It is, after all, an unusual experience to have people who you do not know hanging on your every word, to be the centre and focus of attention in the room. It is no wonder that many business people are badly affected by nerves before such an experience.
Presentations do not have to be like this, however.
When viewed logically, business presentations are simply an effective method of communicating information to a large number of people at the same time, delivering it in such a manner that the greater proportion of the audience will wish to engage in the product in question.
Presentations are also a great opportunity for the presenter, especially if they have advanced presentation skills, to create excitement and interest in a subject. When people are interested and excited by a subject then positive action, be it more sales or more investment, is more likely to follow.
Of course, being known as an expert presenter won't do your career any harm, either. You are the person who can effectively sell an idea or a product and, as such, will be in demand.
Like all skills, good presentation skills cannot be acquired without some effort and cannot be practised effectively without preparation. So how can you best prepare for your presentation? We argue that there are three main areas to concentrate on: preparation, style, audience and close.
Practice makes perfectFind a trusted colleague or friend and practise your presentations on them.
Visualise your audience and decide what you want them to take away from your presentation, then try it out and see if your 'test audience' gets the points you are trying to make. It might be worth recording this test run and asking a trusted colleague or friend to give you an objective evaluation of your performance, emphasising your strengths and your weaknesses.
An absolutely candid assessment of your skills can be a bruising experience when it comes to the ‘weaknesses’ section. It is a vital step in your preparation though, as very few people can be totally objective about themselves.
Check out the presentation roomGet into the room where you are going to make the presentation in advance and check out the space.
Whilst you are there, prepare and practise any moves that you are going to make, especially those at the start of the presentation when you take to the stage.
You want to avoid making any mistakes early on as this can set the whole business off on the wrong foot.
Avoid performing on autopilotIt is possible to be over-prepared for a presentation, thus coming across as slick.
Audiences seem to sense when the speaker goes into automatic mode, reciting memorised patter and never pausing naturally.
Attention wanes at times like these. It is better for you to be sure of your start and your finish and to trust your notes for the rest, rather than simply trotting out an over-rehearsed spiel.
Technical mattersEnsure that you are familiar with the equipment you are going to use and that it is in a good condition with fully charged batteries. Read up on common errors in PowerPoint, USB sticks and computer screen issues and how to solve them. It might make all the difference on the night.
Visual aids – the big pictureThe key here is to remember that bar charts, pie charts, graphics and so on are good for presenting the big picture; the detailed follow-up comes from you and from the words you say.
So avoid charts that deal with the details and also slides that contain too many words – otherwise you might as well just flash up your notes and read them out!
You are what you areDon’t try to adopt a separate ‘presentation persona’ because it won’t work (unless you happen to be a trained character actor in your spare time).
Your own personality is the best tool you have, so shape presentations to suit your gestures and the inflexions of your voice.
Remember that the point of the presentation is to get the message across as effectively as possible, using the tools you have available. One exception to this rule comes when you use gestures – make them larger and more emphatic than usual without going over the top.
Don’t worry about nervousnessThis may seem a silly thing to say but it is true. It is natural to feel nervous before you get up to make a big and important presentation.
There is a lot riding on how you perform and you would have to be extremely hard-hearted not to feel anxious.
The best thing to do is to harness your nerves and let the extra, adrenaline-fuelled energy show in your presentation.
Breathe deeply and take your timeThe excess adrenaline in your system will make your breathing become fast and shallow which will increase your tension levels and can, in extreme circumstances, make you giddy.
Slow, deep, regular, breaths will get you back on an even keel.
You might also find it helpful to indulge in some form of mild displacement activity such as twiddling a pencil or making a cat’s cradle round your fingers with a rubber band.
Another symptom of high adrenaline levels is a dry mouth.
Combat this with water and perhaps take a glass into the presentation room and place it on the lectern. You can then use it as one of your props, timing your sips to give your audience a breather.
Timing is a very important matter in presentations and, in general, you should go slower than you think is necessary.
This helps you to avoid gabbling and makes it easier for the audience to take in your points. Remember that they are not hyped up on adrenaline, so give them time to absorb the information before you move onto your next point.
Talk to them, not at themIt should come as no surprise that the best presentations take a conversational tone, since most people prefer to be spoken to than talked at.
It is said that ‘Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes’. You are not a tyrant and you do not want to talk above anyone.
Rather, you want to engage with people, question them, argue with them, keep them awake and, above all, interested in what you have to say.
Be flexibleThat is to say, watch your audience and tailor your performance to how they are reacting. This requires confidence and verve but it is a necessary component of any presentation.
You are there to give a live performance to a live audience, after all.
The importance of conviction and balanceTo make an effective presentation you must show conviction in your subject as this will naturally lead to an interesting, expressive and engaging performance which will provoke a response from your audience.
Do not expect that the reaction will be 100% positive, however. The chances are that at least one person will think you are talking rubbish.
This is a fact of human nature which you have to learn to accept. Just think of it this way: it’s better if they get annoyed with you than fall asleep.
Getting the point acrossMetaphors, analogies and examples are parts of everyday speech that everyone is familiar with. They are very effective ways of making your point so use them, but try to avoid clichés. Try to find vivid but not forced ways of making your point.
By limiting yourself to three or four ideas and sticking to them, leaving out unnecessary details, you will get your point across to the audience.
When you come to the end of your presentation, smile, thank your audience and carry on as if everything has gone splendidly, even if you don’t think it has.
Remember that your perspective on the presentation is likely to be the one at the greatest variance with reality. It is the problem of objectivity again, though viewed from the other side.
Also remember the old soldier’s maxim that nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems. Chances are that you did a perfectly good presentation which will win you a decent amount of business, even if it was not as good as the perfect presentation which exists only in your own mind.
4. The Close
Begin with the end in mindIf you are making a presentation with the aim of making a sale, you do have to start with and continually remember that at the end of the presentation, you aim to ask for the members of the audience to make a decision and commit to something.
The wording that you use in this section is more important than at any other stage, so you have to get this right. Don't leave this section to something that you will do spontaneously, carefully prepared wording is crucial.
Ask for the business there and thenA colleague of mine used to work on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Part of his role was renting out snorkeling equipment and selling underwater cameras. At the start of every cruise, they gave what was called a snorkel talk, all about the best places to try snorkeling etc in each port that they would stop at.
With up to half the passengers on board at the talk, there was never a better time to get people to commit. Yes, people could go to their desk later and sign up, but why leave it to that? They may never visit your desk. All sorts of distractions can happen on board, the casino, live shows, who knows what else.
So the script of the snorkel talk was designed to invite people to line up and rent their gear right then and there. All that they had to do later at the desk was then collect it.
Then, as each person signed up for the snorkeling gear, the script ensured that you asked about whether they wanted an underwater camera or not.
On the best selling cruises, more than half the revenue obtained by this department was done in the space of this one hour. You need to gain commitment while the audience is at its most receptive.
Create urgencyDue to limited space on the cruise ship, there was space for between 300 and 400 full sets of snorkeling equipment. It was possible for them all to be rented out. So this point was highlighted in the snorkel talk. There was no point in waiting till later, you may not get!
In marketing, there's a term called FOMO, Fear of Missing Out! It's a popular tool to use in closing a sales presentation, and where possible, you should be using it. Create that sense of urgency, then people will sign up when you ask for their commitment.
In conclusion, there are four main areas to focus on if you wish to improve your presentation skills in order to win more business.
Firstly, prepare your presentation with great care and practise it on a test audience to check if it elicits the response you are looking for.
Then, consider how best to style your presentation so that it suits both your audience's needs and how you naturally speak.
Thirdly, think carefully about what your audience are looking for and how best you can win them over.
And finally, think about how you want to close the presentation and wrap things up. If it is a sales presentation, it has to include asking for the business.
By going through all of these requirements, you should soon find that you are indeed winning more business, thanks to your improved presentation skills.