3 keys to your small yet vitally important workplace presentation

That meeting with a top exec or client could have huge repercussions for your organization, your department and your own career. Avoid this trio of blunders to ensure success.

You have an important meeting at work—giving a quarterly report, trying to sell a huge client or talking to the big boss.

You start prepping by reading up on public speaking tips. Then you remember that there’s no stage at work. No microphone. No TED logo (unless you work at TED).

Instead it’s you and the senior vice president in a small conference room with no windows and the stench of a decaying apple core in the waste bin.

The vast majority of public speaking advice is focused on how to give a formal speech to a huge crowd. At work, though, you’re probably giving project status reports, budget updates, marketing plans, a financial analysis, sales pitches to small groups, and updates to your boss’s boss.

Work presentations are primarily intended to inform and persuade—rather than to entertain and inspire. They are given to small groups, seated in an intimate setting (not to crowds in an auditorium, standing up). They tend to be detail-focused and data-intensive, with assertions proven with facts and with far less reliance on anecdotes. Finally, they are rooted in a clear, logical structure—as opposed to a performance.

What does all this mean? It means that a lot of the traditional public speaking presentation tips will steer you off course. That doesn’t mean you should ditch the PowerPoint and the eye contact; it does mean you should cater to your small audience’s needs.

Here’s how to do that:

1. Do not lead with a joke.

“Hey, boss, did you hear the one about the priest and the rabbi?”

Remember, your discussion with your supervisor, customer or colleagues is not your debut at The Improv. Instead of writing jokes, spend time identifying the question the other person wants you to answer. Write out your answer in advance in the form of slides.

Don’t wing it. If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to do well. Write a voiceover script to accompany your slides. This script shouldn’t be a verbatim copy of what’s in the presentation; instead it should be a translation and an elaboration.

Finally, map out in advance what you want your audience to do at the end of the meeting, after you’ve answered their question(s).

2. Don’t create overly simple slides.

You’ve probably heard (over and over) that slides should be simple—the simpler the better.

However, your manager and your clients don’t want mere simplicity; they want clarity. Your slides should be clear; that’s much more useful than simplicity for simplicity’s sake. Most times, this will require more than eight words and an image—maybe a graph and some data. Remember, if it’s for internal use, you can send the presentation around after the fact—all the more reason to include more information.

Make sure the slides contain a single core message in the headline, with evidence supporting the main idea. Use a minimalist design to focus the audience’s attention on your answer to their question—not on how pretty your deck is.

Display quantitative data and other evidence in simple and clean charts. Read up on how to eliminate chartjunk. Include enough text so the presentation can be read in advance and understood.

3. Don’t obsess over delivery.

“Project your voice.” “Make eye contact.” “Smile!'” “Pause for at least 10 seconds for dramatic effect.” “Speak unusually slowly.” “Share a genuinely emotional story.” “Be aware of your body language.” “Gargle.”

This isn’t bad advice; it just misses the mark in terms of relevance.

Before you enroll in voice coaching lessons to improve your diction and projection, try following this four-step list:

1. Identify who your audience is.

2. Profile them. Understand who the decision makers are, how decisions get made, how the audience likes to be spoken to, how they like to consume information.

3. Determine why you are speaking to them.

4. Identify the question for which you will develop an answer. Often this is the presentation topic. Re-frame the topic as a question you’ll answer. In other words, “marketing plan” will translate to: How do we increase revenue by 25 percent next year?

  • Determine what your answer to their question will be.
  • Do the analysis, thinking and work required to develop a complete answer.
  • Decide how best to communicate that answer.

Obsess about how you structure your thinking. Use concepts like the Rule of Three; Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE), and the Pyramid Principle to create this structure and organize your ideas.

Those important workplace presentations—regardless of size—are a key part of your communication skills. Work hard to excel at them, and your career will take off.

Michael Smith is the founder of SlideHeroes. A version of this post originally ran on The Muse.


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