Your presentation skills can be the key that unlocks what you crave: new business, new relationships, new brand fans. But there's more to giving a great business presentation than building some slides and getting into a room. There's an art to it.
As someone who's earned at least 50 percent of her living from performing and pitching—in one sense or another—for well over 10 years, I'm an ongoing student of that art. Today, I'm going to connect you with professionals who can help you hone your art with presentation tips cultivated from years of learning the hard way: by actually doing it.
Whether you're selling or simply conveying a message that needs sharing, these professionals have presentation tips for speakers of any level:
Ian Altman: author of Same Side Selling: A Radical Approach to Break Through Sales Barriers and keynote speaker on integrity-based selling and communication.
Mark Bowman: co-founder of Truthplane, an organization that helps people boost their presentation skills.
Judson Laipply: an inspirational comedian with over 20 years experience speaking to audiences all over the world about identity, standing out and change management.
1. Try speaking to a younger audience to work on your presentation skills.
It might seem counterintuitive, but Laipply's a big fan of taking your favorite speaking topics and breaking them down for a younger audience. And he means younger.
"Go present to a young crowd—elementary students at story time, Sunday school classes, local libraries," Laipply says. "It does two things. First, it forces you to use storytelling techniques—vocal variation, word emphasis, eye contact, hand gestures that are inviting. Secondly, it makes you boil your idea and points down to a level they can understand.
"While you might not use that language in your pitch or presentation," he continues, "it gives you a much better grasp of your subject matter. If you can keep young kids engaged, you can keep adults engaged."
2. Tell your audience a story during your presentation.
Whether pitching or presenting, there's structure to a story. Giving your presentation a beginning, middle and end is only part of it, however. Altman says that getting personal (on-topic, of course) can help make you memorable.
—Ian Altman, author and keynote speaker
"It's amazing to me how I'll meet an audience member who saw me speak years ago, and they remember the details of stories with amazing clarity," says Altman. "They never remember details about research or numbers."
You may want to think about a story from your business or life that can support your message. This type of storytelling can involve your audience on a more personal level with you, your worth, and your message.
3. Craft your pitch for your allotted time.
Telling a big story or pitching a big idea in 15 minutes can be a daunting task. Filling an hour with fluff because you lack substance can be a pitfall, too. So how do you find a happy medium? Bowman recommends shifting your thinking to match your allotted time slot.
"The longer you have, the easier it will be to support your idea in multiple ways, using multiple forms, and create many moments of audience interaction. It's like a variety show!" he says. "A shorter time slot you have means you must think more like a poet. How can you get your point across in the simplest, most elegant manner? It's like a haiku."
To help maximize short time slots, consider structuring your presentation to focus on your big ideas and the most important supporting concepts for those ideas. Economy of words can translate into powerful storytelling in the shortest possible time.
4. Begin by addressing your audience's problems first for maximum impact.
When pitching and presenting, it's incredibly tempting to get to how you want to solve the client or audience's problem. That's why you're in the front of the room, right? Altman suggests slowing down and starting with the problem you solve to garner maximum traction for your efforts.
"Nobody cares about your solution if they don't first understand the problem is solves," he says. "In years of research on how business people make decisions, I've discovered that people first ask, 'What problem does it solve or why do I need it?' With that research in our pocket, start with explaining the problem or challenge that you solve. It helps the audience understand why they should care about your message."
5. Take an improv class to help boost your presentation skills.
Playing off an audience—riffing, going off-script or simply responding to a phone going off at the heart of an emotional story—may be one of the most difficult skills for a speaker to acquire. That's why Laipply is keen on speakers taking an improv class.
"Most people don't fear public speaking. They fear looking like an idiot or a fool," he says.
That can be a great reason to put yourself in an environment where it's safe and even expected to be a little foolish to up your presentation skills.
"Confidence [and] fear comes across ten fold to your audience," Laipply says. "Anything you can do to help boost your confidence will be beneficial."
6. Visuals should support your message, not be your message.
There is nothing worse than a slide so jam-packed with data that you can't read it, much less absorb it. Remember: You're there to make things easier and not harder on your audience!
"Visuals should complement your message, not be your message," says Altman. "Craft your message and stories first. Only use slides that add to the message. When the audiovisual system fails, your audience should not feel like anything is missing."
Bowman advocates letting your body and gestures do the talking first and rely on visuals if they're still needed to support your message.
"If you can explain it with what you have most readily at hand, then why not do it?" says Bowman. "If you can't, there's now a good reason to use a visual. But remember the greatest speakers have always called on the audience to use their imaginations before pulling up any kind of image from elsewhere."
Finally, Laipply recommends letting your visuals speak for themselves and giving your audience a chance to shift focus.
"Slides are attention-splitters to your speaking," Laipply says. "If you're going to use a slide or visual of any sort it should stand alone. Show it and give the audience a moment to absorb it and then the attention comes back once you begin speaking again."
7. Use context to create a connection with your audience.
Data's great. But when you're trying to sell an idea or a service, data alone isn't going to win you the gig. For both pitching and presenting, Laipply advocates that success comes from combining context (data) with stories (yours or your client's) to create a deeply-rooted connection.
"If you just give data how will your audience know their emotional connection to it? If you just tell the story how will they know the validity behind it? It's the ability to combine the two that makes both a presentation and a pitch more effective," says Laipply. He calls it: Content + Context = Connection
"Data is often the content, the meat of what we are pitching or presenting and stories help give context," he explains. "The combination of those two—the right content in the right context—helps create the connection to the audience and when we connect with our audience, we win."
Now, for your next pitch or presentation, you have seven tips that can help you shape the data and content you already have into a version that gets more glances at you than your audience's phones. The version that gets people asking questions and not just saying a generic "thank you." The version that puts you in the driver's seat to win hearts and minds—not to mention deals—because you took the time to focus on your physical presentation skills and connect your solutions to your audience's problems.
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