Get Your Message Across!

Proven methods for effective business presentations.

1999 Volume 2 Issue 3

Learn how to deliver information, gather information, and ask for a decision.

One person is standing in front of a large audience, remote control for the projector in hand, explaining the benefits of a new product. Another is intent on persuading the CEO of her company to approve the expansion of a business line for her department, while a third is conducting a telephone survey of attitudes about a proposed ballot measure. What is it that these three people have in common? Each is making a presentation.

Most people would have no difficulty understanding the first or second scenario as a type of presentation, but the third might seem more problematic. Yet the person conducting the survey must present the case that it is important for a complete stranger to take the time to talk with him or her about this topic, and then present the issue clearly enough that meaningful information is gathered. Each example is a form of presentation even though they differ in some key ways.

There are various ways in which one can categorize types of presentations, but for purposes here they will be divided into the following three types:

  1. Providing information
  2. Gathering information
  3. Persuading someone to make a decision or to take some action

Before stressing the different concerns for each type of presentation, it should be noted that certain principles apply across all of them.

  • Be very clear in your own mind what are you trying to accomplish with this presentation.
  • Keep it simple and focused.
  • If you are physically present with your audience, maintain eye contact. Read body language and adjust your presentation if necessary. If you are making a video presentation, make “eye contact” with the camera.
  • If your only contact is audio, e.g., a telephone conversation, work even harder at establishing a sense of connection with the respondent.

Providing Information

Providing information is frequently done by making a formal presentation to a large group, often with the aid of transparencies, slides, or a computer program such as PowerPoint. If you are planning this type of presentation, there are some specific things to consider…

  1. Preview the Room. It is very helpful to look over the venue ahead of time if at all possible. If you cannot personally inspect the room, ask for a photograph and for specific information about the sound system. Understanding the size and configuration of the room will help you understand how easy or difficult it will be to maintain eye contact with the entire audience, whether you will be able to hear questions from all parts of the room, and whether you can successfully use traditional visual aids. If part of the audience is at too much of an angle to read a screen, you can not rely on a visual presentation to get your information across. Knowing the room will help you decide whether you can move around or will be confined to a podium. That may determine whether the presentation is a more traditional lecture or whether you can incorporate some audience participation. If people will have to turn their chairs away from a table in order to see you, that may limit the likelihood of their taking many notes. Understanding these things ahead of time can aid in your planning for the most effective way to make sure that your information is heard and remembered.
  2. Limit the number of points per transparency or slide. If you do choose to use a visual aid, do not put too much information on one slide. Use no more than five points per slide. Three is probably better. With more than three points, the font size becomes too small for people in the back of room to read it. The slide also looks so “busy” that people’s minds are apt to wander rather than focus.
  3. Limit the number of slides per presentation. Although not a hard and fast rule, generally you should count on allowing three to four minutes per slide. Therefore, for a 25 minute presentation you may need only seven or eight slides, especially if you are leaving time for questions.
  4. Use graphics when they help make your point. Interesting graphics can help tell the story, can insert a bit of humor, or can make the presentation easier to understand. But they need to be relevant. When you need to use statistics, charts or graphs are easier for most people to grasp than rows of numbers.
  5. Face the audience rather than the screen. If you need to remind yourself of what is on the slides, use cards that you can hold in your hand. This goes back to the idea of maintaining eye contact and rapport with your audience. Also, do not read either the screen or your notes. Refer to them.
  6. Inject humor (maybe). Humor often helps keep the audience interested and makes you seem more human. But it should be something you do naturally, something that is appropriate for the particular audience, and relevant to your point. It also needs to be limited enough that it does not become the focal point of the presentation. If all the audience remembers at the end of the presentation are your funny stories, you haven’t really done your job.
  7. Consider providing written handouts. If you are presenting information that audience members will need later, provide handouts that contain the key points or data. Organize it to match your presentation and then provide space for the listener to take notes or jot down questions that he or she might want to ask later. Having to prepare handouts also has the advantage of making you really prepare well.
  8. State up-front how you want to handle questions and comments. If you want people to wait to the end of the presentation to ask questions, say so at the beginning. That way the listener can concentrate on what you are saying rather than concentrating on how to break in with a question. If, however, you prefer to take questions as you go, specify that and then stop regularly to ask for feedback.
  9. Be prepared so you will be confident!

Gathering Information

Forms of this type of presentation include such things as one-on-one interviews, focus groups, brainstorming, or breakout sections. Because the “audience” plays such a role in this type of presentation and can so easily take the session off in an unanticipated direction, it is especially important to have a very clear focus on what you want to accomplish.

  1. Recognize how perishable the opportunity is. In most cases you will not get this same group of people together again, or you will not reach the same individual for another interview. You must gather the information you need while you have this opportunity. Therefore it is very important that the design of your presentation be as clear and focused as it can possibly be.
  2. Pre-test your questions. Whatever the form of the questions, try them out first. You may be surprised by how they are interpreted by others. If you cannot be understood or are asking unanswerable questions, you will not obtain the information you need.
  3. Practice the process. Even if you have the right questions but don’t provide sufficient opportunity for response, you will lose information. Being able to effectively use “follow-up” questions or probes is also a learned skill that can be improved with practice.
  4. Check your location and physical setting. The setting can definitely influence the nature of the conversation or response. Unless you are doing a police interrogation (which is a form of gathering information), try to make sure that your respondents are physically comfortable, and are not distracted by other noise, movement or light in their eyes.
  5. Keep it simple. If you try to gather too much information, you are likely to miss what you really need. Plan your design carefully and then stay focused.
  6. Be brief. There is a limited amount of time that you will have. Make sure that you get what you need during that time.

Persuading or Obtaining a Decision

As business managers, this is one of the more frequent forms of presentation that you will use. You may be trying to persuade your employees to work together toward some goal, or your supervisor to support your division’s budget, or maybe an outside supplier or customer to sign a contract. In all of those situations you are making a presentation with the goal of persuading someone to accept your point of view.

  1. Be very clear about who actually makes the decision. Know who can make the final decision you need. Plan your presentation for that person or group and then plan how to reach that person.
  2. Reverse engineer the decision. Know the outcome that you need, then think back through the processes that need to happen to reach that objective and design your presentation strategy to take account of those steps. This may mean persuading various gatekeepers and potential supporters or competitors along the way. Plan persuasive presentations for each of them that target the decision that person can make. If the secretary is the gatekeeper you have to persuade in order to get an appointment, know that the decision you need from him or her is an appointment, not approval of your plan.
  3. Progressively move toward the decision. When making your presentation to the final decision-maker, beware of falling into the trap of unrelated topics. Decision-makers may set those traps deliberately or unwittingly. Avoid them. Keep your focus on your end goal.
  4. Ask for the decision. If you have had sales training, you know that it is important to be specific about the request. It is also difficult for many people at first, but it is critical. Make it easy for the decision-maker to make the decision. Make reaching a decision a part of your presentation planning.
  5. Don’t be obscure – and don’t let the decision-maker remain obscure. If the decision-maker requests more information or more time, try to get a definite commitment regarding a final decision time. “If I get this information to you by noon tomorrow, would you be able to make a decision by tomorrow afternoon?” Don’t leave with things in an ambiguous state.
  6. Know that you are working against a deadline. If you don’t persuade the person today, you open the opportunity for someone else to persuade him or her to take a different course tomorrow.
  7. Finally, learn from every type of presentation. If you only provided information when you meant to persuade, figure out what happened and make it a learning experience. Persuade yourself that you can do it better next time, and then do so.

About the Author(s)

Robert Canady, DBA

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