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Some Secrets of Successful Presentations

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Four steps to creating a winning presentation
  • How to overcome common presentation challenges
  • Ways to gather feedback on your presentation after an event

The Challenges of Presentations

We are truly alone at two moments in life: when we are on stage delivering a speech, and when we die. No wonder people dread what is such a critical part of business life.

Many people detest making presentations. They suffer greatly before the "big day," sweating the content and their delivery, and agonizing about how they will be viewed professionally after the presentation.

Such angst is unfortunate, because with preparation and practice, delivering presentations can be a great way to advance a career and positively promote a company's message. And, dare I say it—it can even be fun!

The difference between failure and success in presentations lies in a couple of important considerations: What is the speaker's objective for the presentation, and what is the audience's payoff for listening?


Constructing a Winning Presentation

1. Research the audience. No presentation can be successful without background research. The best presenters understand their audiences—what their concerns are and what language they speak. The best presenters also understand why they were invited to address the audience. Presenting to customers, for instance, requires a very different approach than speaking to an industry-association audience of peers.

2. Deliver the engaging and the unexpected. The planning process for every presentation includes considering how to engage the audience. The best speakers make their presentations thought-provoking, inspiring, even memorable.

Tools are great ways to engage and surprise an audience: a video that helps make a point, a question that encourages the audience to contemplate an answer, a prop that helps illustrate a concept.

The important decision is determining which medium is best to deliver the message and which suits the speaker's personal style. Some people can tell a story using only brief notes. Others work best with presentation slides—which should always be easy to read and understand—fewer words and simple visuals are good rules to live by.

3. Is there a story to tell? One of the best tools is a story—an interesting personal experience that allows the speaker to lead into the topic, a case study that shows how someone or some company was successful, or a parallel situation from history that takes an incident from a completely different time and place and ties it to the situation at hand.

Good storytellers generally make the best speakers because they understand how to build the story, how to intrigue the audience, and how to deliver the payoff.

4. Be audience-appropriate. When presenting to an association audience, I once used a horror-movie clip that showed an unsuspecting man opening the door to a serial murderer. The tongue-in-cheek point was that if a company opens the door to customer feedback (particularly if customers are angry), it'd better be prepared for whatever feedback is provided.

The next week I did a different presentation on new computer tomography (CT) technology. Needless to say, the same video would not have worked with that audience of radiologists.

Tying Up Loose Ends

Delivering a strong close is critical. That is where the speaker makes sure the audience is rewarded for the time it devoted to listening. Remember to tie the closing to the opening so the entire presentation makes sense, and share some lessons learned or summary thoughts.

Preparing for the question-and-answer session is an important part of the presentation-planning process. Depending on the situation, speakers may want to put together a list of possible questions they could be asked—particularly the ones they really don't want to be asked—with well thought-out, appropriate responses. That can be the most important aspect of presentation preparation. One tough question handled without thought or preparation can undo all of the goodwill earned during an entire session.

Developing responses is closely followed in importance by practicing tough responses. Voice, tone, and word selection all affect credibility. The tougher the question, the more likely the respondent is at risk of sounding defensive.

When to Use a Presentation Coach

No matter how experienced the speaker, it's great to periodically get feedback from a pro. A good presentation coach can help boost speaker confidence, improve the content and engagement factor in a presentation, and determine achievable goals depending on speaker experience and capability.

Offering presentation coaches for our speakers is one of the best services our marketing department at Toshiba offers. Business leads, managers, and even customer presenters have all taken advantage of the service. The trick is selecting the appropriate coach for each speaker. The coach for a physician speaker may be quite different from the coach for the sales vice-president.

Evaluating the Feedback

Many event organizers survey the audience about speaker content and presentation. These surveys are a great source of feedback and can provide some important lessons. The event organizers may not always provide the feedback to the speakers automatically, so asking for that feedback may be necessary. It's also great to know what kinds of feedback will be solicited to understand how the speaker will be measured.

Spending time at the event after the presentation is also a good way to collect feedback. Audience members may tread softly so as not to offend, but generally they will talk about what they were looking for and hoping to hear. And if the presentation was good, they will offer that information directly to the speaker.

A Marketing Strategy Tool

Creating a speakers bureau of internal speakers as well as customer presenters is a great marketing strategy. Nothing beats face-to-face presentations, or even live webinars, for explaining complex topics, making a persuasive argument, or building rapport and awareness within a new market segment.

Toshiba's speaker bureaus have been in place for several years now, and they have become a critical part of the company's marketing strategy, delivering great results in lead generation and market visibility.

Organizations are always looking for good speakers with current content. Once the presentation is given, the material can be repackaged as byline articles, case studies, and other promotional materials.

* * *

Keep in mind the points made in this article, and you'll be able to create more successful presentations, build confidence in internal clients and customers, and expand your company's success.


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Catherine M. Wolfe is senior director of corporate and strategic communications at Toshiba America Medical Systems, Inc. She speaks at industry conferences on marketing and customer relationship management.

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  • by Suzan St Maur Wed Jun 15, 2011 via web

    Hi Catherine - great post!

    One thing I find with many speakers (I have been writing speeches for industry leaders for some years now) is that sometimes it pays for them to work from a complete script. Sometimes they will read it verbatim from a teleprompter. Often they will use it to rehearse their presentation and then summarize it down into bullet points to work from (liberating them from the awful tedium of reading from their Ppoint slides...)

    A problem I find when people prepare a presentation themselves is that they write or compose it in the way they think they should come over, not as they come over naturally. This is presentation suicide as you know!

    One way around that, when a speaker is doing their own preparation, is for them to create a structure for their presentation - e.g. in bullet points - and then talk informally through those points into an audio recorder. Transcribe that back, tidy it up, and they're likely to have a realistic basic script to work from that actually IS the real person. Works well.

    Final tip from a speechwriter: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, but do not over-rehearse. Too much will make the speaker a) bored to tears with the material and consequently b) unspontaneous and unenthusiastic in the live presentation.

    Suze from HowToWriteBetter.net (and the MProfs KnowHow Exchange.)

  • by Tom McClure Wed Jun 15, 2011 via web

    Great article, Catherine. I'm an experienced presenter, and I agree with everything you've said.

    One thing I've not done yet is to present electronically on services like "gotomeeting.com. To be truthful, I'm not looking forward to it. One of the things I pride myself on is personally interacting with the audience, I like to make a lot of eye contact, which tells me if the audience is on the same wavelength, if they're understanding and relating to my material, or if I need to spend some additional time on a topic because they're looks tell me that they've not grasped the point yet.

    Anyone have any advice?

  • by Suzan St Maur Thu Jun 16, 2011 via web

    I'll be interested to see what Catherine suggests here, Tom, but in the meantime here's a thought: treat electronic presentation more as you would you would speak on live radio (or video if that's appropriate, but I don't think "gotomeeting.com" offers video linkups??)

    You say you like to have eye contact with your audience, but with an audio system - while you don't have eye contact, obviously! - you have the benefit of being directly engaged with your listeners, and vice versa.

    There's an old saying in radio that you don't have an audience of thousands, but thousands of audiences of one. Audio is very personal and if you remember that when preparing for your presentation - that you're talking to each member of your audience on a 1-to-1 basis - your performance will be very effective.

    Suze from HowToWriteBetter.net

  • by Gillian Rusike Thu Jun 16, 2011 via web

    Indeed, the best presentations ever make use of visual aids that involve the audience. I have seen many parliamentarians sleeping during sessions because the presenters will be just talking trying to express a point or defending a point by word of mouth. At the same time I have attended various forums where you are always keep alive because you are looking forward to the next slide and how it is going to be interpreted by the presenter.
    However, I agree with Cathrine that it is important to know and understand the audience pretty much. Many polititians especially in Africa make such huge blunders of presenting in English to the rural folks who do not even understand the language when making a speech. I am not sure about the point to prove and I have ultimately concluded that they are showing thier rural folks how educated they are..

  • by Ford Kanzler Fri Jun 17, 2011 via web

    How about "say less, communicate more." I subscribe to Dan Sapp's school of thinking for presentations, part of which is that PowerPoint is the most abused software package on the planet. His site: http://www.dansappassociates.com/ - offers great ideas and guidance on how to combat Death by PowerPoint and as he says, "really choose to reach out and connect—you have the power to change (people). Creating change in people, projects, and organizations is what leadership communication is all about."
    I recommend Dan's ideas to any who aim at improving their public speaking (presentation) skills.

  • by Marsha Redmon Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    The fastest way to get comfortable with webinars (like gotomeeting.com) is to give yourself an audience in the room (2-3 people) where you're doing the webinar. Then you can make eye contact and get feedback from real people. I agree with Suzan that treating a webinar or other electronic presentation like radio is a good analogy. It is essentially many audiences of one -- that you can't see!

    Do try webinars - they can be an incredibly effective way to leverage your time and teach or present to large numbers of people -- and get clients too! I coach lawyers on business development webinars and many of them had had great success in serving current clients and attracting new clients.

    Marsha Redmon -- visit marsha.com for webinar + presentation tips

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