The Lost Art of Presentations

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Bullet points—those undersung relics of PowerPoint—are beautiful. Used well, they cut to the chase. They encourage a forgotten ethic in this age of hype and spam: brevity.

Of course, people who give presentations often forget to be quick, boring their listeners with too many words, too many slides and a voice as rhythmic as a buzz saw. Maybe that’s what led writer Mark Twain (also a renowned public speaker) to claim he would never use three syllables where two would do. And it was Baltasar Gracian who said that “good things, when short, are twice as good.”

Thus a simple rule: When speaking, be brief. It makes for a good presentation, and good presentations drive sales. It’s just one lesson in the lost art of presenting.

Mouth Music
First and foremost, avoid jargon and acronyms. They’re far too common in our profession, where your ISP can have ASP and PHP, all in the same sentence.

If you feel an urge to say componentry instead of components, beat it back with a stick. And remember that an ecosystem is an ecological unit, not a synonym for your infrastructure, office, user group, or any other good word or phrase that it replaced. In that vein, don’t say “driving cost reduction” when you can say “saving money,” or “optimizing an enterprise business process” when “working better” is, well, better.

If you’re pitching to the CEO, not the CTO, make sure you explain that “unified threat management” simply means software that combines anti-virus, firewall and spyware detection. And bear in mind that few things are truly “world class” or “best-in-breed.” Those that are tend to be known for it: Bentleys, Michelle Kwan and Princeton come to mind. If what you’re touting is good but not sublime, don’t bloat yourself up and imply it. Humility, not hype, does wonders.

Look the Part
Now that you sound right, look right.

Start with graphic designers. They’ll make your presentations pop. And don’t worry if you can’t afford one, because there’s good software to choose from. Try Ovation by SeriousMagic (http://www.seriousmagic.com) or PowerPlugs by Crystal Graphics (http://www.crystalgraphics.com), neither of which is costly. Or just browse through Corbis.com or BigStockPhoto.com for vivid photos.

Last, remember to look good off screen, not just on it. Wear a business suit unless you’re speaking to people who only wear suits to funerals. And don’t forget the shoes … scuffed leather tells your prospects that you don’t care about details.

The Joy of Repetition
An English teacher once told me that practice is just a start. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect, she said. So don’t be afraid to be critical—of yourself above all. It’s hard, but it pays off.

Do you have a camcorder? Then use it: You’ll be shocked at how different you look on tape, which shows you how others see you. In fact, big public speaking programs, such as Toastmasters (http://www.toastmasters.org), often tape their students and show them the results, reviving them with smelling salts.

When speaking, it also helps to speak and not simply read your pre-printed notes, looking up at every other sentence like a gunner in a foxhole. A chatty, informal tone is best. No one likes a drudge. In fact a bit of humor can help, as long as you spangle it throughout your presentation, avoiding the dopey joke that most people start with.

Prove It
If you’re making a sales pitch or simply presenting to your boss, use some data to back up your claims. Think of it this way: You can say that your new intranet has reduced help-desk tickets and complaints, or you can say it’s reduced them by 42 percent in the last six weeks. Then flash up a graph with a lovely downward slope.

An assertion without hard data is just an opinion, and the world, I assure you, is full of opinions. They’re more common than flies. And that might be the best advice I can give you on the lost art of presenting: Stand out. Dare to be simple, short, humble and driven solely by facts.

If you do, you’ll be hard to refuse.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at dgarrett@certmag.com.

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