It was a late Tuesday afternoon when I found myself in a boardroom of one of the largest companies in the world, getting ready to meet with a group of executives and present Behance’s research and best practices on execution. I was nervous. Despite the fact that I have a book coming out on the topic and have presented hundreds of times at creative industry conferences and companies, I felt particularly anxious about this presentation.
Why? Because I had been told that this was “generally a very skeptical group.” Of course, high-performing executives have high expectations and very little tolerance for ambiguity. But, in my preparatory meetings for this engagement in particular, everyone kept using the words “cynical” and “aggressive” to describe the group.
Ultimately, the meeting went well, but the group kept me on my toes. Upon reflection and after soliciting some advice from a few great presenters I know, I've gathered a few tips to keep in mind when presenting to a tough audience.
1. State a measurable and achievable goal up front. For me, I simply stated that my goal was to have everyone leave with just 2-3 things that, starting tomorrow, they could start doing (or do differently) that would help them with the business.
2. Acknowledge the audience, their importance, and their time. If you’re meeting with a high-performing team – or very stressed and busy people – you should acknowledge this up front. Time is precious and attention spans are short. You will gain respect by acknowledging the sacrifices that the team made to attend.
3. Check-in with the group throughout the presentation. Occasionally “checking in” with the group means asking questions like “how does this relate to your situation” and “anything strike you about that particular point?” With quick questions, you can keep the group engaged and, for small groups, increase the amount of questions and conversation.
4. Learn and speak the local language. Before speaking to a group, you should learn the company’s common acronyms. When people say SAB (School Advisory Board) and the MC (Management Committee), you should know what they mean. And you should know the names of the leaders, departments, and the various businesses. With this knowledge, you should use it to make your points hit home and tune into the conversations of the group.
5. Use industry-specific and, if possible, company specific examples. Before going in, you should have some case studies to cite. An obvious best practice of any consulting engagement is to ask tons of questions up front. Be sure to get examples of the problems and needs you are trying to address with your presentation.
6. Upon conclusion, summarize and provide perspective. Try to always end a presentation by “bringing home” the content. Restate the few crucial points that you want people to leave with. Great presentations also end with context. Talk about how your points might relate to everyday life and opportunities on the horizon. When your presentation comes to an end, ask for questions. If you don't get any, ask for reactions. The best presentations always end with discussion, whether it is formal or informal.
***This article is based on research by Behance CEO Scott Belsky, whose book, Making Ideas Happen, will be published by Penguin in April 2010. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think thank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.