10 random observations on writing & delivering presentations

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When I was in advertising, writing, editing, delivering or sitting through presentations was a common affair. A presentation is not limited to one which is delivered in front of a large audience. It can be a one-on-one discussion with a client or even an internal discussion to sell one’s ideas or point-of-view. Herewith some observations (none of these are original or startlingly new but just the basics) gleaned over the years about the former kind – the formal Powerpoint deck delivered to a group of people.

1. ‘No slides’ is the best presentation. The best way to share or ‘sell’ an idea is to have a discussion across the table. In my view this kind of one-to-one interaction, instead of a one-way slide presentation has a better chance of a positive outcome. Ideas get exchanged and the conviction of the presenter can shine through better as there is no other visual aid for support. This also means that the ‘presenter’ has to have substance, know the subject at hand, have a strong point-of-view and share it with conviction. If there is data to be shared in such a discussion, the presenter must know the data in and out as there is no table or Excel sheet to refer to. Even in media interviews, we are likely to be impressed with someone who is not only articulate but knows the subject well and is on top of numbers too. Great public speakers have mastered this art – they are able to connect and convince millions through the power of speech.

2. Don’t click to add title. In the corporate world opening Powerpoint and clicking away at the slides is the default action for many. Some companies have discouraged this habit (notably Amazon and Diageo) but the habit is ingrained right from college. In ad agencies, it is common for juniors to be given projects and assignments; many of them could involve market visits, reading books, meeting consumers and doing some basic thinking. Some have said that PowerPoint is ‘killing critical thought‘. But the default option is to write a presentation deck. Before you start clicking away on ‘Click to add title’ have a plan…an outline worked out.

3. Think of the outcome expected, the target audience and figure out 3-4 key messages you want to leave behind (it is rarely just one point). Knowing the target audience – especially their grasp of the subject is critical. Many a times, ad agencies end up making points which the client already knows. This sets up friction and makes the audience unreceptive to the core message when delivered

4. Before drafting the presentation, an outline should be worked out. Think of the outline as chapters of a book – a build up to the key messages. ach of the chapters must be linked…and flow well. ‘Say what you are going say, say it and then say what you just said’ is a good template to follow as an approach to presentations. You will see this in practice in virtually every presentation Apple makes during its Keynote events.

5. If you *have* to write several bullet points in a slide (not more than 3 please), build-up the points. Else you will have your audience reading Point No. 3 and not paying attention to you when you are waxing eloquent on something else. That way the audience is not hearing you and you have lost an opportunity to make a point or convince them.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
~ George Bernard Shaw

6. Do not write all that you want to say on the slide. It is always better to summarise the point in one short sentence or phrase and THEN elaborate on it.

7. If your presentation uses numbers and LOTS of them, work on visually representing them. Eye-pleasing charts (Apple’s Keynote has several handy options to bring alive data through graphs) and infographic-style visual representations go a long way in holding attention.

8. Accentuate your point with relevant, memorable (being quirky helps) images. If it has to be text only, the lines should be written well, legible and preferably ’designed’ in order to be visually pleasing.

9. If you are making a presentation at the client’s conference room or any place which is not your own, you are still accountable for delivery. Check the projector, sound system, lighting, seating and everything else which will affect delivery of the deck well in advance

10. There is no substitute for practice. Great public speakers like Margaret Thatcher too believed in rehearsal and preparation. In advertising, where everything is last minute (and people take pride in that!) this becomes difficult. But we ought to plan for such eventualities

Organisations should invest in training their employees in the art of communication including writing & delivering presentations. Would welcome any tips on presentations or anecdotes of great presentations or snafus you’d like to share?

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