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Presentations That Persuade

“Presentations That Persuade”

Learn how to put a sharper edge on your influential abilities and push your listeners to action.

Don’t rely on PowerPoint to make your point. High-tech tools don’t guarantee persuasive presentations and can even weaken your message if used incorrectly.

Another twist: Today’s blitzkrieg of voicemail, e-mail, faxes and cellular-phone devices has upped the stakes for communicating, making it tougher to stand out. Just being competent isn’t enough; today you must be compelling. That means grabbing your audience from the get-go — whether they are customers, suppliers, employees or financiers.

Hook Your Audience With a Value Statement

A persuasive presentation kicks off by pulling two fundamentals together: your selfish goal — what you want the audience to do — and your listeners’ goals.

Billy Payne, the real estate attorney who brought the 1996 Olympic games to Atlanta, was a master at linking these objectives. When Payne began stumping for support, he gave many speeches but pitched the same idea differently, depending on his audience. To business groups, Payne said: You need to support this bid. If you do and if we win, it will bring a lot of business to Atlanta. To government groups, Payne held out recognition as a carrot, stressing that the Olympics would "put Atlanta on the map." To civic and church groups, Payne emphasized the number of great projects the Olympics would generate — which would rally their organizations.

Your Goal, Their Goal, Our Goal

Everyone has a favorite radio station: WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). Like Payne, you need to devise a value statement that links your selfish goal with the listeners’ goals. Be sure to get those benefits up front and center. The value statement is your hook. Yet it’s surprising how many speakers only imply a benefit for their audience, while others forget it entirely.

Limit your points. Be judicious with your information. You may have dozens of points to make during a presentation, but whittle that list down to three. People can only remember so much. And if they don’t retain the information you give them, the chances of them acting on it are slim.

Support those points with evidence. The best type of evidence is delivered through stories and anecdotes with details that people understand. For example, suppose you’re in the construction business. Everyone in the industry claims to deliver "quality projects on time and on budget." But perhaps your company built a hospital. Telling a prospective client about its success — and the impact the project had on the community — will provide a stronger foundation for your claims.

One caveat: It’s important to keep your point crystal clear. If a story is too long, your listener may misinterpret its message. You have to walk a fine line between keeping anecdotes tight and giving enough details.

When you deliver a message, you’re trying to connect with listeners in a personal way. The idea is to win their trust.

Unfortunately there isn’t a set prototype to copy. It’s important to be yourself — albeit yourself at your best — a state that one communications expert calls "maximum you."

Presentational Panache: Maximum You

Think how you act when discussing a favorite topic with friends — you’re enthusiastic, you’re engaging, you’re passionate. That’s the energy level you seek when making a presentation. To some extent it’s acting, except you’re acting like yourself at your best.

Though individual styles are different, there are a number of universal guidelines for connecting:

Maintain good eye contact. It’s important to talk "one-on-one," even if you’re in front of 10,000 people. Speakers with darting eyes can appear shifty. Look at one person for at least three seconds or until you feel them looking back, before moving on to another member of the audience.

Caution: Look at the person’s entire face instead of locking eyes, which may make the other person uncomfortable.

Smile. It’s surprising how many speakers forget this simple tactic. Remember that you’re greeting people — often for the first time. Not only is smiling polite, putting others at ease, but it helps you relax too.

Use your voice as a tool. Put some energy into it. Get rid of monotony. Slow down, speed up. After you’ve made a major point, pause and let the audience digest it. Remember, silence is golden.

Passion Play

This is not rocket science. But when you’re in a situation of high anxiety, it’s easy to forget. Too often, we don’t act natural in front of a large group, especially one comprised of strangers. High anxiety sets in. Our body language is stiff, we make sweeping eye gestures, mumble or talk too fast.

Another blunder: lacking passion, which makes for a boring presentation. Audiences size up speakers quickly (some experts say in the first 15 seconds) to decide whether or not they’ll continue to listen.

Competency used to be enough to guarantee an audience’s attention. But information overload has made today’s listeners highly selective. Being an expert in your field is not enough to stand out of the crowd. You have to demonstrate passion for whatever you’re pushing.

Granted, exhibiting passion is tough because we’ve been taught that it’s important to be serious and competent to succeed in business. Yet blending professionalism with personality is a winning combination. A passionate speaker taps the heart and brain of the listener.

Practice Makes Perfect

The No. 1 reason speakers strike out: not practicing. Reading over your presentation on the plane is simply not enough. If you want to affect your audience, you need to rehearse — a lot.

That means standing up in front of the mirror, friends or colleagues. Deliver your entire presentation, beginning with your first word and not stopping until you’re done. Then do it again and again.

Once you know the material really well, you can focus on presentational style — eye contact, voice, gestures. Tape record yourself or use a video camera. Most people have only heard themselves on an answering machine.

There’s no secret, no shortcut, just practice. Even professionals "rehear" their presentations. There’s always room for improvement.

Interact With Your Audience

Make sure you leave plenty of time for questions — as much as one-third of your allotted speaking time. Questions are a wonderful way to spark a conversation between you and the audience. The audience feels integrated, part of the presentation.

If there are no questions, it could be a bad sign. Maybe you bored the audience. Or maybe you didn’t connect with listeners, and they feel intimidated, afraid to ask the wrong thing.

Speakers often duck questions because they’re afraid of getting one they can’t answer. Once again, practice pays off. Spend time thinking of all the possible questions that an audience could raise, and then rehearse your answers.

Reinforce your message: Use answers to satisfy the question at hand, while referring back to one of your original points and/or objective.

Corner-Office Considerations

Executives: Be wary. You’re accustomed to having people listen to you — or at least pretend to listen. Yet polite head nodding from your audience doesn’t mean that you’re connecting with them.

Positional power doesn’t necessarily translate into persuasive power. Speakers with too much "top-down" style lose touch with others because they’re talking at people instead of with them. There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance. Don’t alienate your audience by crossing the wrong way. Remember, you’re trying to build a consensus so that you can effect change.

With that in mind, try to read the mood of the meeting room when you enter it. Perhaps there’s something in the news you want to refer to, or maybe your team has won a championship game. Many executives miss that opportunity; they’re catering to their own personal agenda.

Roll With the Punches

Executives don’t always get honest feedback — title and salary questions often get in the way. Find someone you trust, whether inside the company or from your personal life, and get them to listen. When you do get criticism, be big enough to accept it.

Finally, always roll with the punches. Maintain a sense of humor, especially when something goes wrong. A recovery is greatly smoothed with an injection of humor.

Writer: TJ Becker