Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Don't Waste My Time - Six Ways to Improve Your Presentations

Throughout my career as a journalist and communications consultant, I’ve probably been to thousands of presentations. When I wrote a newsletter for marketers my job was to go to conferences around the world then come back and report on what top marketers were saying.

The vast majority of the presentations I saw were incredibly boring. But if I listened there was always something buried inside that I learned something from. Forty five minutes of hell to get one good idea? How many people whose job it wasn’t to sit there would stay in the room?

In all those years I probably saw half a dozen presentations that I’d sit through again. Here’s why:

1. British humor. Martin Sorrell, the former head of the WPP Group, one of the largest advertising and marketing conglomerates in the word, came to talk to the first year Harvard Business School marketing class. He opened with “Our research shows within the first couple of minutes during a lecture most people drift off into sexual fantasy. So here’s to enjoying where you go with that.” Be outrageous. It’s unexpected and incredibly compelling. And you bet we listened to him too.

2. A good schtick. Yiddish says it better than English – they had a gimmick. And they were entertaining. People like Stephen Covey and Tom Peters captivated the room. I felt better about myself listening to their common sense advice confirming much of which I already knew. They packaged it well and told a good story. Trouble was when I went back to my notebook afterwards I couldn’t find anything to write about.

3. No PowerPoint. Whoever invented PowerPoint made a lot of money. But they ruined business presentations. What happens when you use slides? People read them and stop listening to you. And these days you look dated and foolish. The Internet generation has no attention span. That’s the point a Generation Y consultant made at a presentation I saw recently. She showed up in jeans and just talked about why she didn’t listen to the grown-ups. I listened to the whole thing.

4. Got me in the gut. Something has to resonate with the majority of your audience, help me see myself in what you are saying and figure out how this could apply to my business or life right now. Jason Alba of Jib Jab wins this one. He talked about how to build a marketing program around your blog by explaining how he did it with his company. Still haven’t done everything he suggested but took small suggestions and did them right away. And it really helped.

5. Entertaining. Why do you think comedians make the best talk show hosts? Because they can be spontaneously endearing, funny and in the best cases, really smart. They make something we know is ridiculous look more ridiculous. Be Stephen Colbert. His parody of a right wing talk show host is so engaging we can't stop watching. Of course in business you’re supposed to be professional and serious. But you can also let some personality shine through. You’re on stage – work it or I start reaching for my Blackberry.

6. Keep it Simple. What do you want me to walk out of the room remembering? My brain can only hold so much information as I go from session to session. And I may be smarter than a fifth grader, but I don't always remember what they taught me in fifth grade about writing. A refresher: Tell me what you are writing about, give me information to support that, and tell me again. You can call it messaging, or many other buzz word like terms, but it's as simple as that.

6. Know when to shut up. I saw this in a new business presentation recently. The tenor of the room wasn't good because the prospective client was late and rushed. We had a long presentation and didn't communicate well and adapt it to the moment. The meeting just didn't go well because there was too much of us showing work and too little of her engaging with us. We should have shut up and engaged her by offering potential solutions to her challenges but instead we talked about ourselves. She just stopped listening. Yes even smart people screw up sometimes.

So what's your takeaway? If you don't know I'll be the one napping during your next presentation or texting my way through it.


  1. Hi...
    I am student of PR in India and recently organized a PAN india media seminar as a head of guest relations. Handling all the speakers as well as keeping a watch on the audience count I realized its very important to work on your presentations, because a speaker in your conference can either make or break your entire event. im going to share your blog with all my batchmates, hopfully we all have sumthing to learn from this.Thank you

  2. I like #3 and #6 in particular. I'd also add "Keep it simple." It's amazing to me how many presenters lose the audience with a tsunami of industry speak, convoluted charts and graphs.

  3. Thanks Chris - I'm going to add what you said - you're right - I was more focused on how boring people are rather than messaging.

  4. Where's number 7? Please don't leave us hanging...

  5. social networking, friends, marketing, social bookmarking, blog, forums, yellow pages, business directory, networking, network,

    money and profit

  6. This is a very interesting post, and the comments are also fantastic to read. I’ll have to have a little re-think about my own contact form on our new website, as this poses some interesting questions!
    online marketing

  7. This is a very interesting post, and the comments are also fantastic to read. I’ll have to have a little re-think about my own contact form on our new website, as this poses some interesting questions!
    online marketing