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Q: What do you think are the most important things a person should know in order to be successful at giving business presentations?

A. A presentation comes with a challenge to the presenter because your success hinges on how well you influence your audience, and not just on how much information you pass along. With a presentation, your success depends not as much on the quality of your content and visual support as on how well you deliver your message.

It's vital in a presentation that your listeners clearly understand, believe, and remember what you say. That's because your presentation contains a call to action. It's aimed at influencing others, changing their minds, convincing them to accept your ideas, whether it's to invest in your company, buy your product or service, or take some other action.

"State what you want your listeners to feel, think, or do after listening to you."

So the first step is to be clear about your objective. Write that down as concisely as you can in a few sentences. State what you want your listeners to feel, think, or do after listening to you. Defining your goal in this way helps you develop a sound strategy for achieving it. And as you build your presentation, it will guide you in deciding what content to include and what to leave out.

Know your audience
Since your goal is to influence your audience in some way, it follows that the more you know about your audience, the better. This audience analysis phase is vitally important.

You need to know the attitudes, concerns, and biases of your listeners, the knowledge they already have about your subject, and, as much as possible, what is most likely to motivate this particular audience.

You also need to know the size of your audience. Will you be speaking to just a few people or to a large group in a large meeting hall? The answer to that question determines the physical setting. For a large audience, for example, you will have decisions to make about room arrangements, equipment, and the like.

With your objective and your audience in mind, you can now structure your presentation. Use your audience analysis to guide you in determining the body of your presentation. (For more on how to do in-depth audience analysis, read our article You Talkin' To Me?)

Build a strong case
Your core argument must be developed logically and stated clearly; it must be easily understood. Be sure to make your claims believable, backed by solid supporting material. Your main messages should each be compelling on their own. Choose data that best support your argument.

Your presentation will also be helped by creative kinds of support-stories, anecdotes, quotations, and other devices that further help your audience to picture and understand what you're saying.

First and last impressions count
We've often seen presenters succeed or fail on how well they begin and end their remarks.

You should have a strong opener to grab your listeners' attention right from the start. You may have found something, for example, in your audience analysis that will resonate quickly with your listeners and get their immediate attention. (For more on creating strong openers, read our article from the Spring 2003 issue.)

How you conclude your remarks is also critical. Your conclusion, after all, is where your entire presentation is heading. It should bring you to the objective you're heading towards. If you're asking your listeners to take some kind of action, be sure you frame it in terms of their interests and make it clear and specific. (See our article on how to write a great conclusion.)

There's more
Here's a partial list of some more things to keep in mind:
  • We all communicate non-verbally much more than we're aware of. Body language-gestures, stance, facial expression, eye focus-all have a significant impact. So, to succeed as a presenter, it's essential that you learn and practice the techniques of effective, non-verbal communication.
  • Never try to memorize your presentation. Instead, as you practice, internalize your presentation, focusing on the ideas behind the words. Memorizing greatly increases the chance that you'll go blank at some point. Even if you can memorize an entire presentation, speaking from memory leads to a flat, unemotional, and unconvincing delivery.
  • Allow enough time to practice and rehearse your presentation. You simply cannot succeed as a presenter without proper practice and rehearsal.
  • Anticipate the questions that are likely to come up and prepare your answers.
  • Learn how to deal with audiences that can be difficult and sometimes downright hostile.
  • Check out the room you'll be speaking in. Do it in advance and again on the day of your presentation. (See our article in this issue on what to look for.)
Despite whatever apprehensions you may have, recognize that you can learn the skills and techniques of creating and delivering effective presentations. Begin with the right preparation and practice.

This question was answered by ECG chairman Peter Giuliano. Our consultants are ready to answer any questions you may have about presenting in real-life situations. We respond to all questions. Use our Tell Us form to submit your question.

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