Thursday, January 26, 2006

Six Rules for Better Presentations

It’s Planning Meeting Week at the software company on whose board I sit, so Wednesday morning I dropped in and sat through five PowerPoint presentations. Most were very well done.

Still, it was five PowerPoints in four hours. More than enough to get me thinking about Rick's 6 Rules for Better Presentations.

1. Have one main point. Find the unifying theme for all your ideas and slides, and use it as the backbone that connects and directs the information you present. Even a hint of a storyline makes your presentation easier to follow – and discourages “tuning out.”

2. Fight for attention. You have to earn an audience’s engagement. (You don't automatically get it just because they're in the room.) Start with a bang; use an arresting graphic, a strong metaphor, a challenge or a controversial quote. Don't just do this for effect – make it an integral part of your message. If you don't win people’s attention early, you’ll have trouble getting it later.

3. Provide relevant context. Get everyone in the audience up to speed, build significance and strengthen your argument by explaining what would happen (or has happened) if your message is ignored. Give us the “Before” as well as the “After.” If you're talking about the changes you are making in your department, for instance, talk first about where you are (or were before). The people who sell Tide by the boatload know that showing a clean shirt on TV is not enough – to make an impact, you first have to show the stains.

4. Encourage interaction. Find one or two opportunities to involve the audience in your presentation. Ask questions, troll for examples, seek suggestions. It offers your listeners a refreshing change of pace, and grabs attention fast. It also shows you're open to new ideas and aren’t assuming you have all the answers.

5. Tell stories. Most business presentations are full of generalities and abstractions. There's nothing wrong with saying things like “We produce mission-critical solution for enterprise-level clients” - so long as you garnish them with examples, anecdotes and testimonials that put a human face and a happy ending (or a clear lesson) on your points. Use descriptive words and active verbs. People remember images far better than they do words.

6. Be memorable. Just as you did at the outset (see Rule 2), drive your key points home. Use rhetorical flourishes, over-the-top gestures, repetition, humour, abrupt changes of pace, attention-getting graphics, or any creative technique you can imagine to ensure your ideas don't get buried in the avalanche of information your audience is taking in today.

Yes, you can get away with ignoring all of these “rules.” People do it every day. But if you want your presentation to be recalled, respected and influential – first make it memorable.

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