Presentation tips: 6 secrets of master presenters

Put these expert presentation tips to work, to avoid blunders and persuade with power
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Storytelling tips for leaders

Did your last presentation to a conference audience or your company’s board go as well as you hoped? Did your listeners all seem to understand and agree with your points? Did you walk away feeling confident they were persuaded by your pitch and would support your proposal?

Even if you’ve made pitches or presentations hundreds of times, strategy tweaks can make your presentations much more effective, says Hugh Braithwaite, CEO of marketing and communications agency Braithwaite Communications. Braithwaite has coached hundreds of enterprise executives in giving stronger presentations, and his best tips can benefit you, too.

1. Begin with the right goals

Here’s where most executive presenters make their first mistake, Braithwaite says. “When we ask people what are their goals, for even a high-level presentation to the board, they talk about getting through all their information, answering questions, showing listeners that they really know what they’re talking about,” he says.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Braithwaite believes every presentation should have three fundamental goals: connecting with the audience, making the presentation personally relevant to audience members, and having an impact on their thinking or behavior. “Think about who they are, what you want them to think, how you want them to feel, and what you want them to do as a result of your presentation,” he says. “That is key. If that sometimes causes you to scrap your whole presentation, so be it.”

[ EQ helps you be a stronger presenter. Read our related article, 5 TED Talks to increase your emotional intelligence. ]

2. Start your pitch before the presentation, and continue it afterward

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that whatever allotment of time you have to talk to your audience is your only opportunity to persuade them to your point of view. “Understand that the presentation is only one piece of your campaign,” Braithwaite says. “If you think about what you want the board to feel and do, you can start with information beforehand and follow it up afterward.” It’s a great idea to use your follow-up communications to reinforce the points your listeners agreed with, and address the points they were skeptical about.

3. Get the lay of the land

“If you come in with your grand technology vision after lunch, but the whole morning was devoted to budget cutting, you’re doomed,” Braithwaite says. “But if you say, ‘I have a vision to save money with technology in these three ways,’ you’re connected to part of their discussion, even if only partly.”

Makes sense, but how can you find out what will be discussed at a board meeting you’re not invited to? “There usually is a gatekeeper who will tell you what time you’re going on,” Braithwaite says. “You can ask, ‘By the way, what’s the topic of the meeting?’” You may not get an answer, but it’s worth making the attempt, he says.

You can also make some educated guesses, based on your own expertise as an executive, as to what the board is likely to be discussing. “What’s the state of the industry?” Braithwaite says. “How has the year gone?”

4. Use just a few data points

“People need proof points, but they can get overwhelmed by data,” Braithwaite says. He likens it to throwing tennis balls at someone: They’re able to catch one or two at a time, but throw more than that and they’ll fumble and drop some. So rather than present a lot of charts or graphs, he suggests focusing on three high-level messages that you can repeat and reinforce.

What if you have a lot of great data that you think your audience needs to see? Braithwaite suggests putting it together into a handout that you will provide before the presentation. Then, say something like this: “In the binder in front of you, there are charts showing all our competitors’ approach to security. I invite you to look at it all, but the point that stands out is that we are woefully behind.”

Do that, Braithwaite says, and you get the benefit of 50 slides that you didn’t have to take time for during the presentation itself.

5. Be front and center

“If the slides are 10 feet away from you, now you’ve walked offstage,” Braithwaite says. “You’re looking at your computer, and everyone else is looking at a wall.” Instead, he coaches executives to stand with their slides, becoming part of the presentation themselves rather than someone manipulating slides from elsewhere. And, he says, “Do not stand at a podium that covers most of your body.”

6. Monitor the audience and be ready to make changes

“We’ve all been at presentations where someone goes through the whole thing and then says, ‘Are there any questions?’ and the answer is, ‘No, that was wonderful, thank you.’ The door never even opened,” Braithwaite says.

Don’t let that happen to you: Be ready to make changes on the fly if needed. “All the best executive presenters say they gave some of their most successful presentations when they scrapped their original plans because someone in the audience said something that gave them a big clue as to what was wanted,” Braithwaite says.

To seize those opportunities, you need to really tune in to your audience. “If board members are looking through their packets, checking their email, and not making eye contact with you, then what you’re presenting or how you’re presenting isn’t working,” Braithwaite says. “If you don’t change it, it’s just going to get worse, but most people don’t even look at the audience.”

He also suggests asking the audience for questions at the beginning of the presentation rather than waiting until the end. It’s a great idea to start the presentation by saying something like, “I’m about to tell you about a new security system we should implement. What are your thoughts or questions about this right now?”

“They may say, ‘I don’t think we need it,’ or ‘We’re only doing it because of regulations,’ or ‘I’m not interested, but if it gives us more revenue, I might be for it,’” Braithwaite says. “That took 15 seconds and now you have a lot more information to work with.”

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Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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