Presenting to Win

Jerry Weissman is a presentations coach and the founder of Power Presentations Ltd. He is the author of Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story (one of my favourite book :-))

Here comes a riport with Jerry!



McLaughlin: Let’s start with a term you coined about presentations: “audience advocacy.” What does that mean?

Weissman: It means that the presenter advocates what the audience wants as much as what the presenter wants.

In preparing any presentation, you need to think about what the audience knows, doesn’t know, needs to know, feels, thinks, and believes about your subject. In shaping your message, you have to keep the audience’s needs in mind as much as your own.

Another way to express audience advocacy is WIIFY, or “What’s In It For You.” It’s my update of the more common “What’s In It For Me.”

If the presenter thinks only what’s in it for me, the presentation won’t have anything in it for the audience. If the presenter thinks what’s in it for you, all the thinking is oriented to the audience.

McLaughlin: Do we really need the notion of audience advocacy? Don’t most presenters already know they should think that way?

Weissman: We need the emphasis on audience advocacy because of the pervasive practice of presenters just telling their own stories. It’s the equivalent of salespeople selling features and not benefits. It’s classic, continuing, and chronic.

Ironically, this is a problem that’s been around for centuries. 2300 years ago, Aristotle urged orators to be aware of pathos—the feelings of the audience. Without WIIFY and audience advocacy, the pathos is missing.

McLaughlin: What’s your view of the role of stories in a well-designed presentation?

Weissman: The importance of storytelling goes back again to Aristotle. He urged speakers to include a clear beginning, middle, and end in their messages.

A presentation with no clear beginning might start abruptly with, “Hi, my name is Mike and I’m here to talk to you about X.” Then the speaker rambles in the middle and ends inconclusively. There’s no story for the audience to follow.

If the material just tumbles out of the presenter’s mouth with no connecting thread through it, then the audience gets lost. The role of a well-designed story is to keep the audience engaged in the logical flow of a presentation.

McLaughlin: And what about the use of stories as part of the presentation itself?

Weissman: Professional writers—from Hollywood screenwriters to novelists—are always concerned with what’s known as the story arc, the logical progression from beginning to middle to end. Within that arc, there could be multiple small stories that illustrate the points along the arc. Such a story could be a brief example, a case study, or an individual anecdote.

McLaughlin: Some people struggle with how to structure a presentation. You talk about presentation flow structure—what does that mean and how can we use that concept?

Weissman: Most presentation structures are logical templates. We talked about story arc a moment ago. That’s a logical template, an organizational pattern, that a presenter can superimpose over a story to give it a logical flow.

The simplest and most obvious is a chronological flow structure, that is, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or past, present, and future, which is very appropriate structure for businesses.

Another possible structure is to use a number, for instance, to say there are five things to take away from this. Look at how many books use that approach, for example Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the Seven Laws of Spiritual Success, two of the best-selling books of all time. And every night, David Letterman presents his Top Ten.

Wrapping the components of a story into a flow structure makes it easy for the audience to follow.
A simple structure can transform a presentation. Chronological and logical flow structures are but two of sixteen that my book discusses.

McLaughlin: How do you engage an audience quickly? Which methods are best for grabbing and keeping the audience’s attention?

Weissman: I have laid out seven methods or options for capturing your audience’s attention. And, by the way, telling a joke is not one of them.

The biggest problem with starting a presentation with a joke is that no one can guarantee a joke’s success or failure. In this age of globalization, with people speaking across cultural and national boundaries, jokes often don’t translate. But even with a homogenous audience, there’s still no guarantee of hit or miss.

Of the seven opening gambits, one of the most useful is the anecdote, which we’ve already touched on. Just to be clear—an anecdote is a short story, not a joke.

For instance, let’s say a medical company needs to give a presentation about a new device or drug. Instead of talking about the product, the company could easily talk about a patient who was helped by the device or the drug.

Another opening gambit is an analogy. If someone has a complex story to tell, they could analogize it to something that is simpler. For instance, I worked with a drug company that was trying to explain a trans-dermal drug patch that is applied to the skin. The presenter, who was a scientist, used the analogy of a truck transporting goods across a border and that clarified it for everybody.

So analogy and anecdote are two excellent opening gambits. Another good way to open is with an aphorism—a familiar saying that will resonate in everybody’s mind.

When I was speaking in Croatia and Serbia, I talked about the aphorism “What’s in a name?” Everybody recognized that. Why? Because it’s Shakespeare and even though I was speaking to people whose native language was Croatian or Serbian, they got it.

McLaughlin: Many presenters, and certainly consultants, feel they can’t go into a presentation without a slide deck. Are there times when you should leave that slide deck at home?

Weissman: Yes, there are. But face it—the reality of our life is that PowerPoint has become thelingua franca of business presentations.

Are there times not to use it? Sure—when visual reinforcement is unnecessary. For instance, think of one of the most significant speeches that we hear in the US every year, the President’s State of the Union message. Every President is required by law to deliver that speech, and none of them use slides.

McLaughlin: Consultants often include facts and numbers in presentations. Any thoughts or tips about delivering quantitative information effectively?

Weissman: I’ll give you a simple illustration that will put it into context. A couple of years ago, I coached the CEO of a drug company that was about to go public. The CEO also happened to be the scientist who developed the drug, and he insisted on putting six clinical trial slides into the IPO road show presentation.

They were complex, technical slides for anyone to read, with double axes and everything expressed in deciliters, milliliters, and so forth. He insisted on including them in the presentation and I said okay, put them in the presentation under one condition. At the end of each slide, you conclude with the following statement: “The reason this is important to you as an investor is X.”

That’s another way of saying WIIFY, “What’s In It For You.” That ties the slides to the audience and gives you audience advocacy.

McLaughlin: Most presentations use the poor old bullet point for just about everything. What is the best way to use bullet points? And are there times when you just shouldn’t use them?

Weissman: What I call the “bullet brigade” is an assault on the audience. The potential negative effects of bullet overload can be ameliorated in two ways.

The first way is to observe four simple rules:

1. Make sure all your bullet points are grammatically parallel. That is, begin each bullet with the same figure of speech—noun, verb, modifier, and so on.

2. Two, avoid word wrap so that each bullet is a single line.

3. Space bullets on the slide proportionately so that whether you have three or eight, they are evenly distributed spatially.

4. If you’re using sub-bullets, use the same number of those under each bullet. That creates a visually interesting field.

If you don’t allow words to wrap, the eye can focus on one bullet, or point, at a time. If they’re spaced correctly, the audience members can process the whole thing without having to understand how it’s laid out. And if they’re grammatically parallel, they see the relationships.

The second way is a new feature of Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007 called Smart Art. It allows you to type in a list of bullets and, by clicking on a menu, convert the bullets automatically, not manually, into a shape, whether it’s a chevron, arrow, bar, circle, or an oval. That can take the sting out of the bullet brigade.

McLaughlin: If you were to give somebody just one piece of advice about delivering more effective presentations, what would it be?

Weissman: PowerPoint, the lingua franca of communication, has become a crutch for the presenter. Make sure your slide show is not a crutch but the subordinate visual reinforcement of your presentation. The presenter and the telling of the audience’s story should always be the primary focus.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

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