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10 questions to ask before you give a presentation

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Most of us have one of two common, but quite opposite, reactions after making a presentation. We either think it went very well or we did a lousy job.

Such responses are certainly understandable since presentations are highly personal. When speaking before large or small groups, we put ourselves on the line — there’s no place to hide.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I should have done better, but I didn’t have enough time to prepare,” “I wasn’t feeling well,” “The dog ate my presentation,” “I’m just not good at this” or “My personal style is better in one-on-one situations.”

Then, there are those who never doubt their ability, believing they’re better presenters than they actually are. If they hear criticism, they quickly dismiss it: “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

There’s plenty of available advice on how to be a more effective presenter, but “telling” us what to do usually isn’t much help. A better approach is gaining insight by asking the right questions. Here are ten questions that can be helpful in preparing to present for almost any speaking occasion, from a large group to a one-on-one setting: 

1. Why am I making this presentation?

Or, to say it another way, what do I want to accomplish? Most presentations fail because speakers lack a well-defined understanding of what they want their listeners to do. If this isn’t clear to the presenter, the participants will be confused, bored and feel they are wasting their time.

2. What does my audience want to hear?

Too many presenters find themselves in trouble (and don’t even know it) by focusing on what they want to say, almost to the exclusion of the participants.

Someone has said that a good presentation is a compromise between what the speaker wants to say and what the audience wants to hear. Viewing those who listen to us as our “customers” is critical. In effect, they’re the ones who judge the success or failure of a presentation.

This is a tough task, requiring considerable discipline. As presenters we’re often so intent on “delivering our message,” we lose sight of getting our message across to our “customers.”

3. How can I hold my listeners’ interest?

The best way is to use stories, stories, stories. A 93-year old family friend, Ruthie, tells of taking her seven-year old grandson to McDonalds on one occasion. She was surprised when he didn’t order French fries. “I thought you really liked them,” she said. “I did, but not since they put potatoes in them,” he replied. He knew them as “French fries,” not French fried potatoes. What a great story to help make the point that shortcuts often lead to unintended consequences.

While inexperienced presenters inundate their listeners with words, the pros tell stories.

4. How should I go about holding everyone’s attention?

The answer is to invite them to participate in your presentation, something that isn’t as risky as it may sound. You can let them know at the beginning that you want them to ask questions or make comments during the presentation by raising their hands. They need to know that they’ll not be interrupting you.

Yes, there may be a smart remark or two, an irrelevant comment or question, but it’s worth it to create an open atmosphere that lets everyone know that this is a “we” and not “me” event.

5. How can I avoid having a case of nerves?

It may seem a bit crazy, but nerves are normal. Whenever you put yourself on the line — from playing a sport to getting married to buying a home or making a presentation  — it involves having “a case of nerves.”

Nerves are not only normal, but embracing them can improve your presentation. They send the message that we’re putting ourselves at risk and it’s time to rise to the occasion. Audiences feel this; they sense the energy. And as we start, we tend to come to an equilibrium that lets us take control and move forward.

6. How should I go about organizing my material?

There are a variety of “formats,” but “Problem-Solution” is one of the best because it works well in just about any situation.

If your topic is “The Need to Re-Organize Our Company’s Sales Regions,” the first step is to discuss the reasons why the reorg is necessary: the current arrangement is inefficient, too costly, doesn’t provide a competitive advantage, and isn’t producing the desired results.

The goal in the “problem” portion is to gain the listeners’ support for your analysis.

Once your case for change is made, it’s time for your “solution.” Here is where you show how your recommendations overcome each of the problems you presented earlier. By this point, you will have helped bring the listeners around to your viewpoint.

7. How can I be sure I’m properly introduced?

This isn’t a minor point. The person introducing you should set the stage for your presentation; it’s your “send off.”

It’s a mistake to assume that you will be introduced properly. As a presenter, you are responsible for ensuring that the introduction makes it clear you have earned the right to speak to them. To make sure the introduction creates the desired impression, experienced speakers often provide a prepared introduction that can be used as is or as a guide.

Even so, presenters should always begin with a brief “self-introduction” that subtly expresses why you have been selected to speak. If this seems a bit gutsy, just remember that a poor introduction hurts your presentation.

8. How should I prepare for a presentation?

No presenter is ever totally prepared, even after giving the same talk numerous times. Some speakers write out every word, and there’s no substitute for getting it down in writing and then editing it. One presenter didn’t begin speaking extemporaneously (prepared but not using notes) until he had spent nearly two decades writing his speeches word-for-word.

A compromise approach can be helpful. To make certain the opening of the presentation grabs attention and clarifies your purpose in speaking, it should be written out. And so should the various transitions, so you move smoothly and clearly from one point to the next. Above all, it’s essential that the conclusion be written. It’s your last few sentences that determine a presentation’s destiny, up or down.

Those who say “I’ve gone over it in my head” are headed for failure. Making an outline is helpful in the initial development of a presentation, but doesn’t help with precise word choice, which is the difference between an adequate presentation and an exceptional one.

9. Should I use screens?

The one word answer is sparingly, recognizing that screens turn into a crutch most of the time. What’s projected is not your presentation. At best, PowerPoint screens should only support your message. If a screen can help clarify a point, use it. If it can enhance the viewers’ experience, include it. If a screen doesn’t pass this test, delete it.

In effect, a presentation should never, ever be PowerPoint dependent.

10. What should I do if something goes wrong?

The lights go out, the projector fails, the sound system quits, noise from the next room distracts the participants, the previous presenters run over and, just before you go on, the chairperson asks you to cut your time slot in half. All of these (and others) can happen. I know, because they’ve happened to me — fortunately not at the same time.

Something can and will go wrong — and it’s a disconcerting experience, to say the least. So, plan for it. And the best way to get ready is to think about the unthinkable by asking “what if” questions. For example, what if a storm hit and the event is cancelled. The next day you could send everyone a copy of your presentation. Whether the conditions are good or bad, you’re still the presenter. So, always be ready to make lemonade.

Delivering a presentation is a combination of art and discipline that has but one goal: to do everything possible to convey your message as successfully as possible. And that starts by asking the right questions.

For more from John Graham, see:

It’s your questions that make the sale

6 business ideas to challenge our thinking

7 qualities that produce star performers


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