold the audience’s attention is as trying a task as it is possible to undertake. Most men find the task too great and shun it religiously. Those who do attempt it, voluntarily, or involuntarily, testify to the severity of the physical and mental suffering it involves.
The solution? How have centuries of speakers successfully tackled this bete noire of stage fright?
Reduce your uncertainty.
Reduce your uncertainty by applying the Three Ps: Principles, Preparation, Practice. Through these, you achieve a wealth of self-confidence, and we’ll talk about the Three Ps in days and weeks to come. They are so utterly essential to Power Presenting that they bear repetition and constant reinforcement. They are the cornerstone upon which you build your style, your confidence, your performance pizzazz.
Principles, Preparation, Practice
The 7 principles of presenting offered here at Business School Presenting™ – the “secrets” of the masters – are grouped under Stance, Voice, Gesture, Movement, Expression, Appearance and Passion. Each of these deserves its own chapter and, indeed, has its own chapter in my forthcoming book The Official College Guide to Business School Presenting. Prepare your talk, then practice your talk at least 4 times, exactly as you will deliver it – without stopping.
When you apply the Three Ps, you reduce uncertainty. You are in possession of the facts. You are prepared. You know what to expect because you have been there before, and because you practice. You rehearse.
There is, of course, an element of uncertainty. There is uncertainty because you cannot control everything or everybody, and this causes a tinge of anxiety, but that’s fuel for your creative engine. By controlling the 90 percent that you can, you are more than ready to handle the 10 percent of uncertainty that awaits you.
So the key for you is to control what you can and to dismiss your fear of the rest. Recognize that this fear is what makes you human, and it is this humanity that gives us commonality with all the public speakers and presenters who have come before us. It is their advice that we heed to our improvement. For instance, master J. Berg Esenwein from 109 years ago:
Even when you are quaking in your boots with the ague of fear, and your teeth fain would beat “retreat,” you must assume a boldness you do not feel. For doing this there is nothing like deep stately breathing, a firm look at the dreaded audience . . . . But do not fear them. They want you to succeed, and always honor an exhibition of pluck. They are fair and know you are only one man against a thousand. . . . Look at your audience squarely, earnestly, expressively.
Whether the presentations class is in Philadelphia . . . or Mumbai . . . or Cali . . . or Chennai . . . I hear the same universal and eerie refrain from finance students.
“Finance is different.”
“We don’t do all of that soft-skill presentations stuff.”
“For us, the numbers tell the story.”
Numbers seem to enchant business-people in deep and mysterious ways, as if numerical constructs are somehow less malleable than the English language, less subject to manipulation.
In a chaotic world, a spreadsheet exudes familiarity, a firm valuation offers comfort, an income statement serves as anchor.
False Certitude, Faux Anchor
For some, numbers convey a certitude and precision unavailable to mere rhetoric. And this illusion of certitude and precision exerts influence on finance folks to believe that, well . . . that the laws of human nature that stymie the rest of us do not apply to them in the coldness and hardness of objective numerical analysis.
But this is an illusion. And the result is 2D presenting, full of voodoo and bereft of nuance and subtle analysis.
Where business presentations are concerned, finance folks are not different, special, unique or otherwise gifted with special powers or incantations denied the mere mortals who toil in marketing or human resources.
We are all subject to the same demands placed upon us by the presentations beast, demands that nettle us equally and indiscriminately during the business presentation process.
As with most things, there is bad news and good news in this slice of life provided here.
The Bad News
The bad news is that modern finance presentations are a vast wasteland of unreadable spreadsheets and monotonous, toneless recitations of finance esoterica. It seems that there must be a requirement for this in finance.
In fact, many finance presentations devolve into basic meeting discussions about a printed analysis distributed beforehand, with the group of presenters merely standing while everyone else sits and interrupts with strings of questions. Several presentation cliches guarantee this sorry state of affairs a long life . . .
“Just the facts”
Exhortations of “Just the facts” serve as little more than a license to be unoriginal, uninteresting, and unfocused.
“Just the facts”
Folks believe that this phrase gives the impression that they are no-nonsense and hard-core. But there is probably no more parsimoniously pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase yet to be devised. It achieves incredible bombast in just three syllables.
What does it mean, “Just the facts?” Which facts? Why these facts and not those facts?
Events are three-dimensional and filled with people; they require explanation and analysis. Mere “facts” are flat, two-dimensional, unemotional, and unsatisfactory proxies for what happens in the real world. “Just the facts” masks much more than it reveals.
“The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of folks who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling,” finance majors often tell me. “We deal in hard numbers.”
There’s so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point. Not only do numbers, by themselves, tell no story at all . . . if numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a considerably incomplete story, giving a distorted picture of reality.
The end result of these presentation shenanigans is an overall level of mediocrity and outright bad presentations. If firms want nothing more than a group discussion about a handout, with the only thing distinguishing the “presenters” from the audience is that they are standing, then so be it. It may be useful. It may be boring. It may be morale-building. It may be team-destroying. It may be time-wasting. But whatever else it is, it is not a presentation.
“Cut ’n’ Paste”
This is the heinous data dump that all of us inevitably see. PowerPoint slides crammed with data in tiny, unreadable font. The display of these heinous slides is accompanied by a sweep of the arm and the awful phrase: “As you can see . . . ” The cause of this pathology is the rote transfer of your written report to a PowerPoint display, with no modification to suit the completely different medium. The result?
Slides from Hell.
The Good News
In every obstacle exists an opportunity. Because the bar for finance presenting is so low, if you invest your presentations with the powerful principles that apply to all business presentations, your own shows will outstrip the competition by an order of magnitude. This, of course, implies that your content is rock-solid. It should be. Your ratio analysis, your projected earnings, your sophisticated modeling should all reflect the superb finance education you have received.
But how you present that content is the key to presentation victory.
All of the presentation principles that we discuss here apply to finance presentations, particularly the parsimonious display of numbers and the necessity for their visual clarity. If anything, finance presentations must be more attentive to how masses of data are distilled and displayed.
A situation statement must be given.
A story still must be told.
Your analysis presented.
Conclusions must be drawn.
Recommendations must be made.
And external factors must be melded with the numbers so that the numbers assume clarity and meaning in an especially powerful 3D presentation.
If you do the above, and nothing more, then your finance presentations will outshine the hoi polloi with ease.
But if you delve even more deeply into the masterful techniques and principles available to you, learning to use your tools skillfully, you can rise to the zenith of the finance presentation world precisely because you are part of the tiny minority who seizes the opportunity to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
I offer this superb business presentation tip – bookend your presentation or presentation segment to give the audience a satisfying experience.
What is bookending?
This means to start your presentation with an anecdote, cue, or visual image that hooks your listeners into the narrative. This is your “grabber.”
You follow with your clear situation statement of only one or two sentences.
Then you offer your major points of your presentation, usually three major points. As you wind to a conclusion, you hearken back to the original introductory anecdote, cue, or visual image that launched your segment.
A Powerful Business Presentation Tip
When you have finished your presentation message and are ready to set your second bookend that concludes your presentation, call on these magic words.
You say these words: “In conclusion, we can see that . . . .” Then – repeat your situation statement.
Then say: “We believe that our presentation substantiates this.”
You come full-circle. The audience gains a sense of completeness.
This recapitulation of your theme knits together your segment into a whole, and your audience appreciates the closure.
This technique offers much more than a linear march, where nothing said seems to relate to anything that came before. The satisfying circularity of bookending brings your audience back to the familiar starting point.
It drives home the major point of your talk in two especially powerful ways. First, the outright repetition of your theme cements it in the minds of your listeners. Second, the story convention of providing a satisfying ending ties up loose ends and gives psychological closure.
It’s an elegant business presentation tip that can pay big dividends in terms of audience response.
“The young speaker can do nothing better for himself than to fix firmly in mind that public speaking is a dialogue and to emphasize constantly the part of the audience, anticipating and watching for its response.”
This speaking basic also runs under the tag of Know Your Audience.
Know Your Audience = WIIFY?
To achieve its greatest effect, your story must focus on the needs and interests of your audience. At its best, your presentation should focus on the deepest desires of the audience, but should do so subtly and with great skill.
Your story should fulfill a need in the audience with regard to your presentation topic and the stories you choose to illustrate that topic.
Ask yourself these questions: Why have they come? What is it that motivates these persons to gather in one place to hear me? How can I speak to the audience as a group, and yet speak to each person individually?
WIIFY? Be a Hero!
How can I make the persons in the audience feel like a hero?
The hero of your story must be in the audience. The CEO. The Stockholders. Employees.
The people who are praised, instructed, lifted, motivated, excited must be the heroes of your story.
Aim your story at them and ask the question WIIFY. Make them feel good about themselves, and they’ll surely feel more disposed to feel good about your message.
Speak with them as individual people, not as a group. They do not attend your talk as a group, so do not address them as a group. They attend your business presentation as individuals, because they have goals and aspirations and hopes. They hope that your talk will benefit them in some way as an individual person.
Moreover, you must understand your audience. You must understand their wants and needs, interests and desires.
Find what motivates them.
Find what shames them.
Find the common thread among them, then speak to that common thread as they are individuals.
Many folks do not realize that the skill set of business presenting can serve them well in many situations outside the formal business presentation.
I am compelled to write about this now, as I sit in the Hong Kong International Airport, because of a recent and amazing online exchange.
Just when I think that most folks get it, something happens to explode those high hopes. Here, I refer to how you present yourself to the outside world in professional venues – especially those venues that hold possibilities for professional advancement. Language, dress, attitude, grammar, even-keeled composure . . . all of it make much more of a difference than you can possibly imagine.
This would seem common sense.
But no, some folks get so wrapped around the axle, get so absorbed in themselves that they forget that they are on display for the world to judge. Now, if you don’t care what the “world” thinks, great!
But if you recognize the linkages, possibilities, unseen treasure, then you won’t alienate folks with . . . Well, with untoward behavior that leaves folks entertained, but wondering at your grip on sanity.
More later as I flesh out the breathtaking self-absorbed and unselfaware commentary I’ve been privy to . . . now, the battery on laptop gets low, my flight to Singapore is about to board, and my greetings to you for success and prosperity go out now until I find time to post from the City of the Lion.
For some reason known only to the deities of publishing, Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs is considered a great business presenter.
A bestselling book by Carmin Gallo even touts The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.
But is Steve Jobs really a great presenter? Does he really have secrets that you can use? And can you learn how to be “an insanely great” presenter from this book?
No . . . no . . . and . . .
Well . . . on that last point, you can learn to become a pretty good presenter from this book.
But not from Steve Jobs.
The Extraordinary Jobs
Steve is a visionary and an extraordinary entrepreneur many times over. He has grown tremendously since the days when he thought that his self-absorbed bombast gave him license to insult Microsoft and Bill Gates mercilessly. He has emerged as a celebrity CEO, a man who loves the limelight and whose strong and quirky personality guarantee him a following among a certain segment of the American populace.
On an absolute scale, Steve is a slightly above-average presenter. Remove Steve’s high-tech prop that the entire wonk-world is waiting to see, and remove the employee/early adopter audiences that cheer his every eye-twitch, and we are left with a shabbily dressed average sort of fellow given to aimless pacing and whose high-pitched voice grates a bit on the senses with its “ummms” and “ahhhhs.”
Only One Reason
You and I know that there is only one reason that Steve Jobs is on that stage and one reason that, now, he has a book purporting to reveal his presentation secrets.
And it’s not for his presenting skills.
While Jobs himself is not someone whose presenting skills deserve emulation, he is obviously the subject of the book because of his built-in audience, and so we must deal with that. Dismiss it, in fact. But the book does have a gem.
The gem of the book is the author. The author of the Jobs book is Carmine Gallo, who is an extremely polished and superb presenter and presentation coach, and he embeds solid presenting nuggets throughout the book. Carmine is, in fact, a much better presenter than Jobs. You can judge for yourself by watching the video here.
But even Carmine is not perfect. He begins by gushing at Jobs’s stature as a presenter that is almost embarrassing in its lavish excess: “Steve Jobs is the most captivating communicator on the world stage . . . He is the world’s greatest corporate storyteller!” Really? Really?
But . . . well, we’re selling books here, and hype is understandable. I’d probably gush, too, if given a similar opportunity, so let’s give Carmine a pass on this one.
But at the end of the video Carmine gives advice that I believe is just flat-out wrong. He says that you, the presenter, are the hero of the presentation. That you, your product, or your service is the hero.
All of us would like to be the hero of our presentation, wouldn’t we? And we are sorely tempted to put the focus on our product and ourselves.
No. Don’t do it.
Your Audience is the Hero
There is room for only one hero in the presentation, and that hero is not you. The hero is in the audience, and you are there to help your audience become heroic. As with all presentation instruction, you can ignore or accept what you choose, and this point is no different. You can try to be the hero. Or, you can focus on your audience and its needs and its desires.
In sum, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs offers a reasonable exposition of presentation methods that can benefit us all, but recognize that these methods have nothing to do with Steve Jobs and they do not help us become “insanely great” presenters.
But there is good news for you on the presentation front. The best news in all of this is, in fact, great news.
With dedication, coachability, and the right method, virtually anyone – and I mean anyone – can become a better business presenter than Steve Jobs.
If you discovered that there was one thing – business presentation skill – you could learn that would immeasurably increase your chances of getting a great job after graduation, wouldn’t that be great?
What would you think of that? Too good to be true?
And what if you discovered that this skill is something that you can develop to an especially powerful level in just a handful of weeks?
What would that be worth to you?
Would it be worth the price of a book to get you started?
Worth How Much?
Think of it – business presentation skills you can learn in 4-5 weeks that can provide you lasting competitive advantage through the rest of your working life.
A skill few people take seriously.
A skill in high demand by America’s corporations.
Companies haven’t nearly enough personnel who can communicate effectively. Nor logically, comfortably, clearly, and cogently. This is why corporate recruiters rate business presentation skills more desirable in candidates than any other trait or skill.
Capable business presenting is a high-demand skill.
This is the Silver Bullet Skill
And this is the silver bullet you’ve always sought.
You, as a business student or young executive, gain personal competitive advantage vis-à-vis your peers, just by taking presenting seriously. You gain advantage by embracing the notion that you should and can become an effective and capable business presenter.
In other words, if you actually devote yourself to the task of becoming a superb speaker, you become one.
And the task is not as difficult as you imagine, although it isn’t easy, either.
You actually have to change the way you do things. This can be tough. Most of us want solutions outside of ourselves. The availability of an incredible variety of software has inculcated in us a tendency to accept the way we are and to find solutions outside ourselves. Off the shelf. In a box.
This doesn’t work. Not at all. You cannot find the secret to great business presenting outside of yourself. You already carry it with you.
But Presentation Skills Mean Change . . .
But you will have to change.
This is about transformation. Transforming the way we think, the way we view the world. Transforming the lens through which we peer at others, the lens through which we see ourselves.
It is a liberating window on the world. And it begins with your uniqueness.
No, this is not esteem-building snake-oil. It is a cool observation. I am not in the business of esteem-building. Nor do I toil in the feel-good industry. If you had to affix a name to it, you could say that I am in the business of esteem-discovery.
So you are unique, and your realization of this and belief in this uniqueness is utterly essential to your development as a powerful business presenter.
But given the tendency of modernity to squelch your imagination, to curtail your enthusiasm, to limit your vision, and to homogenize your appearance and your speech, you have probably abandoned the notion of uniqueness as the province of the eccentric. Perhaps you prefer to “fit in” rather than develop superior business presentation skills.
Some truths can be uncomfortable. Often, truths about ourselves are uncomfortable, because if we acknowledge them, we then obligate ourselves to change in some way.
But in this case, the truth is liberating.
A Shrinking World . . . Reverse the Process
Recognize that you dwell in a cocoon. Barnacles of self-doubt, conformity, and low expectations attach themselves to you, slowing you down as barnacles slow an ocean liner.
Recognize that in four years of college, a crust of mediocrity may well have formed on you. And it is, at least partially, this crust of mediocrity that holds you back from becoming a powerful presenter. Your confidence in yourself has been leeched away by a thousand interactions with people who mean you no harm and, yet, who force you to conform to a standard, a lowest common denominator.
People who shape and cramp and restrict your ability to deliver presentations. They lacquer over your innate abilities and force you into a dull conformity.
Your world has shrunk incrementally, and if you do not push it out, it will close in about you and continue to limit you.
Your most intimate acquaintances can damage you if they have low expectations of you. They expect you to be like them. They resent your quest for knowledge. They try to squelch it.
Beware of people who question you and your desires and your success. I suggest that you question whether these people belong in your life.
Yes, you are unique, and in the quest for business presentation excellence, you discover the power of your uniqueness. You strip away the layers of modern mummification. You chip away at those crusty barnacles that have formed over the years without your even realizing it.
It’s time to express that unique power in ways that support you in whatever you want to do.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the zombies of bad advice never die.
We can’t eradicate bad presentation advice completely, because these zombies are impervious to every remedy known to 21st century civilization.
When Armageddon finally comes, cockroaches and bad advice zombies will be the only survivors.
But let’s give it a shot anyway.
The process of becoming a great presenter is not so much prompting students to do something the right way. It’s getting you – yes, you – to stop doing things the wrong way.
Accordingly, I instruct students to stop what they’re doing now as a result of bad habits and bad advice. Once they stop engaging in bad habits and misconceptions about presenting, they become de facto reasonably competent presenters.
That’s right. Just stop the bad habits, and what remains can be downright decent. But bad habits can be perpetuated by exuberantly following bad advice. The problem is recognizing what constitutes bad advice. This isn’t easy, because much bad advice paradoxically masquerades as good advice, and lots of these bad advice zombies stalk the land.
Let’s Have a Look
Here are some of the most common examples of awful, vague, or incomplete presentation advice you invariably hear during your business school career from the most well-meaning of folks.
ZOMBIE #1 “Don’t Put your hand in your pocket . . . it looks ‘unprofessional.’”
This is absurd and carries the stink of oral tradition about it. From presidents to preachers, the hand in the pocket – if done properly – conveys assurance and confidence. For many speakers, it also removes one hand from the equation as an unnecessary distractor. Put that left hand in the pocket and you keep it out of trouble. No more strange finger-play. No more tugging at your fingers. No more twisting and handwringing. It leaves your right hand free to gesture, and those gestures themselves appear more decisive.
ZOMBIE #2 “Make eye contact.”
This old chestnut is insidious in that it actually carries a large kernel of truth. On the surface, it sounds reasonable, but is such a cliche that we don’t really think about the words themselves. People don’t really talk this way. Instead, you “look someone in the eyes.” You don’t “make eye contact.” That make no sense. This gem of a cliche doesn’t tell you how to “make eye contact.” And, yes, there is such a thing as bad eye contact. Too long, and you come across as creepy. Too short, and you come across as untrustworthy. Look individual audience members in the eyes long enough to ascertain eye color, then move on. This connects in a way that is comfortable for all concerned.
ZOMBIE #3 “Move around when you talk”
This gem was given to me by a student, passed on from one of his other professors. This advice suggests that you wander aimlessly about the stage in hopes that it will improve your presentation in some unspecified way. In this case the bad advice is worse than no advice at all. See my previous posts on movement for ideas on how to incorporate movement into your talk . . . and how to incorporate pauses for effect.
ZOMBIE #4 “Just the facts.”
Really? Which facts are those?
What does it mean, “Just the facts?”
Folks believe that this phrase makes them appear no-nonsense and hard-core. But a more pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase has yet to be devised. Again, it means nothing and is arrogance masquerading as directness. “Facts” must be selected in some way, and context must be provided to give them meaning. “Facts” must be analyzed to produce alternatives and to render a conclusion. This is a euphemism for “I don’t like what you’re saying . . . tell me what I want to hear.”
ZOMBIE #5 “The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of finance folks, who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We’re special,” finance majors like to say. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling; we deal in hard numbers.”
There is so much wrong with this, it is difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point.
Not only do numbers, alone, tell no story at all . . . if the numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a woefully incomplete story, providing a distorted picture of reality. Numbers provide just one piece of the analytical puzzle, important to be sure, but not sufficient by themselves.
Moreover, the business presenter who elects to serve the god of numbers sacrifices the power and persuasiveness that go with a host of other presenting techniques. Underlying this myth is the notion that you “can’t argue with numbers.” You certainly can argue with numbers, and you can bring in a host of analysis that changes completely what those numbers actually mean.
ZOMBIE #6“You have too many slides.”
How do you know I have “too many” slides?
Say what? You counted them?
I assure you that you don’t know. You can conclude nothing about my presentation by looking only at the number of slides in it.
You will hear this from folks who believe that the length of a presentation dictates the number of slides you use. Absurd on its face, people who use this believe that every slide will be shown a fixed amount of time. They likely do some sort of calculation in their heads, dividing the time available by the number of slides to yield a number they believe indicates there are “too many” slides. This is because they usually deal with folks unschooled in Business School Presentations methods.
If you follow the presentation principles laid down here in Business School Presentations, you will learn the glorious method of crafting frugal slides that pulse with power, surge with energy . . . slides that people remember, because they are smartly crafted and snap crisply, and they carry your audience along for an exciting and joyous ride.
And no one can tell anything about this by the number of slides in your presentation.
Bad Advice Zombies – these are just some that will come after you. It’s probably not a good idea to argue with folks who give this sort of advice. What’s the use? Just ignore it and replace it in you own work with sound power presenting principles. You can’t eliminate the zombies, but you can outrun them and outfox them.
And continue your upward trajectory toward becoming a superior business presenter.
Personal presence distinguishes the business presentation as a distinctly different form of communication, and it is the source of its power.
I should say potential power.
For much of the potential power of presentations has been forfeited.
Forfeiture of Power
That potential has been squandered out of corporate fear, ignorance, egotism, conformity, and simple habit. Lynda Paulson describes the unique qualities that a business presentation offers, as opposed to a simple written report.
What makes speaking so powerful is that 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. It’s what they hear through the tone of our voice. It’s what they sense on a subliminal level. That’s why speaking, to a group or one-on-one, is such a total experience.
Here, Paulson describes the impact of Personal Presence.
It’s the tangible contribution of the messenger to conveying a convincing message. A skilled speaker exudes energy, enthusiasm, savoir faire – the speaker becomes part of the message.
Here is where you become part of the message. You bring into play your unique talents and strengths to create a powerful personal presence.
Naked Information Overflow
But modern technology has swept the speaker into the background in favor of naked information overflow. We see pyrotechnics that miss the entire point of the show – namely, persuading an audience.
Lots of people are fine with becoming a slide-reading automaton swept into the background. And they’d be happy if you faded into the background, too.
Most people don’t want to compete in the presentation arena. They would rather compete with you for your firm’s spoils on other terms.
Become an automaton, and you cede important personal competitive advantage.
The true differentiating power of a presentation springs from the oratorical skills and confidence of the speaker. That, in fact, is the entire point of delivering a presentation – a project or idea has a champion who presents the case in public. Without that champion – without that powerful presence – a presentation is even less than ineffective.
It becomes an incredibly bad communication exercise and an infuriating waste of a valuable resource – time.
The Secret of Personal Presence
Today we are left with the brittle shell of a once-powerful communication tool. Gone is the skilled public speaker, an especially powerful presenter enthusiastic and confident, articulate and graceful, powerful and convincing. Gone is Quintilian’s ideal orator: “The good man, well-spoken.”
We are left with an automaton slide-reader in a business suit.
This is surely a far cry from how we imagine it ought to be – powerful visuals and a confident presenter. A presenter commanding the facts and delivering compelling arguments A presenter using all the tools at his or her disposal.
This vast wasteland of presentation mediocrity presents you with a magnificent opportunity.
Your choice is to fade into that gray background as yet another corporate mediocrity mimicking the herd . . . or to seize the moment to begin developing your presention skills to lift yourself into the rarefied atmosphere of the High Demand Skill Zone.™
Isn’t it time you decided to become an especially powerful business presenter and seize the incredible personal competitive advantage that personal presence provides?
Recognize that your group has been assembled with a professional purpose in mind, not to make your life miserable.
You will disagree with each other on aspects of the presentation. How you disagree and how you resolve those disagreements for the good of the team and of your presentation is as important as the presentation itself.
It’s essential that you maintain civil relations, if not cordial relations, with others in the group – don’t burn bridges. You don’t want to engender dislike for people, perhaps for the rest of your life. The people in the various group projects will form an important part of your network in years to come. Remember that the relationship is paramount, the presentation itself is secondary.
The Arrogance of “I don’t have time for this.”
Your job is to craft a group experience, assign responsibilities, develop a reasonable schedule. Some members of your group will make time commitment choices that do not appear aligned with the objectives of the group. You will hear phrases such as “I’m not able to be at the meeting.” You may hear the outright arrogance of “I don’t have time for this.”
This, of course, is simply a choice to be somewhere else to spend time in other pursuits, because everyone has the same amount of time, no more and no less. Different people make different choices about the use of their time. Recognize that this will happen and that it is neither good nor bad – it is simply the hand that you are dealt. How you react to it will in large part determine the success of your group. One part of your job to properly motivate others to contribute to the group goal.
I always communicate to my students what to expect in a 5-person group. The 2-2-1 rule will usually hold. Two people work hard, two cooperate and are damned happy to be there, and one rarely shows up, because he or she has a “busy schedule.” Another popular take on it is to apply the Pareto 80-20 rule: Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people. The corollary, of course, is that 80 percent of problems are caused by 20 percent of the people. A different 20 percent.
“But that’s not fair!”
That’s reality. Is it “fair?” Maybe or maybe not, but that’s a question for philosophers of distributive justice and irrelevant to the imperatives of group work.
Regardless of how you couch it, do not take your group woes to the professor for solution. Your professor knows well what you face. He wants you to sort it out. You must sort it out, because your prof is not your parent. Your professor won’t appreciate it any more than your CEO or VP superior at your company appreciates solving your personnel issues . . . repeatedly. It reflects badly on you and gives an impression of weakness. Moreover, if you begin to focus heavily on who’s not carrying their “fair share,” then that becomes the dominant theme of your group dynamic rather than that of accomplishing your group goal. And such misplaced focus and animosity reflects badly in the final product.
Keep these guiding principles in mind as you chart your course through the labyrinth of group work. Every group is different, temporary, and frustrating in it’s own way. Don’t allow the briars of this ephemeral activity catch your clothing and slow you down from your ultimate goal.
More on effective and satisfying group work in coming posts.
Is there some law, somewhere, that dictates that business presentations must be dull?
Is there a Law of Dull?
Given the number of dull presentations I see both inside and outside of the business school, I suspect there must be. This dullness seeps into the consciousness, numbs us, and begins to legitimize itself by dint of its universality.
It’s everywhere . . . thus, we think, it must be legitimate. It perpetuates itself, like some kind of awful oral tradition.
Here’s what I mean
You see a dull business presentation that some people praise as . . . well, pretty good. It looks like this . . . Some Vice President from a visiting company stands in front of you hiding behind a lectern, and he reads a few slides with dozens of bullet points taken from a written paper and pasted onto PowerPoint slides. He alternates looking at a computer screen and turning to look at a projection screen behind him.
I saw this abomination myself at a west coast conference, with a representative from the Export-Import Bank intoning mercilessly as he stood to the side of a screen filled with a tightly-packed phallanx of tiny type. Unreadable spreadsheets appear on the screen, masses of aimless numbers. The presenter reads slide-after-slide verbatim, his head turned away from you. You realize, finally, that he is reading the slides along with everyone in the audience, in unison, and you squint to make them out.
It’s boring. It’s unintelligible. The slides are unreadable or irrelevant. You can’t remember a damn thing except the three texts you received during the presentation as you checked your Blackberry between yawns. You could legitimately ask yourself, “Is this wasteland all there is?”
You scratch your chin and perhaps you think “Hmmm, that’s not hard at all.”
Cobble Something Together
Just 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 15-minute time slot to fill with talk.
But what you actually have is something awful – just awful.
You don’t know what you want to accomplish . . . or why.
You really have no idea what you should say . . . or why.
And you certainly don’t view yourself as benefitting from the process in any way. Instead, you see it as something incredibly painful. Because it is painful. It’s painful and awful. Let’s repeat, so there’s no misunderstanding . . . just awful.
It’s painful because of the way it’s been explained to you. Because the explanations are always incomplete. You never get the whole story. Or, you don’t get the right story. Teaching you how to deliver a cogent, competent, powerful business presentation is always someone else’s job.
I Feel Your Pain
Sure, there are “presentation” courses. 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.” You don’t have the opportunity to engage in a complex group presentation.
Oftentimes, these instructors aren’t even in the business school, and 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, and so it goes unaddressed, orphaned to expediency and neglect.
It is 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.”
Glimmers of Hope . . . Gigantic Opportunity
Bad presenting 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-. When asked to recall presentations they had seen over the last few months, survey respondents said they were more than likely to see a poor presentation is 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.
Generalizations are just that – general in nature. I have seen a sufficient number of fine presentations to understand that, somewhere, superb instruction holds sway. Or, at the very 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 presents you with magnificent opportunity. Now that you understand the situation and why it exists, it’s time for you to join the ranks of superior presenters.
It’s time for your debut. Time to begin breaking the Law of Dull.
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? 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.
Students 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?
The upshot is that if you don’t take presenting seriously, 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 Business Presentation Topic Beast
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.
Why We Have Problems with Group Presentations . . .
You find all sorts of problems in group work. Anyone who has participated in even one group project in college knows this.
Perhaps you believe these challenges are external to you? Others cause problems, because surely you must not be contributing to the challenges facing your group? Let’s examine, understand, and overcome these challenges before they get out-of-hand.
The first major reason is the unpredictability of your situation. One key characteristic of your group presentation is its rampant unpredictability. The project appears submerged in ambiguity that we seem powerless to affect. It’s bad enough to face the unknown variables of case analysis and its attendant presentation, but then several other variables are added to the mix in the form of other people.
We all prefer to control our own destiny. Most all of us want to be judged on our own work. We like to work alone. This is very much the craftsman’s view. Our labors are important to us. We take pride in our work.
But with group work, the waters muddy. It becomes difficult to identify who is doing what, and consequently, we worry about who will get the credit. We worry if there will even be any credit to distribute if our presentation collapses under the burden of multiple minds and differing opinions and people who seem not to care.
We begin to worry that our contribution will be overlooked. We worry that someone else will take credit for our work and we’ll be left with the crumbs. We see ourselves becoming submerged, and as we sink into a kind of group ethos, our individual identity is threatened. How will the boss, the professor, or anyone else, know what we do? How will they know our contribution? With every additional person, the unknown variables multiply. Worse, what if we get saddled with a reputation for poor work because someone else screwed up?
The second major reason for group failure is the ordeal of time management and schedule coordination. Six different students, each with differing class schedules and who often are working part-time, must somehow work together. Moreover, you may be involved in several classes that require group projects. And you invariably are faced with the pathology of one or two team members who “don’t have time for this.” So the difficulties mentioned here multiply.
Why the Group Presentation? It’s a Complex World
The group presentation is not an easy task. It can be downright painful. Infuriating. It can turn student-against-student faster than anything else in college outside of Greek rush.
So why do your professors require them? Why do all of your B-school professors seem determined to put you through this misery?
You’ve probably heard the spurious reasons. One pervasive student myth is that professors assign group work so they can cut their own grading work load. The reasoning goes something like this: it is much easier for a professor to grade six presentations or papers than to grade 30 individual papers. This myth is so pervasive that it has become conventional wisdom among students. There are three big problems with this.
First, by definition, individual work is not group work. If group work is an essential part of the workplace experience, then individual papers or other assignments do not contribute to the learning experience that is specifically designed to prepare you for the workplace.
Second, professors often are required to assign some form of group work in their courses. The prevailing pedagogy in most business schools advocates the group work experience as essential to prepare students for the 21st Century workplace. Frankly, this is the way it should be.
Third, this myth assumes that professors enjoy watching students stumble their way through awkward presentations, poorly prepared and half-heartedly delivered. While you, as a student, prepare for only one or two presentations, the professor oftentimes must watch 20 presentations or more in course of a semester and then evaluate them. I assure you that this can be an unpleasant experience.
The proverbial bottom line that we all talk about in business school is this: You do “group work” because it is essential to the 21st Century business world. In fact, corporate recruiters list it as the second-most-desired skill in the job candidates they consider. So why not embrace the group presentation as a necessary component of your school experience?
The days of the business generalist are all but dead in corporate America. Specialization rules the business workplace, and the manipulation of knowledge is ascendant. This means, from a practical standpoint, that we cannot produce major products by ourselves. There is little doubt that you will become one of these knowledge-workers upon graduation. You also will begin to specialize in certain work, especially if you join a large firm. This is because business operations today are incredibly complex and fast-paced.
These two factors make it almost impossible for any one person to isolate himself or herself from the combined operations of the firm. Major tasks are divided and divided again. Think of it as an extreme form of division of labor.
So we must work with others. The globalized and complex business context demands it.
In Part II, I show you how to not only survive the Group Presentation, but how to thrive and turn it into the cornerstone experience for your first job out of school . . . or your next job after getting your MBA.
One of the keys to successful and confident performance of your business presentation is practice.
The right kind of practice.
This is even more the case with a team presentation with more moving parts and variables in the mix.
The good effects of the right kind of diligent rehearsal is twofold: 1) your material is delivered in a logical, cogent fashion without stumble, and 2) the practice imbues you and your team with confidence so that stage fright is reduced to a minimum and your team’s credibility is enhanced.
Practice strips away the symptoms of stage fright as you concentrate on your message and its delivery rather than extraneous audience reaction to your appearance.
But you only reap the benefits of practice if your practice makes sense. This means that you practice the way you perform and avoid the two biggest rehearsal mistakes.
First, do not start your presentation repeatedly, as almost all of us have done at points in our presentation careers.
There is something in our psyche that seems to urge us to “start over” when we make a mistake. When we stumble, we want a “do-over” so that we can put together a perfect rehearsal from start to finish.
But when we do this, what we are actually practicing is the “starting over.” We become experts at “starting over” when we make a mistake.
But is that what we plan to do when we err in our actual presentation? Start over? No, of course not.
But if we have practiced that way, what will we do when we stumble? We won’t know what to do or how to handle the situation, since we have never practiced fighting through an error and continuing on.
We have practiced only one thing – starting over.
Instead of starting over when you err, practice the gliding over of “errors,” never calling attention to them. Practice recovering from your error and minimizing it. Perform according to the principle that regardless of what happens, you planned it.
The second big mistake is practicing in front of a mirror.
Don’t practice in front of a mirror unless you plan to deliver your talk to a mirror. It’s plain creepy to watch yourself in the mirror while talking for an extended period of time.
There is nothing to be gained by rehearsing one way . . . only to do something entirely different for the actual event.
Of course, you will observe yourself in the mirror as you adjust your stance and appearance to ensure that what you feel is what people see while you present on all occasions. But you do not practice your finished talk in front of a mirror. Why would you want to grow accustomed to looking at yourself present, only to be faced with an entirely different situation for the actual presentation? That’s just bizarre.
Instead, practice in front of your roommate . . . or go to the classroom where you’re scheduled to present . . . in short, create as much of the real situation as possible.
To ensure an especially powerful presentation every time, practice hard and repeatedly . . . but practice the right way.
It is a privilege of mine to not only travel a great many miles to special places, but also to work with some of the brightest young people of the latest generation who constitute the business leaders of tomorrow. Take India, for instance.
India is a potential economic powerhouse, whose engine of domestic and international commerce is only just starting. With incredible knowledge resource capability and government that finally recognizes the power of individual initiative and the economic benefits that accrue from relaxing regulation, India is set for an economic renaissance that will stagger the world when its gears finally engage.
The MBA students at the Welingkar Institute of Management in Mumbai, who appear on this page, show a drive, determination, optimism, and coachability that should be the envy of the world. Inquisitive and cosmopolitan to a startling degree, these young people are poised to enter middle-management as a sage class of entrepreneurial knowledge workers, steeped in the latest management techniques and armed with the techniques of especially powerful presenting that confer unmatched competitive advantage.
I’d go so far as to say that they constitute a new cadre of global executives, a new breed of 21st Century Managers, unencumbered with outdated notions held over from the industrial revolution. A cadre imbued with the qualities of . . .
Flexibility and Adaptability
Personal and Professional Aligned Strategic Focus
The rest of the business world does need to take note. India is an economic giant that no longer sleeps.
Mumbai surely bustles – I’m unsure of the meaning of “bustle,” but if there is such at thing, then it is surely happening here. I found myself bustling across 5 lanes of traffic at Sion Circle today, in fact. Caught in the seasonal monsoons on my way to . . . well, at that point, to buy an umbrella.
And then back to my room to prepare my seminar: Global Presentation Skills
The seminar is brilliantly titled to indicate its content and purpose. In fact, I brilliantly titled it myself.
It encompasses the notion that presenting to foreign audiences can be an infuriating process, especially for those business folks relatively inexperienced in dealing with the foreign business cultures.
As your perspicacity tells you, this is a seminar designed to aid businessmen and business students in emerging markets to craft business presentations that follow the contours of the local business culture. I’ve delivered Global Presentation Skills to firms in Colombia and to groups of Middle Eastern businessmen to what I’ve heard called “much acclaim.”
And as an untapped area rich with potential for competitive advantage, it’s one reason for my presence in Mumbai. To work with Indian businessmen keen on international expansion.
What’s the benefit of Global Presentation Skills?
Americans can be pesky audiences at best, especially for non-westerners. Why not gain an advantage over competitors in selling to the American market? Global Presentation Skills are a greatly neglected link in the chain of selling? Lots of shrewd folks are saying “Why not, indeed?”
Cultural stereotypes may be ingrained in the American psyche through popular culture and news reports. Global Presentation Skills helps businessmen surmount communication difficulties that can arise from American misunderstandings of foreign cultures.
Moreover, in a kind of reverse aikido, it helps turn perceived negatives into positives. Global Presentation Skills can turn self-perceived weaknesses into strengths and transform stereotypes into launch-points for winning presentations.
So now I return to preparing for my Global Presentation Skills utilizing my three Ps – Principles, Preparation, and Practice.
Yes, I practice what is preached on my blog . . . and I hope to deliver an especially powerful presentation.