How to deliver the perfect presentation

4 Jul 14
Presentations can be terrifying experiences for the unprepared or the unconfident. But careful planning and an ability to ‘face your fears’ can turn a soporific speech into a peak performance. Angela Muir explains

By Angela Muir | 4 July 2014

Presentations can be terrifying experiences for the unprepared or the unconfident. But careful planning and an ability to ‘face your fears’ can turn a soporific speech into a peak performance. Angela Muir explains

Prof development July 2014

It is part of common lore that anxiety over public speaking is at the very top of surveys about human fears – indeed, it is significantly higher than the prospect of errant reptiles, air travel and even death. 

Those working in finance often come into this category, habitually avoiding making presentations unless it is absolutely necessary. This is sometimes due to a limiting belief that the predominantly ‘dry’ numerical content will be boring, confusing or difficult for an audience to digest – particularly if that audience comprises non-finance managers. Communicating complex, data-heavy messages may not always be easy or exciting but, by applying these basic rules to your presentation planning, structure and delivery, the results can be significant. 

Here are some practical tips and techniques to help you deliver more confident, dynamic and engaging presentations that will be memorable for all the right reasons.

1 Make it meaningful

Even the most run-of-the-mill subject matter can be made interesting and enjoyable. However, to maximise effectiveness, it must also be meaningful to your audience. 

Start by asking yourself: What do people need to see or hear in order to make them fully engage with this presentation? Identify the key points that will provide the overall structural architecture, then decide how you will start and end – the two most memorable points in any presentation. 

While it’s good to plan the detail around key messages, learning scripts by rote merely sets you up for failure. Not only does it increase your stress levels, it also consumes large quantities of mental energy from trying to remember what you planned to say, and results in you being disconnected from your audience.

2 Mind your body language

We form strong subconscious impressions about the warmth and competence of an individual within the first seven seconds of engagement. With face-to-face presentations, effective communication relies on the degree of congruence between the three major information channels: body language (55%), tone (38%) and words (7%). 

These percentages represent the relative power of the channels, particularly when working against each other. For example, if a presenter is frowning and looking stern while inviting colleagues (via words) to ask questions about their presentation, the overriding impression will be that the presenter is actually discouraging the audience from asking questions. At 55%, the presenter’s body-language message is eight times more powerful than the words, at 7%.

3 The eyes have it

Good quality, frequent and varied eye contact is crucial for establishing and maintaining a connection with your audience. It also provides a valuable feedback mechanism for checking whether you’re getting your point across. Avoid being drawn to look at the bright light of the PowerPoint screen, at the views out of the window or, indeed, down at your notes for long periods of time. Also, if possible, avoid dropping your eye contact at the end of sentences, as it lessens the impact of the point you’re attempting to make. 

4 make your story compelling

If you think back to memorable presentations you have heard, the likelihood is that the speaker shared personal anecdotes that you could relate to. As well as capturing the imagination, stories are much easier to remember than pure data, and they provide an opportunity to reinforce the ways in which the presentation will be relevant and important to the audience. 

Frame your story clearly and concisely from the start – a couple of jargon-free sentences are enough, and will help you and the audience to stay on message. 

Alternatively, an enthusiastic, emphatic, or powerful opening statement or question can be very effective in helping to set the tone. Support your points with quotes, examples and analogies, and don’t forget the pauses – an audience needs time to digest what they’re receiving.

5 Don’t overdo the data

If your presentation includes lots of numbers, it is important not to just to dump large amounts of complex data on your audience and hope they will be able to interpret it. 

If you are using a spreadsheet to display figures, take the time to break it down by highlighting particular columns or sections. 

If appropriate, make sure you explain how to read the data in question and why you’ve focused on it in particular. Be clear whether the numbers are good or bad so that people can make sense of the bigger picture. If it is bad news, build in time to explore possible solutions or outline tangible steps towards making a positive impact where possible.

6 Use PowerPoint sparingly 

Keep slides to a minimum to avoid boredom creeping in. A good rule of thumb for calculating the number of slides you need is to work on an average of three minutes per slide. Try not to exceed five lines or pieces of data per slide. This way, the information on the screen acts as a concise aide-mémoire to talk around, and helps you to avoid the trap of reading out everything on the screen. 

7 Give your audience something to do

Discussion usually delivers richer and more meaningful returns than a lecture in terms of both memorability and the likelihood of follow-on action. To stay fully engaged and attentive throughout a presentation, an audience needs to be encouraged to make a bit of an effort. 

It is a balance, however – if you make too little effort, people will be dropping off; if you make too much effort, they will be too terrified to remember anything. Consider how you can best enable them to engage with the data at various points, but particularly in the middle of your presentation. 

Try posing questions for reflection and discussion, asking a volunteer for comments, inserting a mini Q&A session or brainstorming a live issue.

8 Get creative

People remember pictures better than numbers, so by using images to enhance a point – either a simple pie chart, some clip art or a graphic image – you’ll be increasing the likelihood of retention considerably. Adding a short video clip or handing round a relevant artefact can also be very effective in creating a lasting impression. 

I once witnessed a pile of obviously fake but beautifully crafted £50 notes being used to highlight the economic impact of counterfeiting in the chief finance officer of a bank’s presentation to a group of new graduates. The entire audience left the room engaged in animated conversation, clutching a detailed copy of his presentation in one hand and their ‘monetary souvenir’ in the other. 

9 Be human

As the saying goes, it’s not the mistake that counts, but how you deal with it. If you fluff your words or forget to say something, don’t let it throw you – only you know what you were planning to say anyway. Moments of imperfection are not only normal, but can ease tension and increase the rapport you have built with your audience. People are more likely to trust a presenter who is as authentic and fallible as they are than someone who is absently robotic or perfectly slick. 

10embrace fear

Hokey as it may sound, embracing your nerves from the start makes a huge difference to your chances of delivering a successful presentation. Ignoring or supressing anxious feelings only serves to make your anxiety levels worse. 

Instead,  mentally reframe the ‘threat’ as a ‘challenge’ and –  even if it seems strange – something to be enjoyed. After all, a bit of adrenaline is a positive thing; it helps keep us alert and focused on the task at hand. Combining this with a heightened mental image of a relaxed, confident, successful ‘you’ will set up a positive psychological circle for both you and your audience. 

Angela Muir is an organisational psychologist and senior leadership faculty member at Ashridge Business School

This feature was first published in the July/August edition of Public Finance magazine


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