Stepping up to the mic: the art of presentation

Do you rely heavily on Powerpoint when presenting to clients? Do you go into a great deal of detail? Do you read off your slides? If the answer is yes, your audience could be suffering – and you could do with some help.

It goes without saying that effective presentation and communication is an integral part of an accountant’s role. Yet the numbers of training firms in the market suggests that there is a significant demand for help in this area.

A demand for training
Says John Williams, head of professional development at the Institute of Management Consultancy: ‘Some of our approved training providers are solely concerned with presentation and media skills.’

One such is SpeakFirst (, a firm with an impressive client list, including KPMG, Arthur D Little and Ernst & Young. MD Cristina Stuart says: ‘It is not sufficient for a consultant to be able to do a good job – he or she must be able to persuade the client that they can do so. Conviction and confidence comes from the way the consultant behaves. If the impression they are creating is of someone lacking confidence or the gravitas necessary, they will not win the client’s business.’

She adds: ‘People judge on what they see and hear rather than a CV. In the end they are picking a person on the basis of whether they will fit in, understand the problem and be an easy person to work with.’

So how you listen and respond, and whether you can establish rapport with the client, will govern whether you win more business, she says.

So where do people go wrong? Jilly Carter, a freelancer who works for training and broadcast consultancy HBL Media (, cites spells with BBC Breakfast News, ITN’s Into the Night and Radio Four on her CV.

Delivery over content
She says people spend far too much time worrying about the content of their presentation and too little on the delivery. ‘Many sit down and start typing out Powerpoint slides before they have really ascertained why they are doing it,’ she says.

‘Too many don’t have a goal.’ She teaches people to decide before they begin what their objective is. ‘I get them to finish the sentence “By the end of this presentation I want the audience to …”,’ she says. ‘Generally, presentations are given to sell, to tell or to impel. You want the audience to understand something, to think differently or to commit to something. You have to decide what you want the audience to do.’

Know your audience
Once the goal has been decided upon, the audience has to be defined, she says. ‘Who are they, what are their hot buttons, what are they expecting to hear, are there any problems or politics to be considered?’ The major problem, she adds, is that presentations are often too speaker focused. ‘There needs to be a shift of emphasis – you are not doing it for your own comfort, you are doing it for the audience.’

Khalid Aziz, chairman of spoken communications specialist The Aziz Corporation (, agrees. ‘You really have to understand where the client is coming from and what it is expecting to hear. You are looking for fit and common ground,’ he says.

Too much detail is a bad thing
Once the audience and the aim of the presentation are defined, it is time to focus on content. And here, trainers agree, the problem is too much detail. Says Stuart: ‘People think they have to put everything in – which overwhelms the client. It is a big sin to talk too much and far too long. If you ask the client afterwards what the key messages were they don’t remember. We get consultants to highlight what they want the audience to remember and the sort of impression they want to create.’

Carter agrees. ‘Listening is hard work – people only listen to about 30% of what a speaker says so the moral is don’t be too ambitious. Get to the bottom line and repeat it – three times!’

Aziz points out that a key difference between print and speech is that you can go into a lot of detail in the former, and the reader can re-read or check back at their own pace.

‘The audience doesn’t have that opportunity in a live presentation. So keep messages very simple. Such sessions are often part of a multimedia presentation anyway – delivered with brochures and literature for the client. The key thing is to create impact and a lasting impression – that you are a ‘can do’ problem solver whom the client can work with.’

He adds: “We preach quite strongly against one size fits all. Trotting out credentials presentations is a bad idea. Talking about your global reach, for example, is not of interest to a prospect only operating in the UK.’

Stuart adds: ‘Think about how you talk about successes – can you relate the right case histories to the client. Recapping, highlighting and relating to its needs is crucial. Saying that your firm was established in 1963 could be taken to mean that it is old hat or well-established. You have to say it. In sales jargon, it is about turning features into benefits – what do they do for the client?’

Be prepared for questions
It is also important, she says, to be prepared for questions. ‘Anticipate the worst question you could be asked and work out how you would answer it – if necessary asking others for help,’ she says. ‘Solicit feedback by asking open questions like, ‘I’d like to hear what you feel’. If you are trying to build a relationship with the client you might say right at the outset ‘ask questions as they occur to you – we want this to be a dialogue’.’

Too much Powerpoint
A common theme among the trainers is the over-use of Powerpoint in presentations. ‘We are facing death by Powerpoint,’ says Aziz. He advocates the use of low-tech paper and pencil, to work out what you want to say to your audience, before looking at visual aids. “These should be aids to the audience not crutches for you,’ he says.

Carter is even more scathing. “Too many presenters just read off the slides, using Powerpoint as a Linus blanket, without which they would be absolutely scuppered.”

She adds: ‘It’s boring, it means less interaction with the audience. If you are constantly turning your back on them to look at your slides, you aren’t able to actually relate to them and, perhaps more importantly, check for understanding. You don’t know if they are bored, have lost it or look puzzled. You need good eye contact with them, to be receptive and open. If I see a puzzled face I add another sentence or clarify the point.’

But there is a role for Powerpoint in presentations. Says Stuart: ‘People think that if they show lots of slides it will look professional but the only reason to use them is to enhance the message and help the client to understand it. Comparative figures, for example, have to be shown visually.’

Be creative
Carter agrees. She advocates the use of pictures, diagrams and even cartoons. ‘Be creative and freeflowing rather than writing dense bits of material on a slide and asking the audience if they can read them,’ she says.

She is equally forthright about body language. ‘You can have the best idea in the world but if you deliver it in a flat tone, eyes all over the place, de-energised and shuffling around with your hands in your pockets, you are sending the wrong message to your audience. There must be congruence between body language, voice and content.’

For Stuart, body language is vital from the word go. ‘When you meet the client before the presentation, perhaps when you are sitting outside their office on a low sofa, make sure that you don’t scramble up struggling with your coat and briefcase. Spring up, leaving your baggage on the sofa, look at the person and make sure your handshake is firm. Little things create the right impression.’

Nerves work in your favour
Nerves go with the territory, says Carter, citing a survey which put standing up to talk to people as the scariest thing after flying and dying. “But nerves can work in your favour. A bit of adrenalin is a good thing but you have to get those butterflies flying in formation.” She advocates practising aloud beforehand, breathing deeply from the diaphragm before you start – and taking a glass of water for the dry mouth that nerves invariably produce.

‘I am staggered by the number of trainees who don’t practise their speech at all,’ she says. Last but not least, she says, smile. ‘There is tremendous magic in a smile. People like you and if the audience likes you they are more likely to believe you and buy in to what you say.’

While client presentation is the consultant’s bread and butter, the rising profile of the profession means that he or she may also have to talk to the media from time to time. And for some this can be an unnerving experience. Says Stuart: ‘People are frightened of journalists – they think they are all going to behave like the tabloids. But most journalists behave in a proper way and the interchange is usually of mutual benefit.’

Understanding the media
Ralph Jackson, MD of The Jackson Group, agrees. ‘Our sessions help consultants to understand the media agenda and the process by which they can contribute sensibly and positively.’

He agrees that some firms are reluctant to talk to the press but adds that, given the constraints of client confidentiality and competitive advantage, there are advantages in having some exposure. ‘We focus on the business management media such as the Financial Times and the Economist, and look at how to influence sector features, get on a sector correspondent’s wavelength and the kind of issues that are of particular interest.’

For The Aziz Corporation’s Aziz, the key is to know your audience. ‘A very specific trade magazine, for example, will want you to be much more technical while breakfast TV will want a broader comment. And bear in mind the political aspirations of the Today Programme.’

The objective, he says, is to ensure that your audience remembers the firm’s name. ‘Consultants want to advertise their wares but not overtly. Be aware of what the media can do for you – we believe in being open but not open-legged.’

Steve Levinson, a director of HBL Media, is also a freelance writer and broadcaster. With stints as a BBC economics correspondent and economics editor for Channel 4 on his CV, he focuses particularly on media training for television and radio. He says many of the principles outlined for successful presentations apply to these mediums.

‘The main thing is to be really focused on what you want to say. Many businessmen and consultants have too much swimming around in their heads and can’t prioritise it all. Try to concentrate on two or three key things. And don’t drop into jargon – that is a killer on the media.’

He grills trainees in front of the camera or in the radio studio and then analyses the tapes. ‘It’s only by showing them what they look and sound like that they actually realise that there may be a problem in how they handle themselves when dealing with journalists,’ he says.

Stuart agrees. ‘When people see themselves on television, we very often don’t have to say what needs to be done. They see how inappropriate their dress or behaviour is – and whether they are being clear and getting their message across.’

Saying what you want to say
A common pitfall, she says, is waiting for the right question in order to get that message across. She advocates the use of a bridging technique. ‘You must answer the question but then use the technique to move on to what you want to say. If it is done skilfully, it will not be noticeable.’

Aziz emphasises the importance of preparation and openness if you don’t know something. ‘If all else fails try honesty,’ he says. ‘Don’t waffle.’

For Levinson time pressure is a key differentiator in the media. ‘If you are making a presentation you tend to have a reasonable amount of time to do it, and even in print journalism you can have a 15 minute conversation. But in TV and radio you have to cut everything down into short sharp chunks – you may only have seconds in which to deliver your message.” And, he says, knowing when to stop is just as important.

Such disciplines are immensely valuable, he says. “I say to people ‘even if you never do a TV interview you should go through this discipline – it concentrates the mind wonderfully’. If you have to get all the stuff in your head out in 15 seconds you realise how important it is to be totally focused,” he says. “And that discipline will be very useful to you in any presentation.”

Related reading