Stayin’ Alive


Conference Room

At some point during the sales cycle, you’re likely to have to make a presentation—stand up in front of a group of people to show them how what you’re selling can solve their problem. For many people, this is the stuff of nightmares. I have to admit, being an old show-off, I used to love it—still do. 

Of course, presentations are—whether we like it or not—now part of everyday corporate life. Everyone gets to present at some stage: it’s no longer exclusively the preserve of sales.

Let me share a secret with you. Some of my best-received presentations were made when I was hung over. At the computer company I worked for many years ago, the marketing team—to which I’d graduated from sales—undertook an annual customer tour, with major customers invited for a day’s presentations at a local swanky hotel. Being a group of mostly single, mostly under-30 guys, it was a matter of honor to drink in the hotel bar the night before until six in the morning, get an hour’s sleep and then show up for breakfast at eight before starting the day’s presentations at nine. When it came to my turn to present, I just wanted to get on stage, say my piece and get off again. It worked really well. The moral of the story? Short but sweet—and not getting entranced by your own cleverness—wins every time. Under-running will make you popular with any audience. Over-running, on the other hand, will have the audience grow increasingly hostile—not to mention your colleagues, who will need to find some way in their presentations of compensating for your self-indulgence.

Oh, and: if you think you need more than half an hour—think again. Distill what you need to say. Audiences have limited patience and limited stamina and the chances are, by the time you get to the good stuff, you’ve lost them. 

And: if you have to explain a graphic—you know, the picture that’s worth a thousand words—then you probably have a bad graphic. 

De-clutter

So, short but sweet. What else? The thing that drives me most wild—as a professional presentation-attender—is cluttered slides that are full of detail that the presenter insists on reading, verbatim, word for tedious word. "Simple" describes the best slides—enough to give your audience sign posts to wayfind through your presentation, and to provide you with an aide-memoire as to what you were going to say next, but not so much that the audience is reading the slides, rather than listening to you.

And please: never—ever—write in complete sentences on a slide. This is a presentation, not a dissertation. You never know: that may enable you to use a large enough font that the people at the back can see what’s on the slide too. It may also be worth recalling, in an era where even the humblest noun is deemed worthy of its own initial capital letter, that Reading Words Like This Isn’t As Easy as when you read those same words like this. 

In the good old days—hah!—slides were acetates (anyone else call them "foils"?) with the show delivered from an overhead projector. A progressive reveal meant keeping part of the slide covered with a sheet of paper and progressively moving it down the slide. (Of course, as you got closer to the bottom of the slide, the chances of the sheet of paper fluttering down onto the floor increased substantially—meaning a) an unintended and premature reveal, and b) discomfiture and embarrassment.) Like any "trick," it became tedious when overdone. Lord save us, then, from PowerPoint which makes it even easier to do. Plus, with PowerPoint, you can have text shooting in from the top, the bottom, the left, the right and performing cartwheels, should you so wish. A worthwhile rule to remember is: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Whizzy effects tend to distract rather than reinforce. 

At the end of the day, the best presentations are stories. They have a logical flow, with a beginning, a middle and an end. That golden rule applies throughout. Consider the difference between “we market, design, export and manufacture a wide range of widgets” and “we design, manufacture, market and export a wide range of widgets.” Which of those reads the more logically? You need your audience to stick with you—not start wondering where it is that you’re up to. 

That phrase “Death by PowerPoint”? In the same way guns don’t kill people—people kill people—it’s not software that causes the untimely demise of an audience, but presenters. By following a few simple rules—and there are plenty more out there—it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid becoming a mass murderer. 


Ian McMurray's picture

Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

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