Don't underestimate the value of preparation in almost any endeavor. When it comes to delivering a knockout presentation, preparation can be the most crucial part. We all know the usual advice on preparing for an important presentation, which includes practicing the presentation out loud, rehearsing in front of an audience of friends or colleagues, working from an outline rather than a script, practicing piece by piece and videotaping our rehearsal to ensure that we have a good presence in the front of the room.
When we are crunched for time—as many people are—there may be an important aspect of the preparation that ends up being neglected: a careful analysis of the best structure for presenting our message.The old axiom, "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them" may not be the most effective choice for every presentation. For some, such as executive level audiences, telling them what you just told them is unnecessary, may bore them and is probably a waste of precious face time with a hard-to-reach audience. Rather than a rehash of what you just said, you can use that time for a call to action.
Here are 10 essential tips on how to present your message strategically to help achieve your goals:
1. Look at the big picture.
When you recommend a particular strategy, don't just tie it to the goals and objectives. Consider taking a step back and think how it fits with the overall vision, especially when you are presenting to a C-level audience. While you are talking about the trees, they are most likely thinking about the forest. Take off your operational hat and adopt a strategic hat while you are crafting your message so you don't miss that crucial part. Start by talking about the vision, goals and objectives, explain why the current situation is not aligned with the vision, goals and objectives, outline the available options, make the recommendation, and end with the call to action.
2. Deliver bad news upfront.
If you are delivering bad news to an executive audience, don't waste time in preambles. When an audience hears bad news in midstream, it may have a negative emotional effect. The audience may feel that they have been set up, and no one likes to be caught by surprise. Get to the point quickly. Follow up with a recommended solution.
3. Use the three-part consultant template.
Here is a simple but powerful template that consultants often use. It presents information in a three-part format:
- Why there is a problem
- What your client must do about it
- How you are uniquely positioned to solve the problem
4. Focus on the "why" for your conclusions.
When you are called upon to present an opinion or a recommendation, don't waste too much time focusing on how you arrived at your conclusions. Focus instead on what you are proposing, and why. As Scott Elbin put it in The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, focusing too much on how you came to your conclusion is risking "getting labeled as someone who, when asked for the time, explains how to build a watch." Stay on the recommendations and their implications, and abandon the mechanics of how you arrived at them. You can address this aspect if it comes up in the question or discussion period.
5. Use the OBN framework.
This framework may be particularly effective with busy, executive audiences. It follows a formula of Opportunity, Benefits and Numbers. You quickly outline what the opportunity is, you segue to an outline of the benefits—what we stand to gain—and you follow up with the proof by showing them the numbers. This simple template can help reduce the complexity of your message and pares down the facts you might otherwise be tempted to add. The more you add, the more you risk diluting the power of the message. There is wisdom and impact in simplification.
6. Talk about them before you talk about you.
Entrepreneurs who are not sales professionals may get unwittingly derailed in a sales presentation by driving too quickly into an explanation of their product or service. Seasoned sales professionals, on the other hand, know that it is always best to start with the client's needs or problems. Show that you have done your homework, and that you understand your client's world. Start by asking questions to probe deeper. This attention to their story may have a boomerang effect. It may predispose them to be more attentive to your followup message—your outline of your product or services and features. Unless you are presenting to engineers or other technical people, consider minimizing the discussion of features and focus more on the strengths or benefits. Spend less time on explaining processes and more on results. You are now likely ready to outline a cost analysis and a call to action.
7. Take into account some principles of persuasion.
It can pay to have a few persuasion tools in your speaking kit. For example, if you are trying to convince someone to buy your product or service, should you appeal to greed (what they stand to gain if they buy your product or service) or should you appeal to loss (what they stand to lose if they don't buy your product or service). The answer is often to appeal to loss. Should you include testimonials from clients who are similar in size to your prospect? Or should you refer to bigger clients to impress them? The answer is clients who are similar in size, as this taps into the principle of social proof: We tend to follow the lead of those who are similar to us. These principles of persuasion, and many more, come from one of the top scholars of persuasion, Robert Cialdini.
8. Pre-plan transitions.
As you move from one section of your presentation to the next, consider your transitions. Transitions are connecting words or phrases that keep your story flowing smoothly from beginning to end. Transitions show your train of thought and serve as signposts that guide your listeners and maintain their attention. Practice the transitions, as they may be forgotten in the throes of the presentation. Use this comprehensive list of transitions as a starting point.
9. Include effective supporting material.
Most presenters justify their points with a variety of supporting materials such as statistics, visuals, white papers, references, testimony, charts and graphs, or anecdotes. But one thing that is frequently neglected is providing an example. Examples are one of the most powerful supporting materials; they provide instant clarity to help the audience understand a complex issue. It's generally best to limit yourself to brief, actual examples, rather than hypothetical ones—"what if" scenarios. Unless you have some solid information to back these up, they can be easily shot down as being merely speculative. This is another area that requires careful preparation beforehand.
10. Plan the order.
When you present variously priced items, should you start with the least expensive and move on to the most expensive, or the other way around? Some studies show that you can elicit more positive responses when you present the information in descending order, starting from the higher-priced. These positive responses include a higher perception of value and a higher purchase probability. The initial higher price serves as an anchor or reference point that makes the other prices appear more reasonable. As a result, the average price that consumers are willing to pay is higher than if the information was presented in ascending order. As another example, when you have various evidence to support your point, it's not always advantageous to lead with your strongest evidence. In some cases, you may want to leave your most compelling evidence for the end. Use your judgment, but don't leave the issue to chance. As with any influencing strategy, it needs to be used with integrity, not to manipulate people into buying what they don't need, but to aid in closing business to everyone's advantage.
A version of this article was originally published on June 11, 2013.