Today I am going to tell you about…This, the experts tell me, is the worst possible way to begin a presentation. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but apparently when we get up to speak we shouldn’t be trying to tell anyone anything. Oh no. Rookie mistake. The goal here should be shared understanding: a conversation not a speech, a message (or messages) conveyed, received and taken away.
Simple, isn’t it? But not for the thousands of executives who step up to the lectern of fear every day to launch the next dire, life-sapping, career-jeopardising presentation.
Why are so many of us so bad at doing these presentations? According to James Caplin, author of the newly published primer I Hate Presentations – I think we get his message – too many presenters are stuck in the school-essay mindset of imparting information. This involves telling a long story about the past (“how we got here”), the present (“where we are now”) and the future (“where we are going”). The whole thing is dull and lifeless. It patronises and bores the audience.
The school-essay presentation is always packed with too much data, in the hope that colleagues will see that the presenter has done lots of hard work and knows what he is talking about. Slide after deadly slide pops up on the screen, containing too many words and too many bullet points – which are, in any case, too hard to read.
The last two presentations I actually enjoyed and remember anything about contained very few slides. And the ones they did use had hardly any words on them. One speaker offered only pictures and no text. This allowed her to create and sustain the illusion of spontaneity.
This is rather like what Apple’s Steve Jobs – perhaps the business world’s greatest presenter – does. He rehearses hard for many hours, and ends up knowing exactly what he is going to say and when. And yet the ultimate aim of his presentations is to make one very simple point: about the amazing functionality of his iPhone, or the slimness of his new laptop.
His slides and visual prompts may be minimalist, but he achieves the maximum possible impact.
OK, so it may be a bit easier to command people’s attention when unveiling the latest bit of must-have Apple kit than, say, explaining to the board why you need to relocate a manufacturing site, but the challenge is the same. How can you take people with you and get your message across? (Without resorting to the crude methods of George Bush senior, who once declared in the middle of a campaign speech: “Message – I care!”)
We need, Mr Caplin says, to understand the difference between being interesting to an audience and being interested in them. “If you approach [your presentation] from the point of view of being interesting to the audience, you’ll become little more than someone doing an act. If, however, your audience senses that you are interested in them, you are on your way to establishing a bond between you.”
The greatest speaker I have ever seen is Bill Clinton. At an event in London a couple of years ago I watched him conduct an intimate conversation with a roomful of about 1,000 very clever and rather self-important people. (Mr Caplin sees presentations as belonging to a different category from public speaking, but the lessons are relevant all the same.)
President Clinton was humble, ever so ’umble, as he began his speech. He spoke slowly, as if struggling to summon up the energy to make his case. He took us through his argument – about the troubling state of the world and what we needed to do about it – steadily. And he flattered us, ending on a cheerful, upbeat note, challenging the audience to be optimistic about the future.
The extraordinary thing was that the speech felt like a dialogue.
It was as though he had been able to tune in to my thoughts. The rest of the audience seemed to have experienced something similar. He was interested in us, not trying to be interesting to us. His talk was about us, not him.
Clinton, Jobs… you’re on next. No pressure. Anyway, nerves are good. They show that you are taking your audience seriously.
How to start? Jokes – funny ones – can work. But make sure you try them out on a range of people first. Perhaps you could refer to a topical event to help get you going. Mr Caplin makes a sensible, journalistic point. “With practice, almost any bit of news can be used as a hook to introduce almost any presentation.”
But don’t use up all your nervous energy worrying about the beginning. The ending matters at least as much. So start with the end in mind. “What do you want people to think, feel or do as a result of all this?” asks Andrew Mallett of the consultancy Present Action.
A strong ending will stay with people and may deter stupid questions. Make sure to save something special to finish with.
And so, my fellow FT readers: ask not what your presentation can do for you, ask how your business will benefit from your presentation.
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