If it was easy, everybody would do it. Talk on stage that is.

drawing by franke james

There is an art and a science to delivering a good business presentation. Unfortunately too many people think they can get up on stage and ‘wing it’, or worse, read it! (Snore…) I recently attended two business conferences in the same week and was struck by the uneven quality of speakers.

Am I too demanding when I ask that the speakers be well prepared and live up to their advance hype? I don’t think so. Remember, these are not ‘freebie’ or charity events. We’ve paid cold hard cash to be inspired and informed by the speakers.

But who am I to criticize? Well, I’ve been on both sides of business presentations – in the audience and on stage, so I know how much work it is to deliver a really excellent presentation. And I’ve done it. But it’s not something you can knock off the night before. It can take months of preparation to deliver a tightly scripted ‘spontaneous’ talk. But when it works, it’s thrilling. Here are my ten guidelines:

1. Target your audience
Before you even begin to think about what you’re going to say, you have to find out who you’re going to be speaking to. Ask yourself, “How can I make my topic relevant to the audience? What is going to be their main takeaway from my talk?”

Recently I heard Doug Cooper, Country Manager for Intel speak. He was fabulous. Cooper is an engaging speaker who knew what he was talking about, and also supported his claims with visual proof (more on this later). He targeted his presentation – Getting Maximum Productivity out of Knowledge Workers – precisely to the audience. And since it was a business crowd, it was relevant to every person there. The crowd loved him.

2. You are the teacher
It’s not a glamorous concept, but it works. You are the teacher. As a teacher, you’re obviously going to need to prepare a lesson plan. Think of your concept at a high level, and then walk them through it step-by-step. And just like a teacher – and Doug Cooper above — don’t be afraid to use visual support. Diagrams. Charts. Photos. They can bring your words to life and add drama.

At one business conference recently, the only presenter on stage who had slides, charts and photos was a woman. Her attention to detail and thorough preparation showed respect. She was great at communicating her message. Then the guys got up and spoke ‘off-the-cuff’ with no visuals. I asked others around me if they got the same impression as me. Yep. The guys were lazy and thought they could blind us with their brilliance, and we’d never notice their lack of preparation. Nope. We weren’t fooled.

3. Make it look easy by being prepared
There are a few rare individuals who can perform ‘unscripted’ in front of an audience and get rave reviews. But it’s been my experience that the more time spent in preparation, the better the talk will be. Not that your talk should look ‘prepared’. The goal is to get up on stage and speak as naturally, and authoritatively to the crowd as if you were chatting one-on-one.

4. Make a claim. Prove it.
You are on stage because someone thought you had something worthwhile to say. Prove it. Don’t just spout off your opinions without supporting them. The audience is not going to believe what you say just because you’re on stage. The old presentation structure of ‘Make a claim. And prove it.’ is still the best. You can’t beat it.

5. The Emperor’s Clothes
If your secret fear is that the audience will see you have no clothes, then get some! Your physical appearance is not important… but if you dress badly it will get in the way of the audience appreciating your brilliance. Don’t let clothing, hair style, etc. be an obstacle to success. Nobody really cares what you look like. Unless you look awful. Hire an image coach if necessary.

6. You are an Entertainer
How can you make your subject lively, fun and interesting to the audience? Think about staging. Think about provocation. Think about engaging your audience in the content. Some great speakers – like Seth Godin – do it with the juxtaposition of words and pictures. His presentations remind me of advertising – but in a good way. Each ‘ad’ has a punchy headline and riveting visual that communicates the message. He’s teaching us but it’s fun.

7. Steal from TV and Theater
Let’s give the TV studios and theater companies some credit. They know how to present content with drama and flare. You can get some great ideas for how to present from watching them.

I borrowed an idea from the old TV Game shows and it worked brilliantly. At two software conferences my role was to explain licensing to animation software developers. This could be a snore. But I found a way to make it exciting (honest, that was the feedback from the audience). I gathered together a panel of experts from some of the biggest software houses, law firms and entertainment companies. I knew the audience would want to hear what they had to say. But how could I make it exciting and get each expert to speak directly without a lot of ‘PR spin’? I set it up like a TV game show. The ‘experts’ were on the hot seat, the questions were projected behind them, and the sense of energy in the room was palpable. This is not the secret recipe that will work in every situation. The big concept here is to learn from the best, and borrow ideas from other mediums like TV and theater.

8. Live up to your Hype
Every conference has a ‘blurb’ on the speakers and their talks. Obviously, this sets the audience expectations. But sometimes I wonder if the speakers have read their own blurbs. If you’ve promised to enlighten the audience on points A, B and C, do it! Don’t talk about A and then skip to Y and Z. The audience deserves to have their expectations met. Structure your presentation tightly so that it answers every one of the points you promised to cover in your advance publicity blurb. Fancy hype will get people in the door but they’ll leave disappointed if you can’t deliver the goods.

9. Be passionate
Recently I heard a prominent multi-millionaire executive get up on stage to talk about branding. First he showed a two-minute TV ad for his great brands, with lots of flashy effects and the latest music. Personally I thought it was in bad taste to force the audience to watch a TV ad, but maybe that was me…

Then he opened his mouth and read his prepared speech. His monotone speaking voice fell flat. His speech was studded with snappy one-liners and sexist jokes (which managed to offend every woman in the audience).

Why was it such a turnoff to hear a speech read aloud? I think it’s because we want to hear people speak from the heart about what they know and care about. It’s hard to be passionate when you’re reading aloud.

10. Remember Google knows (almost) everything
Answering questions from the audience can be the toughest part of your presentation – especially if you have the PR department watching your every word. But in this age of Googling, you dodge questions at your peril!

Give the audience credit for being intelligent. They’ll know when you don’t answer a question ‘straight up’. People can smell ‘PR spin’ instantly. Answer the questions based on what is already out in the public realm. If the audience can look up what your company spent on “X”, then tell the truth. Otherwise it could be an embarrassing news item the next day.

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