If you’re a business presenter, you know that the presentations you deliver serve one purpose—they help you get business done. Your presentations aren’t big speeches. They aren’t TED talks. They’re practical, necessary, and far too often time-consuming and frustrating. If you’re like most presenters, you probably spend too much time worrying that you’re over or under-prepared, wondering if the slides you’re using will do the job, and struggling to follow the rules of delivery.
What if things could be different? What if your next presentation was a comfortable interaction between you and your audience, a kind of conversation that gets business done smoothly and efficiently? It can be if you turn away from the speechmaking strategies you’ve been taught and approach your presentation as if it were a conversation.
The problem business presenters face is fundamental. The assumption—reinforced in school and training classes—has always been that a speech and a presentation are essentially the same processes, the difference between them measured in degrees of formality. Speeches are formal. Presentations less so.
This assumption encourages business presenters to bring the wrong tools to the job. It’s like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture on the wall—not only awkward but a little dangerous as well. This mismatch in approach has real-life consequences, including increased nervousness for presenters, wasted preparation time, stilted delivery, and a tendency to blame PowerPoint for every presentation ill.
So let’s look at a new way to do things. If you approached your next presentation as a type of conversation, not a type of speech, what would you do differently? What adjustments would you need to make?
1. Prepare a frame, not a script
Conversations are spontaneous processes. Someone speaks as someone listens, back and forth. The same thing happens during a business presentation, the difference being there is someone in charge, someone leading the conversation. And that person, the presenter, has a goal that can only be reached through the conversation.
So how do you prepare for that? Not by scripting because that prevents the conversation from taking place. Not by ignoring preparation altogether because that leads to confusion and frustrated audience members. The solution is to build a frame for the conversation to take place within. A solid frame assures your audience of four things: you have a plan, you know what you want, you understand their perspective, and there is a reason for them to care about what you’re talking about. We have a tool called the Framing Strategy Worksheet. Download it here.
The first few slides in your presentation should emphasize the frame you’ve built. Use an agenda slide, a slide that identifies your audience’s current situation, and maybe include a slide that lists the audience’s takeaways from your presentation. The number and type of slides really don’t matter as long as you communicate the frame. While the frame doesn’t communicate a lot of content, it does establish you as someone who has the audience’s need for clarity and efficiency in mind.
2. Bring content slides into the conversation because they’re more than “visuals aids”
The conventional wisdom about the visual component in presentations holds that slides must be as simple as possible, images are more persuasive than bullet points, and presenters should never, ever read what’s on the slide. I might be able to make a case for each of these ideas if we were talking about speeches, but we’re not. So let’s take a closer look at how content slides should be used in a business presentation.
I’m fairly sure that many of the slides you use would not pass the scrutiny of a professional designer. There are two reasons for this—your audience and the amount of time you have. First, your audience may want and need to see the details, the data, the spreadsheet. Information like that can’t be designed into a beautiful slide. Your job, then, is to bring that information into the conversation and (just as important) make it understandable and useful. Second, you probably don’t have the time to create well-designed slides anyway. So there’s no point beating yourself up about it. Just be sure that when you’re talking about a complex slide, you communicate the point you need to make. Don’t just talk about the details on the slide.
3. Initiate the conversation, don’t strive for perfect delivery
When your presentation begins, it’s your job to bring the people you’re talking to into the conversation. That requires focusing on conversation skills, not delivery skills. Here’s the difference. Delivery skills are about appearances. They are about how you look and sound to your audience. Delivery skills are developed through rehearsal and lead to a type of performance.
Conversation skills are used to initiate an interaction and keep it going. They do more than make you look and sound good. They help you establish a genuine connection between you and your audience. When that happens, your natural communication instincts will kick in, and your nerves will be under control.
What are the most crucial conversational skills for presenters? Eye contact and pausing. Eye contact helps you connect with your audience. You can’t have a good face-to-face conversation without it. Pausing helps you think on your feet and stay in the moment. This may sound awfully simple, but it takes a conscious effort to calm your mind and focus on others when you’re feeling the stress of presenting. So at the beginning of your presentation, focus on one of these skills, whichever one works better for you.
When it’s time for your next business presentation, turn away from traditional speechmaking and embrace the essential, conversational nature of presenting. When you do, you’ll get business done more easily.