Rules for a Great Presentation

Submitted by Marketing Best Practices

By: Peter Darling, Repechage Group, Santa Cruz, California

PowerPoint is a unique medium. Invented less than 30 years ago, it’s now a staple of corporate communication – the foundation of countless presentations. It’s ubiquitous, but for something that’s known by almost everyone everywhere, it’s often remarkably poorly used. Anyone who has been forced to sit through a bad PowerPoint presentation knows this all too well. If you want your presentations to be great, here are a few basic rules to keep in mind:

The audience is only going to remember a few things. A common rookie mistake is to attempt to cram far too much information into a relatively brief presentation. No matter how compelling, engaging, or detailed your material may be, there is no way your audience will remember more than a handful of facts. Make sure they’re the ones you want them to remember.

You only have about twenty minutes of free attention. It is critical to keep in mind that your audience’s attention is not guaranteed. You must earn and keep it. An audience will put up with a mediocre presentation for a maximum of twenty minutes before they disconnect. Once they disconnect, it is almost impossible to get them back. Make your time count.

Interaction is everything. Too many presenters simply stand at the front of the room and recite their script. This is fatal. The more the audience is involved in the presentation, asking questions, reacting, participating as much as possible – the better your presentation will be. The best possible outcome is to have to abandon your presentation midway through because you’re involved in a lively discussion with your audience.

Nothing ever works the way it’s supposed to – the technology guy is your new best friend. All presentations involve a large number of technical moving parts, all of which need to operate flawlessly. This includes the projector, laptop, software, clicker, microphone, Internet connection, and perhaps other devices as well. If any one of these fail, so will your presentation, and so will you. Presentations are something of a technical high-wire act. Make sure you test the technology prior to the presentation and have assistance on hand to help you smooth out the rough spots when they inevitably arise.

You know a lot more than your audience does. One common cause of stage fright among presenters is the fear of criticism or questions from the audience. Although this can happen, it is very unlikely, primarily because the audience often does not know anywhere near as much about your topic as you do. It is helpful to keep this in mind as it makes presenting much, much less frightening.

Most presentations are very bad. This is another first principle that can help alleviate a great deal of presentation anxiety. Most presentations delivered in corporate America today are, as I have said, disorganized, boring, tedious, repetitive, and sometimes outright unpleasant. The bar you must clear to deliver a really good presentation is surprisingly low.

You must reinforce your structure. Your audience is, more than anything, in dire need of understanding how the facts and impressions with which you regale fit together. Communication is the key to creating structure – repeatedly tell them how the facts you are sharing with them interrelate, which ones are more important, which are less important, and so on.

Your audience is there to listen to (and talk to) you – not to look at your slides. The very worst presenters simply read the bullet points on their slides. This is an incredibly common and horrendous mistake. Instead of thinking of your slides as the core of your presentation, think of them instead as decoration for a conversation. Your audience is there to listen to you speak and your slides are simply an accessory.

Just as there is nothing deadlier than a bad presentation, there’s nothing better than a really good one. You finish your last slide, step back, and you know, without a doubt, that your audience was engaged, that they learned something, and that, as the person who put it all together and delivered it, you’re the one who made it happen. Just maybe, you’ll be the person who stands there while they’re applauding.

To learn more tips on presenting, be sure to attend the Marketing Best Practices session at the Annual Meeting on Tuesday, September 19th from 3:15 PM – 4:15 PM.

Peter Darling is a Bay Area legal marketing and business development consultant. He specializes in content creation, strategy and marketing for midsized professional services firms, with an emphasis on law firms.