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7 ways to structure your presentation

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In my article Fast vs Slow Thinking I wrote about the need to make your presentation as easy-to-follow as possible because it prevents the audience from having to engage their slow-thinking process, which takes up a huge amount of mental energy.

One of the best ways to do this is to ensure your presentation has a logical structure, or flow, so the audience knows 'where they are' at any given point.

I've outlined 7 basic structures which should cover most of the situations you find yourself in. Don't pick a structure simply because you're comfortable with it. Different situations call for different structures.  

1. Chronological                                                                                     

This explains events in the order in which they happened, and is the logical choice for telling a story that took place over a period of time.

2. Numerical 

This structure simply lists a number of points or reasons for taking a particular course of action (e.g. buying a product). You might simply say, “I want to make three points to you today ..... x,y,z. Firstly, let's look at X . . .

3. Features & Benefits 

Another flow with a built-in CAB, this explains the features of a product, service or course of action and then what they can do for the audience. However . . . when doing a sales presentation, be careful that this doesn’t turn into a ‘me, me, ME’ presentation where you talk about your products and services using generic benefits that you think apply to everyone. If you use it, make sure you tailor the benefits to the specific problems faced by the customer, and use plenty of CAB ‘hooks’.

4. Rhetorical Questions

This takes the questions that are probably flying around the audience’s heads, voices them aloud and then answers them for them. It's a good choice when you know the audience has some knowledge of your subject. “I think there are four basic questions we have to ask ourselves when looking at this issue. The first is . . . what will the effect on X?"

5. Argument & Answer 

This is excellent when facing a cynical, skeptical or even antagonistic audience. It demonstrates you understand their concerns (or at least are aware of what those concerns are), takes their objections or arguments head-on and refutes them one by one.

Once you let a member of the audience voice an objection, then even if you demolish it with a display of verbal brilliance unsurpassed since the oratory of Ancient Rome, there is always a chance that they won't agree because they feel they have lost face. Once they've 'gone public' with their opposition, they may feel they can't back down.

So don't let them raise the objection. YOU raise it, and then demolish it. This gives them the opportunity to agree mentally, think "That's a good point; I hadn't thought of it like that," to themselves and back away. They can do this because they haven't had to go public with their thoughts and there is no loss of face.

For example: "Now you might be thinking, 'That's a great idea Bill, but $50,000 is a lot of cash. We really don't have any money for that kind of thing with budgets being so tight.' And I think that's a reasonable viewpoint. But I've looked at the cost savings we'd enjoy as a result and I think you may be surprised to learn that this would pay for itself within 12 months"

In a sales context, it can be a good choice when you are the underdog and are pitching against bigger or more experienced competition. Instead of ignoring the negatives you know the customer has in her mind and hoping they won’t be raised, you can raise them yourself and deal with them. Say, "Now there are some who might think we're too small for this project, but I don't hold that opinion [NB: a less confrontational way of saying, "I disagree"]. I think our smaller size actually gives us a number of advantages . . ."

6. Opportunity & Solution 

A lot of the time you are presenting you will be trying to persuade or motivate a group or individual to do (or agree to) something. There are two carrots you can dangle in front of them to get them to do this. One gives them a way to obtain something (gain, pleasure, money, market share, etc.). The other gives them a way to avoid something (loss, pain, disaster, etc.), The first is called Opportunity & Solution. This has a built-in CAB, in that it explains an opportunity that is facing the audience and then proceeds to explain how they can grasp it.

7. Problem & Solution

The second is Problem & Solution. Don’t think that the audience’s problems don’t need to be mentioned because they are well aware of them.  Two points:

  • Sometimes they aren’t aware of the problem (or at least how big it is or could become); if so, it is your job to inform them about it and blow it up in their minds.
  • They may be aware of it, but not thinking about it. There are 1001 things that could be on the audience’s minds at that point; a whole host of other business issues, but also a myriad of personal ones – the fight I had with my partner before I left for work, the football match I’m looking forward to watching tonight, my dog’s sick, my daughter has a big exam today, my son hasn’t got into his number one college choice, what I’m going to cook for the family’s dinner tonight, the funny noise my car was making this morning, etc., etc.).

Your job is to create a situation where there is a huge cartoon thought bubble coming from each of your audience’s heads with the words, ‘You’re right, that’s a real problem we face right now/are going to face,’ then it’s as easy as falling off a log to say, 'Let me tell you how we can avoid/solve that ......’ and present your solution.

I’m often asked which is the most powerful approach: opportunity or problem? Either can be effective, but 90% of the time the desire to avoid pain is far stronger than the desire to obtain pleasure.

In one experiment a large number of costors were asked to choose between two different hypothetical options in a scenario where a disease is forecast to kill 600 people.

If they choose option A, 200 people will be saved. If they choose option B, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no-one will be saved.

72% of physicians went for the safe strategy - option A. They'd prefer to save a guaranteed number of people than risk everybody dying.

A second group then had to pick between two further options. If option C was chosen, 400 people would die. If they chose option D, there was a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 will die. Given these options, the doctors went for the exact opposite.

Now 78% chose option D, and only 22% chose option C.

But the two scenarios were exactly the same; losing two-thirds of the population is the same as saving one-third! Yet depending on how the dilemma was put to them, the doctors reacted very differently; in other words, the words chosen had a dramatic effect on the result!

When the possible results were described in terms of deaths rather than lives saved, they were so keen to avoid any association with loss (they were doctors after all; their role in society is to save life) that they were prepared to risk everything and gamble.

So whenever you're trying to persuade someone to do something, don't just think of the benefits that will accrue from your proposed course of action (which is what most salespeople do when selling). Instead, think of what pain or loss will be avoided instead.

This pain doesn't have to be concrete, as in a loss of money, profit or market share. It can also be abstract, as in the pain/loss of reputation caused by making a bad decision. For many years during the 1970s/80s, IBM sold its mainframe computers using the tactic, 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.' This played upon the fear in many buyers' minds that they might make a wrong decision when choosing a new mainframe. The unspoken implication was that people did get fired for buying other, less well-known brands.


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