Posted & filed under Blog, Communication Skills Coaching.

Let me paint you a picture of a typical coaching session for a Finance Director preparing for a Financial results presentation. This should bring to life the tips that follow.

We started with a first delivery of the draft presentation and the FD often provides a fairly efficient run through of the company’s latest financial position, as detailed in a report their department has been poring over for many weeks previously.

Invariably they speak quite clearly, hesitating occasionally and fluffing one or two lines. They are surprised they were speaking for rather longer than expected, admit to feeling a little nervous and un-prepared, but promise to be up to speed on the big day. They are rightly concerned about issues such as use of notes, effective eye contact and how to handle questions on some tricky areas.

I usually hold back on what I would really like to say, which is that they were quite dull and even a little robotic in their delivery. This is because I know that the real issues revolve around the content and pacing rather than the aspects delivery they were expecting me to discuss.

What I invariably do, therefore, is to say: “That was ‘OK’. But what is it that you want your audience to go away thinking, remembering and doing as a result of your presentation”? This catches many of them by surprise and they often say: “That’s a good question”. One FD never came up with an answer and I found myself dealing with somebody else the following year. Another, though, thought for a moment and said: “Actually, I want them to go away thinking and remembering this: ‘We’ve got a great set of results; we’re back on the growth curve”.

“That”, I said, “is rather good. My problem, though, is that you never actually said what you now tell me is your most important message! I want you to open up with that, so that they immediately get your big point. I certainly want you to close with that – so that they leave the building with your big, positive, memorable message ringing in their ears. The everything in-between should be bringing that message alive. It’s actually a very good way of deciding whether a certain piece of information goes into your presentation or is edited out. Is it helping to bring to life your big overarching message – the thing you want your audience to go away thinking, remembering and acting upon? If not, it should be excluded.”

The secret of great delivery actually lies in getting the construction right. If you can get it in an order that has a natural flow – built around high focus on a big over-arching message – then the delivery details start to look after themselves. You will find that you are no longer worrying about the complexities of content and can focus instead on enhancing your delivery with appropriate body language and vocal techniques.

The most important tip, however, is to get your Audience and your Message in the right order priority:

  • Think about your audience before constructing your message. What is their knowledge level, what are they currently thinking, what prejudices or misconceptions do they hold? Even the most highly polished message could be meaningless if you have not first thought carefully about your audience. Think back to when Tony Blair neglected to do this when addressing the Women’s Institute. He was at the height of his powers, but on this occasion the audience gave him a slow handclap!
  • More specifically, don’t leave an elephant in the room. If something difficult is inevitably going to be on the minds of your audience, mention it clearly and as soon as possible, but briefly – so that you can move onto more positive matters.
  • Firsts and Lasts are the most important parts of any presentation because those are the elements that audiences remember. So script these precisely and rehearse them more than anything else.
  • Don’t simply put your report on the screen. However beautiful it looks in print or even on the internet, visual aids have a different role to play here. They need specifically to support you and what you are saying in a way that can be seen in an instant. This probably means they will need simplifying for the screen. So be sure to check how visible they are on the screen you will be using.
  • That said, you will almost certainly be addressing ‘detail people’ so you can have the best of both worlds by keeping fine detail that may come up in Q&A in appendices – that you can move to if necessary via hyperlinks.
  • Be sure to let your emotions show! If you have good news to report let that be evident in your face and your voice.
  • Build on this by finding one or two opportunities to add a personal perspective, perhaps through an anecdote. This can bring several benefits: a) It can illustrate key points b) It brings an automatic change of tone to your voice, so helping with pacing c) If you let a little light in on yourself your audience will warm to you and everything you say will come over as (even) more convincing.
  • For Q&A you obviously need to plan answers for difficult questions that may be asked. But plan for simple questions as well – these often come up and surprise the speaker, so undermining the credibility of their answers to more complex issues.
  • Final, surprise tip: See if you can avoid putting Q&A at the very end. You want to ‘;control your climax’ by sending them away with that key overarching message that we discussed up front, not with whatever happens to be the final questions! You can usually set this up by saying something like: “Before we conclude”, what questions do you have….thank you for your questions. And thank you again for joining today. As you can see, we have a great set of results; we are back on the growth curve“. Delivered with a touch of gusto, you will have just created what entertainers call an ‘applause cue’.

Nick Fitzherbert is our expert advising on presentation skills, communication strategy and creative thinking.