Designing and delivering a live presentation either in person or virtually is a challenge for most of us. The spoken communication channel is wide and complicated, and a formal presentation ranks up there with the most complex forms of spoken communication. You have many variables to remember and to try to control. Obviously, you have to remember your content, but you also must be continually conscious of your audience—whom they are, your relationship with them (or not), their particular expectations, preconceptions and agenda; your visual support and how to manage it; special attributes of the venue in which you are delivering your message; the size of your audience; the technology that you need to use to deliver the presentation—the list goes on and on. In addition, you need to be able to think on your feet and respond appropriately to questions and distractions.
Not surprisingly, a perfect presentation is difficult to achieve, and after many years of teaching and presenting to corporate and other groups, I have rarely, if ever, delivered a presentation that I consider to be completely error free. However, I have found it helpful to be aware of some of the more critical presentation errors that can interfere with your achieving the goals of your communication. No matter how capable a presenter you may be, your success or failure begins with how you construct your presentation. Here are five common design mistakes to avoid.
Creating a nondescript or generic opening and ending
We all know that audience’s attention spans are getting short and more fragmented all the time. When someone comes to listen to your presentation, many things are competing with your message in their minds. Perhaps someone just had an unpleasant encounter with a customer. Another audience member may be overwhelmed with projects and frustrated about having to take the time away from the urgent issues. Others may not be sure exactly why they are there and are attending on the advice or orders of someone else. Still other people in the audience may feel that they already know enough about your topic.
Further, we know that audience’s will forget (or not hear at all) about half of what you tell them by the time you end your presentation, and another 50% will evaporate from their memory in the next few hours. However, the highest audience attention and retention take place at the beginning and end of your presentation, and you need to leverage that reality to make the most of their attention. Unfortunately, many of our beginnings are lackluster, starting with something like “Today I’m going to talk about. . . .” You need to capture your audience’s attention with a beginning that intrigues them and makes them want to know more—very much like a movie trailer.
So, avoid the ‘Today I’m going to talk about . . .” beginning and the “This concludes my presentation. Any questions?” ending. Think of ways to engage the audience and send them away feeling that they have received great value.
You have a number of choices for beginnings and endings. You can surface the issue with startling statistics, thought-provoking questions, or stories either personal or about the company or the topic. Perhaps you want to project into the future or define success if your presentation is going to be about how to move the audience forward in its thinking and behavior. Different openings lend themselves to different topics, as do powerful endings, so you need to think about what will work.
As for your endings, you can use some of the same techniques as the beginnings. Remember, however, that one of the unspoken questions that every audience is subconsciously asking is “What do you want me to do?” along with “How does it affect me?” If our ending can incorporate an answer to one or both of these questions, you can be assured that the audience will retain more of what you had to say. For example, you could end by emphasizing the benefits that the audience can receive from accepting your proposal or the possible consequences that may occur if the audience fails to take action.
Failing to show early how your presentation is going to benefit the audience
Speaking of benefits, you need to make sure that early in your presentation, you need to connect your message to the audience and its needs. Immediately following your attention-getting opening, you should show your audience why this presentation is going to be a good use of their time. Even if you don’t know this audience well, you know generally some issues that most people face. Recognizing the possible struggles and challenges of the audience, either individually or as an organization, can go a long way toward creating not only a bond between you and the audience but also enticing the audience to pay extra attention to what you have to say.
For example, you might say, “I know that many of you have been frustrated by the apparent breakdown in the supply chain. I am going to show you how to avoid some of the difficulties that you are encountering and give you some ways to fix minor problems on your own.”
Or perhaps you are addressing a group in a company that is facing some major changes. You can start your presentation with something such as “You have been hearing a lot of rumors about coming changes to our company. Although I don’t have all the answers, I will share what I know with you and give you some pointers on how to prepare for and navigate the next few months as well as some contacts to help you understand things in more detail.
The point here is that the beginning of your presentation should be more about them than about you. Far too many presenters begin their presentations either talking about themselves or their company. I don’t know of many turnoffs more acute than beginning a presentation with the history of the company.
Of course, you may want to integrate some points about the company’s history and accomplishments throughout the presentation, but a canned history that talks about how many offices, how many employees, and a plethora of dates and statistics will not have your audience eager to learn more.
Ignoring cultural differences and learning styles
Is the language in which you are presenting the first language of your audience or is it a second or third language for some of your audience members? Will the audience understand idioms, such as “We need to touch base,” or “You should know in a split second,” or “It’s a double-edged sword”? Will your audience respond to your attempts at humor? Is your audience primarily open to the direct hard sell, or do the participants’ cultures respond to a less aggressive relationship-building approach?
Being aware of cultural differences (including corporate cultures) can be critical in help you deliver a successful message.
Further, your audience will consist of people who think and learn in different ways. Some of your listeners are more abstract thinkers who respond to theories and complex concepts. Others need something more concrete and real world to help them connect with your message. For that reason, you need to make sure that you balance concepts with examples and applications—how can the audience use this information?
Failing to anticipate and address resistance
All communication at some level is persuasive. Even if you are presenting the latest sales figures or budget information, you still want your audience to believe you, to consider you as a credible source, and to respond to your information in the way that you want them to act, think, or decide. When you are dealing with an audience with different perspectives, agendas, approaches, and personal goals, it’s unrealistic to ignore the fact that your presentation may encounter some resistance—even mild disagreement. Resistance can come from different sources: They don’t know you. They don’t like or trust you. They don’t think that they “need” what you are proposing. They think it will “cost too much” (not simply currency but also time, effort, training, resources, and other elements). They like the idea, but “not right now.”
For that reason, as you design your presentation, you need to anticipate possible resistance and have a way to address it. Sometimes the resistance may be a counter-persuasive argument. Acknowledge that there may be other approaches to solving a problem or achieving a goal, but then tell your audience why your approach is the best one for them.
You may also predict that one part of your proposal may be the roadblock, perhaps cost or time-limits. If possible, find a way to make a particular aspect of the resistance more acceptable.
You may think that bringing up points of resistance may alert the audience to something they hadn’t thought about. But, in most cases, ignoring possible resistance gives the audience the opportunity to think about their disagreements throughout the presentation, without any rebuttal on your part. Addressing possible resistance also makes you come across as credible and knowledgeable and someone who respects the audience’s ability to see things from a different perspective.
Including too much information to present in your allotted time.
A key element of your presentation design involves the information that you choose to present. Obviously, you will know much more about the topic than you can share with the audience in a limited time. Presentations are a hybrid creation—part speech, part conversation if you have informal audience interaction, part performance as you manage the environment and media, and part meeting, which generally has a begin and end time. Busy executives allot a certain amount of time to a presentation, and when the presenter exceeds that time, the audience’s frustration can erase much of the good will and rapport that the presenter has built.
Even though you think you need to give your audience everything about a topic, know that time limitations and limited attention spans are working against you. A key element in a presentation’s success is managing your time and not overloading your audience with more information than they can process in your allotted time.
Of course, other factors can also contribute to the success of your presentation design, but making sure that you avoid these critical mistakes can build an effective framework that will enable you to develop a presentation that has a firm foundation to get your message across in a way that appeals to your audience and advances your agenda.