Thursday, 22 January 2009

Presentation Skills

A few days ago I posted about how important it is to present ideas well, rather than hoping some budget and resources will be conjured up by the sheer strength of the idea alone. I was going to write something about presentation skills in general, but given that last post, I'm going to tailor this slightly more towards doing proposals - and for most of us - proposals make up the majority of the presentations we do that really matter anyway.

The thing to keep in mind about your proposal is your goal; you're not there to do a really great presentation, you're there to convert someone into a mad raving fan of your idea, and how you do that is going to depend on who you're dealing with.

Step 1 for me is always start with the audience, as everything else flows from this. It drives your content (which benefits you accentuate, which risks you focus on) your delivery method (maybe powerpoint slides in the boardroom is best, maybe a casual discussion over a coffee is sufficient), and even the duration you're going to talk for.

Never simply have "your presentation on project X". Instead, have "your presentation on project X for the architecture steering group", and "your presentation on project X for the accountants", and "your presentation on project X for the board" etc. They're all going to want to see a different mixture of things before they get behind it. With some of them, you might want budget, so you'll want to spend a slide on the concept, then spend the balance of the time breaking down cost and benefit over the next few years. From others you might need their change control approval, so the commercials will be lightweight with much more detail about how your system will be deployed and how it will integrate with the rest of the enterprise. You might even be displacing the roles of operational people through a tool you're driving forward, so these guys will want to know how new processes will change their tasks and you'll need to spend a fair bit of time addressing concerns about the team, their jobs, and training.

That's all very good, but something people often ask me is how to handle mixed audiences - when you have to present your proposal to a collection of people in different roles. My answer is - don't. It might seem like a smart idea, get a large number of areas out of the way in one go, but it simply is not effective. You cannot adequately address each persons individual focal points, and you risk convincing nobody.

Granted, sometimes you don't have a choice, and if that's the situation you're in (and you can't get out of it) then keep it brief, simple, factual, and to the point. But do have all the detailed information right there with you - the same stuff you'd have if you were doing the customized versions for each individual - and that way you'll be knowledgeable and organized should anyone wish to drill down into any of the areas they represent. If you've been asked to do something for a multidisciplinary audience like this, then chances are it's at some kind of regular session the participants have anyway, which means they'll have other business to discuss, which means you can't expect a long slot, which means your brevity will be appropriate.

On the mechanics of presenting - and by mechanics I mean how to deliver slides - I will let David Rose tell the story for me. It's worth watching the whole clip, but at the very least watch the last few minutes in which he covers slide design, stance and tone, and using presenter mode in powerpoint etc. Second only to actually doing it yourself, watching great presenters in action is the best way to get better at it, so I'd recommend watching a few more TED talks and definitely subscribing to Presentation Zen.

When drawing up a slide deck to accompany a presentation (note that a deck of slides is not your presentation) I think it's important to resist incorporating all the whizzy features powerpoint has to offer. Animations, sounds effects, charts, and clever transitions are all entertaining, but they distract from your message. Also, avoid complex, cluttered slides loaded with detail and don't, ever, just write a speech onto slides and read it out along with your audience. Slides aren't cue cards, they're important material which backs up what you say, reinforces your message, and helps add impact to the story you're telling face to face.

A couple of final points - firstly, when you're "considering your audience" and thinking about who you'll need to get onside with your idea, don't forgot about thought leaders. It's usually easy to spot the people who will be directly affected by your plan, and decision makers tend to be obvious too, but so many neglect this final category. By thought leaders, I mean people who might not have any official hierarchical power or authority to help you, but nonetheless they set opinion and exert an influence. Getting these people onside with your plans will make adoption everywhere else much smoother.

Last of all, don't overdo it. You are kidding yourself if you don't believe you're selling when you're presenting a plan, but you must also be realistic and present a balanced view of whatever it is you're asking us for. As executives, we know that there is no such thing as an idea with no downsides, and pitching that way will just make us suspicious.

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