Presentation skills – Making an impact.

It has got to stop. The average business presentation made in the English speaking world today is woeful and we just cannot go on this way.

Not that it is much better in other countries where business takes itself seriously. Ironically in the UK, where people are justly proud of the fact that they have given their language to the rest of the world, business presentations are generally as bad as you will find anywhere.

Why is it the spoken word just does not receive the same amount of attention and promotion compared with the written word? Well, our media – even the electronic media – are still dominated by arts graduates from universities where there is still a prevailing view that the job of academics is to save their charges from the world of business and all that goes with it.

True, they do steep the heads of their students with words, but these are mostly written words. Where is the art of declamation? Where is there real debate? Where it is permissible to hold a view and argue it strongly for the sake of debate? Where is the oratory?

It is little wonder, then, that when graduates find themselves in business they struggle to make themselves understood. Not that they have great role models to look up to. As a rule their bosses struggle too.

It used to be in business that you could avoid making presentations, hiding in the undergrowth created by those more keen on making a name for themselves. After all, you were hired for your intelligence, for your technical expertise and of course for your management ability. Talking a lot, by definition, does not go hand in hand with strong, silent and decisive management.

Making presentations usually comes as a shock to the system. Little wonder then that when we conducted a survey last year 76% of people in business said that standing up in public and making a presentation is the most daunting thing you have to do in business life.

When embarking on any kind of presentation there are three key elements that have to be borne in mind. First, the message that you want to get across; second, the audience to whom you want to get the message across; third, the medium. In this instance, the medium indicates the kind of environment in which you are making your presentation. This can vary from a one-to-one presentation across the table to a semi-formal boardroom presentation right up to a fully fledged formal presentation in front of an audience ranging from 20 to 200 even to 2000.

Of those three key criteria – message, audience, medium – there is one which is paramount when embarking on any presentation. It is the audience, and the analysis of that audience, that is the most critical factor to the success of any presentation. There are many reasons for this and to appreciate them it is vital first of all to understand what makes for a successful spoken communication.

Most people would regard a successful communication as one which ‘gets the message across’. While this is true, it is not the whole story. In business, a successful communication has to go much further.

Not only does the message have to be put across but the audience has to react positively to that message.

In short, we can sum up the definition of a successful communication as one which modifies the behaviour of the audience so that they do something in your favour that they would not have done had you not spoken to them.

Clearly you have to have a message which you want to get across, but even if you are successful in getting that message across and the audience does not do something, that is, you do not modify their behaviour, the message will have been wasted. It is important that your communication is such that you get action from the audience and, in particular, that action must be in your favour.

Another reason why audience analysis is critical is borne out by the experience of listening to presenters who have not understood their audience.

We have all been in situations where presenters have not engaged from the very start and their words have gone right over the heads of the audience and been ignored.

In the worst of these instances, the presenter fails to notice this and blunders on willy-nilly. The whole presentation is a disaster resulting in, at best, an attitude of indifference from the audience and, at worst, nothing short of hostility. The first question that has to be asked when contemplating a presentation or any kind of spoken communication is: who is the audience? The next question to be asked is: what do they want to hear?

Clarifying the expectations of the audience is critical. What you are dealing with here is two bodies of knowledge. There is what you want to say and what they, the audience, want to hear. Of course, what you want to say will not always be what they want to hear, and what they want to hear will not always be what you want to say. Usually there is a trade-off between the two.

Getting started is one of the toughest parts of the whole business of preparing a presentation. What we have to do is analyse the audience: who are they and what do they want to hear? Then we have to work out what it is that we want to say. So that is our third question when contemplating a spoken communication: ‘what do we want to say?’

Once we have worked out the answers to the first three key questions, we look for the overlap between what it is that we want to say and what the audience wants to hear. It is at this point we start our presentation.

In doing this we are obeying one of the essential tenets of human communication.

It is most starkly seen in negotiations. All good negotiations are designed to end with a so-called win/win solution. To achieve this win/win objective, the starting point of all negotiations has to be to establish the common ground – that is, the ground on which both sides can agree. It is exactly the same with spoken communications – you start off playing to the common ground.

In terms of normal presentations, when we speak of the medium we are really talking about the environment in which we are giving our presentation.

Clearly it also is very dependent on the numbers of people who make up the audience for the presentation. However, most people tend to think of presentations as formal affairs often involving a platform, a microphone, and in some cases, even lights. When pressed about what kind of presentations they make, many of our clients have insisted that they make no real presentations at all, relying instead on what they describe as ‘informal’ presentations.

The majority of presentations in the business environment usually fall into the category of ‘informal’. Usually they are to fewer than half a dozen people, and yet the numbers of such presentations taken together form a significant part of presentational activity – usually much more than so-called formal presentations. Paradoxically these informal presentations are, in fact, the trickiest because, while you may hope that the guard of the audience is down, so is that of the speaker. All too often ‘informal’ can be an excuse for not taking the presentation seriously, often with disastrous results.

The reality is that, formal or informal, all presentations require a similar approach. There are, though, some clear differences and these are principally to do with the environment in which you find yourself.

In so-called informal presentations, it might be far better to do away with complex computer graphics and 35mm slides and instead make use of a small A4 flip- chart presenter to illustrate your presentation. Such a visual aid would be totally out of place if you were standing up in front a hall of 500 people.

Clearly, how you treat the medium has to be down to your own particular views and the environment itself. Often that environment cannot be determined by you. It is more often than not dictated by those who have invited you to present. If you can, enquire in advance about the layout of the room so that it does not come as a total surprise. Additionally, if possible, turn up in advance of your presentation to check the layout and any equipment you might use. If you are unable to do this you will just have to be adept at thinking on your feet and adapting to the environment in which you find yourself.

While the above factors do impact on the effectiveness of a presentation, of the three key factors to contemplate before embarking on a presentation the medium is least critical when compared with the audience and the message.

The approach to all presentations – large or small, formal or informal – should be the same. The big danger is to believe that a short, informal presentation means an easier presentation. As Churchill once said: ‘If you want a long speech I can give it to you this afternoon. A short one will take me a couple of days to prepare.’

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– Speech takes longer to absorb than written text

– Speak with impact and passion

– The three key elements of spoken communication are message, medium and audience

– The effectiveness of your spoken communication will be measured by the audience doing something in your favour that they would not have done had you not spoken to them

– There are four basic questions to ask yourself before any type of presentation: Who are your audience? What do they want to hear? What is it you want to say? Where is the overlap?

– Presentations can be either formal or informal, but the key questions remain the same.

– Mirror the audience, gradually tipping the agenda towards your message.


Khalid Aziz has worked for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

He founded the Aziz Corporation in 1983, which specialises in tutoring business people on presentation skills. Presenting to Win is published by Oak Tree Press and can be ordered for #16.95 at the Aziz Corporation website.

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