5 ways to dodge a presentation disaster

PR pros often make public speaking mistakes that would make them cringe if they saw their clients committing them. Don’t let that happen to you.

Scan any list of must-have skills for PR pros, and you’ll find one thing that is almost always absent is the ability to deliver a presentation.

Writing skills are high on almost every list, but shouldn’t the ability to express our thoughts out loud be as important as putting them on paper? Public speaking is integral to pitching new business, winning approval for programs and budgets, and contributing to meetings.

When you get to that point in your career where you’re invited to speak at industry events, your reputation as an expert rests in part on capturing and holding an audience’s attention. Expertise alone is not enough if you can’t make yourself understood.

Yet when I attend industry events, I see PR people committing the kinds of presentation errors that they would never let their clients make.

Their slides are dull and wordy, their stories meander, their content is unfocused, and their delivery is sloppy.

To find out if you’re part of the problem, ask yourself these questions:

• Do your slides consist mostly of black text on a white background?
• Have you ever uttered the phrase, “You can’t read this in back, but …”?
• Do you believe facts and logic are the keys to persuasion?
• Do you run over the allotted time or have to skip things to stay on schedule?
• Do you spend the first couple of minutes talking about yourself?
• Do you get questions you haven’t anticipated?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, check out these five things you can do to make your next presentation a success.

1. Make your visuals truly visual.

You should have no more than a handful of words on your slides. I average fewer than three per slide.

Keep in mind that your visuals are there to support what you say, not replace you. If everything is on the screen, why bother showing up? Just send a memo.

This is not new news. Steve Jobs showed us the way for years. Seth Godin has written a free, must-read guide on the subject.

Still, people persist in inflicting Death by PowerPoint. It’s mind-boggling. Take the time to do this one thing right, and you will automatically stand out from 90 percent of your peers.

2. Avoid the dreaded data dump.

As a presenter, you are not designed to be an information delivery vehicle. There are countless ways to convey information: memos, handouts, leave-behinds, websites.

Instead, you should spend most of your time focusing on the why, not the what:

• Why should the audience care?
• Why must this issue be dealt with now?
• Why is your idea or solution better?

You’re there to motivate, inspire, and get people to act—to do the thing you want them to do, whether it’s approving your idea, hiring your firm, or inviting you back for more.

3. Tell stories.

Facts and figures will get you only so far. If you want your ideas to stick, nothing beats a well-told story.

Just make sure you understand what a story is. People play fast and loose with the definition.

Just so we’re clear, a quote from Winston Churchill is not a story. A customer testimonial is often not a story. An anecdote is usually not a story.

Those things can be effective, but don’t have nearly as much impact as a full-fledged story with a relatable character at its center, a real conflict that resonates, and stakes that count.

4. Make it about them, not you.

What’s the first thing we do before planning any campaign or program? We study our audience, right?

The same thing applies for a speech or presentation. Find out who’s attending, and learn as much as you can about their needs, interests, doubts, fears, perceptions, and misperceptions.

Remember, you’re there to solve their problems.

Whatever you do, don’t spend the first few minutes talking about yourself and your stellar credentials. Give us a reason to care first by delivering some great content.

5. Practice, practice, practice.

I’ve heard PR people brag about showing up and just “winging it.” If this is you, I promise you that your natural instincts are not as good as you think.

One of the greatest speakers today, Nancy Duarte, spent 18 hours rehearsing one of her TED talks. She notes that a less experienced speaker may need more time.

Rehearsal is for everybody. Know your stuff backward and forward. Anticipate every possible objection. And please, please, please practice your technology before we get in the room.

I know what you’re thinking. “I’m not Steve Jobs, and this is no TED Talk. My presentation (or the subject matter or the venue) is not that important or worth this amount of effort.”

If that’s true, then you might want to reconsider doing the presentation at all. Speaking for your prospective audience, the world will be just fine without one more boring PowerPoint.

Rob Biesenbach (@RobBiesenbach)is a corporate communications professional who’s written hundreds of speeches for executives and is a public speaker himself. He’s just published a new book, “11 Deadly Presentation Sins: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers.”

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