Improve Presentation Skills

Managing an ad agency gave me ample opportunity to teach the basics of good presentation skills and the correct use of presentation software like PowerPoint, Zoom, and a host of others. I would meet face to face with my beloved associates, some of them the most respected, qualified, and intelligent people I knew. We would discuss the most effective way to use PowerPoint, without legions of bullet points and too many words on screen. We discussed the importance of compelling images and storytelling. Most importantly we would ask, “What is the one big idea you are trying to communicate with this graphic?”

Next, we would have leading experts make the pilgrimage to our remote outpost and tell us not to use legions of bullet points in PowerPoint, for which we would be grateful and give them buckets of money for educating us. We would all agree they were wise and good consultants, and we were excited about following their advice and a "better way" to present.

Next, we would “win” a request from a prospective client whom we had been pursuing for many years to make a pitch for their business in an “agency shoot out” most often with 4 or 5 other highly qualified agencies.

I 'd walk into the rehearsal, where I focused much of my time because I was keenly aware of the importance of the rehearsal to our potentially winning a $2 million dollar a year account, and there on the screen in front of me, were legions of bullet points and everything we had learned and discussed was mostly ignored. So, I'd say, "Hey, what's up with the legions of bullet points on screen? We just agreed that was the worst possible way to present our story! What happened to images and storytelling? What happened to our blood pact to do presentations right?" I got a lot of blank stares at first, but over time we figured it out.

Most people don’t like to present in public. In fact, studies suggest some people would prefer death over presenting in the presence of people. People are terrified that when they are in front of a group their mind will go blank and they won’t be able to remember each detail they wanted to present, and they will lose the sale. And they are partially right. They for sure won't be able to remember and repeat every detail they wrote for the presentation. When a speaker speaks from the heart, or from a passion for the subject matter, they will most certainly miss some of their points and may not say them as artfully as they would if they read them from a script. However, in the heat of the moment they will more than likely say them more artfully and for sure with more passion. They will communicate the concepts more effectively, so they are better understood by the audience. The prospect couldn't possibly remember every detail anyway. If you are a demonstratively effective speaker the best you can often hope for is that they will remember the big idea and who said it. And that is what most often wins the day!

PowerPoint and on-screen graphics become a "legal" crutch. The presenter says to himself, "I cannot be blamed for losing the sale or blowing the presentation because I presented every detail of our product or service and therefore, I have done my job. I am safe and my job is safe." Unfortunately, the sale is lost and when you continually lose sales, you will lose your job as it is impossible for any organization to thrive without an influx of new customers.

Audiences can’t comprehend lists of bullet pointed copy while they are trying to read them silently to themselves, while the presenter is looking at the screen reading the bullet points out loud at a far slower pace. The audience can read silently nearly twice as fast as someone reading to them out loud. And looking your audience in the eye when reading from the screen is impossible? It is not a good learning environment. It is a mental train wreck for the audience. What audiences can retain are visually compelling story ideas about the product, service, or subject and one large graphic that reinforces visually the story being told by the presenter speaking from the heart and making eye contact with the audience. And studies show that these stories help the audience differentiate and remember your message in a positive way from that of your competitors’ days and weeks later which is the difference between winning and losing the agency shoot out. The agency may have invested an average of $25,000 to $50,000 and more to gather and rehearse the presentation. And when you keep winning presentations you not only win the $2 million dollar year account, but if you keep the account for 10 years you have won a $20 million dollar account. And winning becomes contagious. Win one big new account and you have great confidence and momentum to win the next agency shoot out and another $20 million dollars. And that is how you thrive as an agency. As leaders, how do we help our associates present more effectively to audiences? It’s the same path you take to Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice. Practice. I spent an inordinate amount of my leadership time helping prepare my team for the all-important agency shoot out. I believed it to be a wise investment and the best use of my time. I invested heavily to bring in the best consultants to teach effective graphic and verbal presentation skills.

Patiently repeat and review the best way to present ideas until it becomes second nature. Show successful people and organizations that present effectively and achieve greatness and they will make the correlation. And lead by example. Get in the trenches and lead a segment of the next presentation yourself and light up the room with creative visuals and effective storytelling and leave the legions of bullet points behind. It is essential that prospects get to know the people they will be working with, but it is smart they know their leaders as well.

A teaching moment

Think about a great presentation you’ve watched and share the one big idea you remember? Then take that same presentation and recall the details in the presentation or speech.

Review the graphics from a presentation your own organization has made. Flash a representative sample of key visual slides from the presentation on screen for 5 to 10 seconds and then ask your group to identify the one big idea the speaker was trying to convey to the audience. Especially important to review complex slides attempting to communicate data. The message the data slide is attempting to communicate should be understood immediately. This should be the primary objective of each slide.

Take slides that failed the test above and discuss how you would change the copy and visuals to better communicate and reinforce the one big idea the speaker was attempting to make. Take wordy complicated slides and see how you can simplify them, so they are visually immediately understood.

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

Here are several outstanding presentations that have no visuals including Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford in 2005. It demonstrates you can give a great presentation without any on screen graphics. There is an idea you might want to test!

University of Texas at Austin 2014 Commencement Address - Admiral William H. McRaven

University of Texas at Austin 2014 Commencement Address - Admiral William H. McRaven

Here is one of my favorite visual presentation consultants.