Professional Presentations: Key Political Skill (Part 2)

By Ellis Chase

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In the first part of this piece, I wrote about how important effective presentation skills are for visibility in an organization – essentially a political skill.  

Now comes the tough part: How can you get past the terror of public speaking? The answer is simple – preparation. There are three essential elements that go into effective public speaking: analyzing the audience, designing the presentation, and developing superior delivery technique. 

I hate to sound superficial, but I strongly believe that the last item is the most important. It’s like interviewing; the packaging is as important as the content, maybe even more so. Without it, the content doesn’t always come across that well.  

1) Analyzing the Audience

A presentation will be more effective the more you know about your audience. Even if it’s a staff meeting, do you about know everyone in the room? Chances are there might be someone from a different department. Maybe that person could change the dynamic of the room (maybe it’s the EVP of the whole department?).  

In a larger group, with perhaps a more formal presentation, do you have a real sense of the room? This could be a critical element in the effectiveness of your presentation. A canned presentation given without consideration of the audience has less chance of success.  

Several years ago, I was asked to do a yearly presentation for a large group – usually about 300 - at an open house for a departmental program at New York University. It was impossible to figure out the audience in advance, because it was open to a large community. So, in order to get a real sense of the audience, I would show up about a half hour early, sit in the back, and listen to people as they walked in. This always gave me a good sense of what the tone of the overall group was going to be.

Sometimes, if I overheard something that was relevant to the presentation, I would address the person who said it, and incorporate it, which is always a great way of getting audience members involved. Make it personal. Establish a connection.  

When you do have the opportunity to analyze the audience in advance, there are several questions you need to address before designing your presentation.  

  • What is the level of experience in the room?
  • What is the context of the presentation?
  • What are the group’s expectations?
  • What are the potential benefits to the audience?
  • What is the overall attitude of the audience?  

You can’t always figure out all of these in advance, but the more you know, the more you can adjust the presentation to the needs of the group. For example, if there’s a wide range of experience then a major presentations skill is to be able to teach to both ends of the spectrum, as well as to the middle. Something for everyone.  

2) Designing the Presentation

The first critical aspect of design is to figure out the purpose of the presentation. Is it to inform? To persuade? To motivate? Or some combination of the three? That will certainly affect the tone.

Second, what is the objective? Even if it’s a 10-minute presentation to a group of five, make sure that you know what your main point is. When I teach a 45-minute introductory class about presentations – or any class, for that matter – I’ll always announce at the beginning why we’re doing it. (More about that opening in a bit.)

Here’s a suggested order for putting the presentation together:

  • Organize content
  • Select and sequence key points
  • Prepare transition statements
  • Develop a closing that summarizes
  • Develop an opening

See something strange in the order?

The last one is preparing the opening! It’s last because it’s the hardest, and because it’s tough to prepare unless you know exactly what the content of the presentation will be. An unclear opening will lose the audience, and will make it difficult to get them back. I suggest the following elements in an opening:

  • Introduce yourself. Even in a small group where you know everyone. Maybe there’ll be one person you don’t know. Don’t assume.  
  • Announce your objective.
  • Describe the agenda of the presentation, i.e., the main points to be covered.
  • Announce whether you’ll be taking questions during or after the presentation.
  • Tell approximately how long the presentation will be (your audience will be grateful).

Be certain to outline the presentation – do not script. The outline will help you stay focused. A script will lead you to memorize, which is not a successful or reliable technique for public speaking. Memorizing makes you focus way too much on the material, when you should be focusing on how it’s being presented. If you lose your place, it becomes a distraction – to you and to the audience. Prepare by rehearsing off the outline, or off the slides in your deck. That will make the presentation flow better, and sound more spontaneous and conversational. It’s also much easier for your audience to listen when your presentation doesn’t sound so rehearsed. Practice is the key.  

Make sure there are connections between the key points. If a presenter just announces what the next topic is, it’s not always clear what the relationship is to the previous segment. That relationship should be spelled out.  

A closing is not “Well, that’s it!” It’s a summation of the main points that have been covered. An audience should know what’s going to happen; what’s happening as the presentation unfolds and ultimately, what was covered. Make it easy for the audience. Remember – a successful presentation is geared to the audience. If that works, then the presenter looks good, which brings us back to the politics of professional presentations, which we discussed in Part 1.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss the actual mechanics of delivery, which as I mentioned early is probably the most important part of effective presentations.  


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