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The 'Magnificent Seven' - 7 characteristics of a great presentation

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You've probably listened to scores of presentations over the years. Stop and think for a second how many could be described as ‘great' (not just ‘OK'). How many were memorable? Caught and held your interest from the word go? Entertained as well as informed? Inspired you to actually do something? Not many, I'll bet. In my view there are seven characteristics of a great presentation, and any which does not have at least five of them is probably destined to be filed mentally under ‘F for Forget'.

Firstly, it has to have a great opening. Research has shown that the first and last 90 seconds of any talk will have the most audience attention. So why waste that precious (and non-recoverable) minute-and-a-half with waffle, which is what most people do – introductions, apologies, pleasantries, thanks, self-deprecating comments, etc.

Your objective should be to grab the audience by the throat (whether 6 or 600) and give it a compelling reason to sit up and listen to you. You don't do that by introducing yourself and thanking them for allowing you to speak.

Secondly, there needs to be a CAB © (Compelling Audience Benefit) - the answer to the audience's ever-present but unspoken question, ‘What's in this for me ?' Too many speakers concentrate on what they want to speak about, which is usually them (a form of egotistical navel gazing) . How many speakers have you watched or listened to and thought, ‘Why am I listening to this?' or the even more deadly, ‘So what?'

Unless you are famous, the members of your audiences will be interested in one thing – themselves . They want to hear how what you have to say will affect them and do for them . What will they take away from it? Why is it relevant? Why will they find it interesting? I.e., what is the CAB ? (see Answering 'WIIFM?' with a C.A.B.)

Pepper your presentation with phrases or rhetorical questions like, ‘So what does this mean to you? Well, I'll tell you …' or ‘You might be asking yourself why you should be interested in this. Here's why …' or ‘Why should you care? Because …' or ‘So what, you might ask. Well, here's what …' or ‘The importance of this to you is …'

Thirdly, it needs to engage the eyes as well as the ears. We all have a preferred way to assimilate information; some people are ‘auditories' and take it in primarily through their ears, while more than 50% are ‘visuals' and do so via their eyes. If all you do is talk to them, the visuals in the audience will switch off after about five minutes, because they literally cannot concentrate via their ears (especially if you are standing motionlessly behind a lectern).

How do you appeal to visuals? By giving them something to look at. This could be the ubiquitous PowerPoint slide presentation, but could also be props or samples. It could just be yourself moving about. The only things that stand perfectly still are trees and statues, so move – make your presentation a performance, not a lecture (see A picture paints 1,000 words).

Fourthly, it needs to engage the emotions. Many people believe business is all about cold, unemotional logic and therefore rely on facts and data in their attempts to persuade. However, research shows that this is not the case; many people make decisions and then post-rationalise them using logic (psychologists call this cognitive dissonance) .

People assimilate information if both halves of their brains are engaged, which means using emotion to stimulate the right half while logic stimulates the left (see Emotion v logic in the human brain).

Fifthly, it needs to be confidently, fluently and professionally presented, which entails thorough preparation and rehearsal. Most people fail to do either sufficiently. How many people have you seen attempt to ‘wing it' only to crash and burn?

Unless you are a very experienced speaker, I advocate writing a presentation out in full and then rehearsing it until you can deliver it fluently without notes. However, because this takes time, most people don't bother; if rehearsals take place at all they are hurried affairs where people say things like, ‘With this slide I'm going to say something about so-and-so.'

Rehearsing also means giving conscious thought to the exact words you will use (there may be 1001 ways to make a point, but one might have more impact than the other 1000 - great orators spend an age sweating over every individual word) , how you will deliver each phrase (loud/soft, fast/slow, flat/intoned, matter-of-fact/animated) and what body language you will deliberately use to hammer it home (see Practice, practice, PRACTISE! The 10,000 hour rule).

Sixthly, it must have a logical flow, so that it leads the audience by the nose to your close, and they can follow where it is going. It should have 4 main constituent parts – 1) opening 2) CAB 3) main body and 4) the close.

Start by preparing the main body first. Simply list all of the things that you think should be included in the presentation, without any thought to structure. Then, when you have got ten (or twenty, or thirty) candidates for inclusion down on your list, group them together under 3-6 headings. Once this is done, you can now put these headings in a logical order, or flow (see 7 ways to structure your presentations).

Finally, it should have a close that is both memorable and also a call to action. A weak ending can easily spoil an otherwise memorable presentation. Some presenters just come to an abrupt halt by saying, ‘ Well, that's it. Any questions?' Others simply fade away by saying, ‘ If nobody's got anything else to add, I guess we're done.' Still more signal their close by saying, ‘ In summary … ' or ‘In conclusion ' (which just gives the audience notice that it's time to gather their belongings and get ready for lunch).

I do believe in signalling that your presentation is coming to an end, because the audience will sit up and pay attention (remember what I said earlier about the last 90 seconds?). However, I think it is far better to use a phrase like, ‘ I have one final thing to say, and if you only take one thing away from my presentation today, I want it to be this … '

Then, hit them with a call to action . The last thing you say will be the main thing that sticks in their minds. So what is it you want them to do? Put their hands in their pockets and donate cash to a charity? Pass on your message to the rest of the company? Behave differently in the future? Take a specific action? Buy something? Whatever you want them to do, tell them! (see Leave 'em on a high: 5 ways to close a presentation).

There's no need to re-invent the wheel; ten years of speaking professionally have convinced me that the seven characteristics outlined above are essential for a speech or presentation to be memorable. Go over your last one and review it against them. Be honest; how does it do? If you have at least five of them, you're on the road to becoming memorable. If not, do something about it, and do it now! Intending to change things is no good; actually doing it is what is required.

As the philosopher once said, “Remember that people will judge you by your actions, not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold, but so does a hard-boiled egg!”


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