The typical start to thinking about and then preparing our presentation structure 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.”
Or a “good group.” Or you “don’t have time for this.”
These are just excuses for refusing to grapple with a task that seems amorphous.
Instead, let’s make it real and vow to tackle the initial stages of presentation structure immediately.
Tackle Presentation Structure Head-on
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?
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 implicit 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 don’t usually evaluate whether the content has been communicated clearly and effectively.*
So this is the missing component – you typically don’t analyze how or why or in what way you can present the information in a public forum, shaping it to the visual/vocal medium. Instead, you attempt to twist the medium itself to match the written analysis.
If a written paper has already been produced, this complicates your task, and the result is predictable. You end up trying to shovel 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound pail. The result is less than stellar.
Your slides are crammed with unreadable information.
You talk fast to force all the points in, so no one can possibly digest it.
You run over-time.
Let’s fix all of this right now.
This Time, Procrustes has Presentation Structure Right
To fix this problem, I recommend a radical solution. I advise that you take the Procrustean approach in crafting your business presentation structure.
This approach is named after Procrustes, a figure from Greek mythology. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the myth thus:
He forced passersby to lie on a very long bed and then stretched them to fit it. Some said that he also had a very short bed; to make passersby fit this 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.”
The “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.
Let’s take a Procrustean approach and make a better 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 make the most of it and manipulate the situation to our benefit and to the benefit of our audience.
We’re not stretching someone or something. And we’re not hacking off legs.
The Rule of Three for Presentation Structure
We are using our mind and judgment to select what should be in our show and what should not be in our show. 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.
Now, here is your modified task:
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? Just this: 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 lose them, and you fail.
Presenting too many points is worse than presenting only one point. If you present, say, a total of 5 strengths, 3 weaknesses, 4 opportunities, and 3 threats, no one remembers it. None of it. You irritate your audience mercilessly.
Your presentation should offer 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 don’t want the audience to remember how you massaged the data, analyzed it, and arranged it. You want the audience to remember your conclusions and recommendations.
Your job is to sift through the mountains of information available, synthesize it, compress it, make it intelligible, then present it in a way that is understandable and, if possible, entertaining.
For more on how to craft especially powerful presentation structure, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.