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How to Prepare to Deliver Killer Business Presentations

For those of you who have important business presentations coming up, here are my thoughts on how to best prepare. Sorry for the novel, but this is an important thing to get right, both for your career progression and for the sanity of your audience. 

First, let’s acknowledge that most presentations in business today are mediocre at best. As I write this, there are thousands of people across the world today, standing in conference rooms or auditoriums, giving dismal presentations. If you have worked in a big company for more than six months, you know exactly what I mean.

This is not a question of talent; it’s a question of preparation. Everyone, from newly minted employees to experienced executives can sniff out an unprepared presentation within the first couple of minutes. While I am a proponent of “fake it ‘til you make it” in some circumstances, a business presentation is not the time to wing it—especially formal business presentations with larger audiences. There is simply no substitute for setting aside time to prepare for an important presentation. Here are 6 steps I like take to prepare myself for presentations that matter.

Step One: Learn About Your Audience

Every aspect of your presentation should be tailored to meet the unique needs of your audience. It’s not enough to just know that you will be presenting to a large group of people in the finance department. To really be successful, you’ll need to go deeper. Ask the following questions:

  • Who am I presenting to? Get the basics, like the number of people, age, gender, and how they fit into the hierarchy of their organization.

  • How familiar are they with the subject? You want to know their level of expertise because it will drastically influence your how deep and broad you go into a subject. Presenting about finance to a group of elementary students will take a much different direction than if you were to present to a group of money managers.

  • Why are they attending the presentation? Find out if this is voluntary or a mandatory meeting for them. This will help you gauge their true interest and engagement in the subject.

  • Is there anyone in your audience that you I should watch out for? This question helps you understand whether there is someone in our presentation that can “derail” you. For example, suppose you are making a presentation about effective selling to a group of life insurance agents. Will there be a 30-year veteran of the industry that has no problem interrupting you to assert his opinion? This person could be your best friend during the presentation, or he could become completely distracting—but at least knowing that he is in the audience will help you develop a strategy.

  • Is there anyone in the audience that can be my advocate? Is there someone in the audience that commands credibility other members of the audience? Think about ways they can help you. Perhaps they can share a story during the presentation or give you an endorsement before you present.

  • What are their motivations? Do they even want to be there? Is there a way you can pique their interest in the beginning and incent them to listen?

Step Two: Develop a focused-objective

“Focused” is the key word here. This may sound simple, but can you remember the last time you heard a presentation that laid out a crystal clear objective in the first couple of minutes?

Do not try to accomplish too much by creating multiple objectives; most presenters try to do this and wind up delivering diluted and unmemorable content. The reality is that if your audience actually remembers your key message a few days after your presentation, you have done well. If they actually do something different as a result of your presentation, you have done excellent. The more clear and focused your objective, the great the probability that your audience will remember and act on what you say.

As a tool to help you focus your objective, use the following objective statement: “The Purpose of my presentation is to get {fill in the blank} to do {fill in the blank} as a result of {fill in the blank}.  This will ensure that your objective is focused and tight, because it describes exactly what you are trying to accomplish and how you are trying to accomplish it. Using and objective statement will help you turn a good objective into a great objective. Here are some examples of an average objective turned great through this tool:                                                              


Average Objective: Help the tech support employees better understand customer service

Great Objective: Inspire the tech support employees to achieve excellence in customer service by showing them the benefit of powerful customer service principles

Average Objective: Teach high school kids about the dangers of drug use

Great Objective: Get current drug users to quit using by showing them the examples of the horrible consequences of using drugs.

Average Objective: Tell the members of my church congregation about the service trip to Guatemala this summer

Great Objective: Persuade 25% of my congregation to sign up for the service trip to Guatemala by sharing emotional and inspiring stories of last year’s trip.

Step Three: Create Your Content

This is where most presentations fall apart. Content that looks good on paper doesn’t always work in presentations. Here are some steps to create engaging and simple content that works in front of a crowd:

  • Create a Unique Title: Don’t wait until you start your presentation to capture your audience’s attention; start immediately with a great title. For example, a presentation about airplane safety could simply read “airplane safety procedures,” but wouldn’t it be better if it said, “the 5 things that will save your life on an airplane.” The first one sounds like a snoozer; the second sounds like it may save my life someday.

  • Use Variation: Never forget that entertainment and engagement comes first. If you can’t keep them interested, you’ll never be able to teach them anything, much less inspire them to action. To achieve this, consider using a variety of presentation methods in your presentation. These include questions to the audience, pictures, charts and graphs, music, short film clips, and relevant quotes.

  • Put PowerPoint in its place: How many presentations have you been to where the presenter simply puts verbose PowerPoint slides on a projector, and then proceeds to read every single word on each slide? Welcome to corporate America! While PowerPoint—or some other form of presentation software—can enhance your presentation, it should never drive it. Your presentation is all about you, and your content should be so good that you could deliver it without the crutch of PowerPoint and still have a successful presentation.

If you must use PowerPoint:

  • Use few words

  • Use really, really large font

  • Give every slide a key point that is easy to understand and builds on your objective

  • Use simple charts that can be easily explained

You don’t have to spell it all out for your audience on a PowerPoint slide. They don’t want to read your presentation, and they certainly don’t want to hear you read it. Make your slides work together with what you say to deliver the complete package. Some of the best presentations that I have seen are simply images, with people talking over them—great presentations with zero words!

  • Tell stories: Stories are more memorable than facts. Stories are more engaging than facts. Many times, stories are even more persuasive than facts.

Step Four: Gut Check Your Content for Simplicity

Your presentation will be excellent only when every member of your audience understands and engages with your content. Never assume that your audience will just “get it.” Cater to the lowest common denominator by asking yourself “will the dumbest person in the audience get this?” One way to make sure everyone gets it is to have someone read it that has no background on the subject. I like to have my wife critique my work presentations (not because she is dumb, but because she usually is not familiar with the subject and will give me honest feedback.)

Step Five: Presell to the Key Stakeholders

Failing to show your work to key people before you make your presentation means risk of derailment during your presentation. Business executives don’t like surprises when the stakes are high—especially negative ones. They like good news, but even then, they would rather know about it in advance. Everyone wants to look good in front of their coworkers and boss; when you surprise people in presentations, it’s like backing tigers into a corner.

It is difficult to know which pieces of information will surprise people in your presentation, but here are some clues that your presentation may get some people uncomfortable:

  • When you are forecasting numbers that could lead to commitments.

  • When your boss is attending

  • When your boss’ boss is attending

  • When key people in other departments are attending

  • When you are trying to get people to change from the way things have always been done

  • When you are showing poor business results from either your department or a department in which people are attending the meeting

Step Six: Practice more than you think is needed

The final step in your preparation is to practice until there is no doubt that you will be successful. Practice until you have nearly memorized your talking points. Practice until you know that even if the electricity went out and you had to deliver your presentation by candlelight without any sort of electronic assistance, that you could still do it well. With sufficient practice comes sufficient confidence. There is a different between having pre-presentation jitters, and just being plain scared that you’ve underprepared. Practice eradicates fear.

Again, remember that excellent presentations are the result of excellent preparation. Whether you agree with all my steps or not, I challenge you to set aside time to prepare for your next formal business presentation and watch the difference it makes.                                    


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