Critical Thinking and Business Presentations


I’ve been directly involved in business presentations for 26 years, in the employ of some rather large corporations. Thirteen of those years were spent in a marketing support group. Primarily I have been a maker of presentation slides and a participant in presentation planning for sales pitches, internal meetings, financial reports, and pleas for mercy from project managers to boards of directors. While that does not necessarily mean that I am The One True Expert–certainly there are as many of those as are there are leaves on trees in the summer and on the ground in the fall–I do know a few things.

There are many books and many Internet articles about how to make effective, winning presentations. I suppose this is just one more. The difference here is that I will be brief and to the point. In my opinion, if you use any one of my simple suggestions, your presentations might improve.

These are not new ideas; they are what I’ve seen to work.

Relax
Many people approach a presentation with varying degrees of urgency or even outright panic. You’re an intelligent person. You know your job. You will do well. Your audience is just as human as you are. You’re having a conversation with other human beings. Yes, conversations can be stressful and people can treat other people badly, but presentations are usually formal settings and people tend to act professionally in formal settings. You needn’t fear.

Plan Ahead
It is simple common sense to plan ahead. Many people don’t–they choose a reactive approach, as in “Let’s pull all the slides from the last ten pitches and see what fits this one.” That isn’t planning. Planning should consider, at minimum, the following:

Theme
This is the fundamental message you want to convey. This is the foundation of your presentation. It can be as simple as “We’re the best. Hire us,” or a single word such as “confidence.” The theme informs everything else you do for this presentation, and will help you devise a strategy. Think carefully about your theme. Make sure it honors your values, your company values, and most importantly, your client’s values.

Strategy
Your strategy is how you structure your presentation. Strategy should be an overall outline, where you decide what you want to say. You are not, at this time, deciding how to say it. It is akin to outlining the plot of a novel or sketching for a painting or the parts of a musical piece. This is the skeleton, the framework, the structure upon which you will build the specifics of your presentation. Strategy doesn’t have to be extremely detailed, but it does have to exist.

Tactics
Here you decide the specifics. Here is where you start developing graphic concepts, writing text, deciding who is going to say what, and what kind of clever bribery you will use in the form of handouts. (One company I worked for once delivered a presentation to a major aerospace firm. Our team bought a brand-new laptop, delivered the presentation to an executive via the laptop screen, and then gave him the laptop so he could review the slides at his leisure. Yes, it was for a government job.)

Edit Ruthlessly
Clients these days have less time and less patience for long-winded presentations. Even Steve Ballmer has said he’s found the “long and winding road” approach to be inefficient, and wants his meetings to be focused on the main points.

The key to efficiency is ruthless editing. Think about what you really need in your presentation. Follow the advice of William Strunk, Jr. and omit what is needless.

Pay Attention
Make sure you understand what your client needs and what you can provide. If the client has given you instructions, make sure you understand them and that you follow them. I’ve seen people read clearly-written instructions from clients and then assign a completely wrong meaning to those instructions. For example, when the client tells you that you will have 30 minutes to present, do not prepare a 1-hour presentation. I’ve seen people do that, with embarrassing results.

Know Your Content
If you do not know your own presentation material, it will show. Your slides will not help you.

Avoid the “Be Amazing” Trap
Yes, we all want our presentations to be super huge boffo jaw-dropping blow-their-minds awesome rock star smash hits, and maybe your team actually can achieve such a miracle of presentation greatness that the client will burst into tears and be compelled to sign your contract on the spot and give you money right out of their own wallets, but the reality is that client decisions involve much more than where your presentation places on their scale of awesomeness.

Your job, as a presenter, is primarily to communicate. While awesomeness is awesome if you are in the business of selling awesomeness, if you are in the business of selling industrial cleaning solvents then your main message needs to be about your excellent industrial cleaning solvents, not about how good you are at presentations.

They’ve Seen It Before
Yes, they have seen it before. Pie charts, bar charts, and line charts, for example, date back to the 1800’s. I was making 3D pie charts in the 1980’s. Beveled boxes, glossy buttons, gradient fills, 3D extrusions, drop shadows, clip art, and the like are ancient practices. New versions of software allow the user to apply various effects much more easily. As with any graphic element, it is how we use them to enhance our message that matters. Gratuitous use of graphic treatments can obscure content.

Make It Easier for Your Audience
You may be a rock star slide guru who can wield a mean gradient fill. You may be a superstar art director who can invent some really cool graphical ways to symbolize key messages without resorting to clip art of keys. You may be a secretary who has been stuck with the task of cleaning up some purely awful set of slides, and all you have is the built-in set of clip art the program gives you. Whoever you are: use them carefully. Your goal is to draw the viewer’s eye to your content.

Example 1, below, shows how graphics can make it hard on the audience. What’s the most important thing in this slide? Is it the title? Is it the multicolored triangle in the background? Is the the foreground text? All the elements are competing for attention, making it harder for the viewer to read what you want them to read.

example 1

What's important?

Example 2 shows the same graphics. Now the viewer can see what’s most important, which are the “value propositions” that answer the various customer needs. The background is not important. The title doesn’t need adornment. The multicolored triangle is softened in order to make the foreground text more easily seen, and the softer colors allow us to use color to enhance the foreground text. Red for need, blue for authoritative answers to those needs. This isn’t the best solution, but it illustrates the basic approach. Think about what’s important, and use your graphics to show what’s important. Don’t allow the graphics to be more important than the content unless you’re selling graphics.

Example 2

Your message is what's important

Special graphics are icing on the cake. They are not the cake itself.

Rehearse
Practice, practice, practice. Instructions abound for how to properly present to an audience, and much of it is good advice, but it will do you little good if you do not rehearse. Rehearsal also will help you remain confident.

Be Professional
Your slides, boards, handouts, and other tools you use are only parts of the presentation. They are not the presentation itself. However you choose to communicate your ideas, whether you use boards, slides, handouts, or are just sitting around the table talking, it is how you present yourself that truly matters. You are probably the most important part of the presentation. Treat your audience with respect, and behave professionally.

Finally…If You Want To Think Outside The Box, Step Away From The Computer
This applies mostly to the planning stage. As soon as you sit down at the key board and stare at the screen, your thinking is automatically bound by the luminous rectangle before you and the plastic buttons your fingers are tapping, or the voice dictation you may be using. Even your mouse has a limited range of movement. There are limits inherent in any approach, but working at the machine makes it much more difficult to color outside the lines, and you need to color outside the lines in order to give free reign to your creative planning. Plan using big markers and large sheets of paper. Use sidewalk chalk in the parking lot if the easel board isn’t big enough for your ideas. The basic idea is this: avoid limiting your options to just the computer and keyboard.

I guess that’s that. Present well, and have fun doing it.

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