Great Presenters are Made, Not Born

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There has always been this belief that great communicators — writers, actors or presenters of any sort — are simply born with their outrageous skills. That the right words simply jump from their lips with no effort. That their work is hardly work at all.

In truth, communicating well is a skill that takes training, practice and hard work. The better you get, the more effortless it seems to the audience. But it only seems effortless.

Any businessperson preparing for an investor meeting, roadshow, board presentation, speech, media interview or internal event needs to understand that the skills required to be a compelling presenter must be learned before they can be deployed. To think that presenting your company’s story is as simple as reading a set of slides is completely erroneous. In fact, I guarantee that if you try to simply read each slide to your audience, all you’ll succeed in doing is developing yet another cure for insomnia.

With this in mind, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on just how great presenters are made.

Secrets to Becoming a Great Presenter

  • Start with good material. This is sometimes out of your control, as I noted in my last post about presenting bad slides well, but in a perfect world you’ll have a slideshow to present that has the right number of captivating, easy-to-present slides. It’s not enough that the story itself is good, like a presentation about financial results that exceeded expectations, The materials you actually use have to be good. Imagine going into battle with a rifle that misfires. It really doesn’t matter how good a shot you are, does it?
  • Learn proper technique. A set of skills exists that you simply must know to present well. There’s nothing so illustrative as watching a video of your presentation practice with someone who knows what they’re doing. Little things like body language, pacing, the use of props and even how you are dressed can impact the overall feel of the presentation. Everything matters when you’re in front of an audience. You need to know your technique cold.
  • Practice with proper technique. It’s often been said that practice makes perfect. Not true. Practice only makes things permanent, as an old friend once told me. In order to be perfect, you have to practice the proper technique. This means that presenters should practice by rigorously applying the skills they’ve learned to their own materials until the performance is smooth and natural. And don’t stop with the slides. Rehearse the Q&A, too.
  • Recognize you’re on stage. This is one remarkably easy mistake to make. When you’re in front of a large audience, it’s obvious that you should have your game face on. But what about sitting in your own conference room on an earnings call? Or in front of your own management team? Or board of directors? Or your own employees in a conference room you’ve used 100 times before? When you’re presenting your story to an audience, any audience, you’re on stage. Period.
  • Learn to watch your audience. How are you doing? Your audience can tell you, if you’re paying attention. Great presenters know they’re not speaking in a vacuum. If your audience is looking down at their iPhones, Galaxy S3s and Blackberrys, you need to do something. They’re bored. If they look puzzled, you’ve lost them. Figure out what you just explained and do it again in simpler terms. If you’re trying to be provocative or funny, watch to see if it’s working. You need to know.
  • Get feedback. The last thing most people want after a presentation is honest feedback. Because our egos are wrapped up in our presentations, we just want to hear how well we’ve done. Even if we haven’t. My recommendation is to have someone in the audience who will tell you honestly what worked, and what did not. You need this information to improve for the next time. If you spoke too fast or shuffled nervously on stage, you absolutely need to know. The truth can hurt but it will also make you better.
  • Look for opportunities to present. The more you do, the better you will get. This is absolutely a universal truth when it comes to presentations. You don’t need formal invitations to major events in order to present. You can work on your technique when running your team’s weekly meeting or when talking to clients about new ideas. If the opportunity arises to do a lesser conference or a media interview that’s not terribly important, jump at it. Consider it training and prepare as you would for when all the marbles are on the table.

Having read this far, I’m fairly certain you’ll have one of two thoughts. The first is, wow, these are great tips. I can apply some of these. The second is, wow, this sounds interesting but I really don’t have time to do it.

To the second, let me simply says this. For senior executives and entrepreneurs, presentation skills are terribly important. They can represent the difference between success and failure, between getting that investment or having to shut down. How you present adds a critical, personal element to the business case you are trying to make. The slides may have all the right details, but how you present them will either build confidence or erode it.

Investors don’t put their money behind slides, they put them behind people. Turn yourself into a great presenter and success will surely follow.

How to Present Bad Slides Well

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It happens all the time. You’re given a set of PowerPoint slides to present, whether for a roadshow, investor day, board meeting, management presentation or something similar. You are not given the opportunity to edit them. You must present them as they are.

And they’re bad.

You could sit and sulk. But the reality is this: It is your responsibility to find a way to pull off a great presentation even if you have slides that are awful. Sometimes, they’re all bad. Most often, however, there are just a few slides in the presentation that are a problem. Either way, you’ve got to make the best of it.

The good news is there’s always a solution. With this in mind, I’m going to review the key issues that make slides bad and address how to solve each particular problem.

6 Ways Your Slides Can Be Bad

  • Too much information. This is the most common problem I see with slides. The author, either striving to be complete or uncomfortable editing out information, gives you a slide that has far too much data. This makes the slide: 1) unfocused and 2) impossible to present in the time allotted. The solution in this situation is you must be selective, deciding which information in the slide will be presented and what will be ignored. There’s no requirement that you must hit every point on a slide. So don’t. Pick the most important points and present them. Your audience will see the rest and your emphasis will guide their thinking.
  • Busy, busy, busy. This issue is similar to the one above but not identical. In this case, the slide’s design is poor with too much on the page to draw the viewer’s eye clearly to the relevant information. The solution is to guide your audience through the dense woods. You could simply point to the particular line or graphic you are talking about using an electronic or physical pointer. Or, you could guide the audience verbally. For example, something like: “Let me draw your attention to the graphic on the upper right of the slide titled ‘Revenue up 300%’.”
  • Throwaway headlines. As a former reporter, this one drives me nuts. Journalists know the critical role headlines play in drawing readers into a story and distilling the key point of an entire article in a handful of words. But this is hard to do, for slides as well as news stories. As a result, many slides simply have summary headlines. A slide about a company’s 200% increase in earnings over the prior period might have a headline that just says, “Financial Results.” This isn’t the story. The solution is to figure out what the story is for each slide, regardless of the headline, and focus on that verbally.
  • Poorly positioned elements. People tend to read slides as they read their native language. In this part of the world it’s top to bottom, left to right. Therefore, the order in which you present information on a slide ought to reflect this. Start at the top left, move to the right, then to the bottom left, then the bottom right. Sometimes, however, slides will be created where the key information is not at the top left. This can be challenging, so you have to make a decision. Can you get away with presenting the slide top to bottom, left to right, despite where the information is located? Or do you need to guide viewers, either physically or verbally, outside of the natural order? The answer depends upon the specific slideshow. But know that if you need to guide them outside the natural order, it will be confusing for the audience so take your time and be very specific.
  • Wrong slide order. This is the most difficult problem to overcome. Sometimes, slides will not be in the optimal order for your presentation. If you can’t reorder them, you’ll need to find a way to present them in the order you find them. Jumping backward and forward is simply too disruptive to allow. The answer in this case is being very aware of ordering problems and making sure you present enough information on each slide to properly set up the next slide. Don’t be afraid to bring in information not on the current slide if you need it to set up the next one. It’s on you as the presenter to make the slides work in the order in which they come up.
  • More slides than time. Another common problem, this one is easy to solve. Typically, you should budget about 2 minutes to present each slide. So, if you have 30 minutes, that’s about 15 slides. Ever get 30-plus slides for a 30 minute presentation? The solution is to skip some of the slides entirely or simply touch upon them for a very short time. If you try, instead, to do each slide in 1 minute or less, you’ll just present every slide badly. Therefore, you must spend some time in advance figuring out which slides are critical so you can spend an appropriate amount of time presenting these.

There are certainly other problems you can run into with your slides, but these are the ones I see all the time in my training seminars. And, as I’ve noted, they can all be overcome. The key to all these challenges is to spend enough time preparing that you can identify the problems and come up with solutions.

A well-presented slide show can be compelling and provide a great deal of information. Present your slides well and you’ll be rewarded with a truly captivated audience.

Trouble with Powerpoint Slides

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I’ve seen it again and again. Someone is giving a PowerPoint presentation and hits a dense slide that literally slows the talk to a crawl. Eyes glaze over and Blackberrys come out.

The secret is this — the slide must work for you, not the other way around! There’s no need to cover every point on a slide, particularly a complex one, as you can safely assume your listeners have looked at them all the first few seconds the slide went up. Find the point orpoints on the slide that directly relate to the story you’re trying to tell overall and simply ignore the rest. You must do this, otherwise this one slide can threaten your whole presentation.

Yes, sometimes it does seem there’s no one single point that relates to the slide that came before and the one that is to follow. In this case, the problem is not you. It’s the slide. Either it is misplaced or misconceived. It has to go.

Follow this approach with the entire presentation and you’ll have a fast-moving, compelling talk that will not put people to sleep.