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Learning to Speak Up

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Why give a talk to an investor audience? Your calendar is already full. Your to-do list is overflowing. Better to take a pass, right?

Wrong. A great speech with an interesting message delivered by a passionate speaker is a stronger way to build your brand and reputation than all the advertisements, brochures, or direct mail campaigns combined.

However, if your presentations aren’t building your business, the problem may not be the speaking venues or the audiences. Maybe it’s you. Maybe your speeches are, well, boring.

Less Is More

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” said Gordon Gecko in a famous speech to shareholders in the 1987 film Wall Street. Perhaps you missed it, but part of what made Gecko’s presentation memorable was his lack of greed during the speech. Instead of trying to communicate thousands of numbers using hundreds of PowerPoint slides in tens of minutes, the Michael Douglas character focused on just a few key points. Moreover, each of those points was presented with strong emotions.

Despite the intervening years, if you saw that movie, you probably remember Douglas’s impassioned plea. Chances are also good that you don’t remember much of what you heard in the last dozen financial presentations you attended.

That’s because most investment advisors, perhaps including yourself, are too greedy with audiences. The average business speaker tries to inundate audiences with numbers, facts, figures, and charts. The result? Audiences are bored and remember nothing. You just lost an opportunity to make a permanent impression with a prospective investor or client.

The top challenge for a financial advisor speaking to an audience is to understand how people–even smart, well-educated people–process information that they hear rather than read. The reality is that your audience will forget at least 92% of what you say–and that’s if you package your information in an interesting manner.

To be successful, you need to narrow the focus of your speech to no more than a handful of key points for any presentation, even if it lasts two hours. If you try to communicate more than that, your audience won’t remember them.

The first thing you need to do when you are sitting down to prepare your presentation is to ask yourself this: “What do I want people saying about my speech at the water cooler the day after they hear me?” Don’t start preparing PowerPoint slides or creating pie charts until you can answer that question.

The biggest problem we’ve faced with clients for the last 20 years is that they often treat a speech as an opportunity to dump data. It’s as if they go around their office for two weeks beforehand and gather every report, memo, and chart. Then they wheel it all into the conference room and dump it on the floor in front of the audience and say, “Here! Take a look at that.”

Remember, if your presentation were just about facts, you could e-mail it to your audience–there would be no need for you to show up. Strong financial presenters realize that their job is not just to present data, but to make it come alive in vivid and meaningful ways.

The single most effective way to do this is by telling stories. Storytelling was the way preliterate societies recorded and preserved their history through the use of epic poems. Your stories do not have to be particularly funny or highly involved. A story can be as simple as recounting an actual conversation you had with a client. However, your stories do have to be relevant to the point you are trying to make.

Most strong stories have the following elements: a clear message and setting, two or more characters, dialogue, a problem, some emotion, and a resolution. Yes, it can take several minutes to tell a story. But these will be minutes well spent because your stories will increase the odds that your audience will remember your point.

PowerPoint Is a Tool, not an Albatross

Microsoft’s PowerPoint is the greatest tool ever created for making presentations–except for the 99.9% of the time when the program is misused, resulting in the audience falling asleep.

The first thing to realize when you are giving a PowerPoint presentation is that you are really delivering three completely separate presentations:

1. Your oral presentation; i.e., the words that come out of your mouth.

2. The PowerPoint slides that you project on a screen for all to see.

3. Paper handouts, which may include versions of your PowerPoint slides.

At this point some of you may be confused. After all, don’t the handouts have to be the same as the slides that are projected? The answer is no. Every medium is different and has unique strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, human beings receive and process information differently depending on whether they’re listening, watching, reading, or performing some combination of the three. (You’re also more likely to remember a piece of information if you take some action upon receiving it, like writing down the information yourself.) Strong presenters realize these differences and play to the strengths of each medium.

The medium of printed text on an 81&Mac218;2 x 11 handout is excellent for communicating lots of data and paragraph after paragraph of abstract information. The user can stop, reread certain sections, underline key passages, and file the paper away for future reference. Text is your best medium for communicating a large amount of data.

PowerPoint slides, however, are completely different. When people look at a screen across the room, their subconscious reference points are television images. The ideal way of using a PowerPoint slide, then, is to use an image rather than a word or number to bring to life a crucial concept you are making in your oral presentation.

Ten True Things

There are 10 crucial points you should remember when creating a PowerPoint presentation for any audience:

1. Numbers can’t speak for themselves: You must tell the story behind them.

2. The slides you project on the screen should be extraordinarily streamlined: no more than one key point per slide.

3. PowerPoint slides are a visual medium, while words are an abstraction. Therefore, you should rarely use words on your PowerPoint slides. Instead, use photographs, drawings, or symbols. For example, use an image of gold bars or coins on your slide to illustrate a dollar amount, rather than writing out numbers.

4. If you think the last point is ridiculous because you have never seen a PowerPoint presentation that doesn’t include tons of text, ask yourself this: “How much do I remember, if anything, of the last traditional presentation I saw?”

5. Rehearse your presentation out loud. Giving a presentation without rehearsing aloud is the equivalent of handing out a written speech that has not been spell-checked or proofread.

6. Don’t compete for your audience’s attention. If you want people to look at your screen, then be totally quiet long enough for them to absorb the slide that’s on the screen. If you are speaking, then remove the slide from the view of your audience so they can concentrate on your words.

7. Have the program work for you, not against you. You have three options for blanking out your screens, for instance, while you are speaking. First, you can simply include a blank screen between each of your content screens. Second, you can hit the “b” key on your keyboard, which will turn the screen black. Or you can hit the “w” key, which will turn the screen white. (Hitting any other key will restore the original screen, canceling the white or black commands.)

8. If you use print handouts while presenting your PowerPoint presentation, do not give audience members the handouts until after your speech, which will help eliminate competition for their attention.

9. Convey passion, excitement, or strong commitment to no more than a handful of key points; otherwise, people won’t remember anything you said. If all you do is read numbers and data, you might as well have e-mailed the presentation to your audience.

10. Make sure you include interesting, compelling, memorable visuals.

Wrapping It Up

The sad fact is that most advisors make boring presentations that audiences quickly forget. The good news is that it is relatively easy for you to stand out from most other investment advisor speakers. The amount of time and effort it takes to transform yourself from being a mediocre, forgettable speaker into a dynamic, memorable speaker is small. That change can also make a huge difference in your career and the success of your practice.

Remember, the goals of every presentation are to get audience members to understand your message, to remember it, and to act upon the message and tell others. Most of your competitors never get beyond achieving the first goal. With practice and preparation that is focused on the needs of your audience, you can accomplish all three goals every time you present.

TJ Walker is president of Media Training Worldwide, a media and presentation training firm that prepares financial professionals for speeches and media interviews. He can be reached through his Web site, Hedda Nadler is president of Mount & Nadler Inc., a 23-year-old financial public relations firm based in New York. She can be reached at [email protected].


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