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The Art of Presenting to Win: You and Your Audience

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Few human activities are done as often as presentations, and as poorly. One recent estimate has it that 30 million presentations using Microsoft PowerPoint slides are made every day. You’ve probably attended more than a few. How many of them were truly memorable, effective, and persuasive? Probably only a handful. This chapter will help you improve your presentations by keeping your audience in mind when crafting them.
This chapter is from the book

Company Examples:

  • Network Appliance
  • Luminous Networks

The Problem with Presentations

Few human activities are done as often as presentations, and as poorly. One recent estimate has it that 30 million presentations using Microsoft PowerPoint slides are made every day. I’m sure that you’ve attended more than a few. How many of them were truly memorable, effective, and persuasive? Probably only a handful.

The vast majority of presentations fall prey to what I call the Five Cardinal Sins:

  1. No clear point. The audience leaves the presentation wondering what it was all about. How many times have you sat all the way through a presentation and, at the end, said to yourself, "What was the point?"
  2. No audience benefit. The presentation fails to show how the audience can benefit from the information presented. How many times have you sat through a presentation and repeatedly said to yourself, "So what?"
  3. No clear flow. The sequence of ideas is so confusing that it leaves the audience behind, unable to follow. How many times have you sat through a presentation and, at some point, said to yourself, "Wait a minute! How did the presenter get there?"
  4. Too detailed. So many facts are presented, including facts that are overly technical or irrelevant, that the main point is obscured. How many times have you sat in on a presentation and, at some point, said to yourself, "What does that mean?"
  5. 5. Too long. The audience loses focus and gets bored before the presentation ends. How many times in your entire professional career have you ever heard a presentation that was too short?

When presenters commit any of these sins, they are wasting the time, energy, and attention of their audience. What’s more, they are thwarting their own objectives.

Each of these Five Sins is quite separate and distinct from the others. Here’s an analogy to illustrate:

Suppose you and I were chatting, and I said, "Let me tell you about what I had for dinner last night." My presentation would have a point, wouldn’t it? You’d know what I intended to do, and I wouldn’t be committing Sin #1.

But why on earth should you care about what I had for dinner last night? Unless you had said, "Jerry, I’m bored with all the restaurants in the area. Can you recommend a new place?" Then, by telling you about the excellent meal I had at a hot new bistro last night, I would be providing a benefit to you, and I’d avoid Sin #2.

Now, if I told you about my fine meal by starting with the dessert, then I went back to the salad, then jumped forward to the cheese course, then back to the main course, my story would have no flow. If instead I went from soup to nuts, it would have a clear and orderly path, and I’d eliminate Sin #3.

If I described the courses I ate by using the phylum, class, order, genus, and species of every animal and vegetable product in the dinner, it would be far too technical and too detailed. If instead I confined my description to descriptive adjectives and simple nouns, I would avoid Sin #4.

Finally, if I took four hours to tell you about a meal that took me only two hours to consume, my presentation would be too long. If instead I did it in five minutes, I’d escape Sin #5.

This analogy may be a little far-fetched, but the Five Cardinal Sins are all too real. And although each of the five is unique and independent of the others, they can all be summarized in a least- common denominator, a Data Dump: an excessive, meaningless, shapeless outpouring of data without purpose or plan. The inevitable reaction of audiences to a Data Dump is not persuasion, but rather the horrific effect known as MEGO: Mine Eyes Glaze Over.

Why? Why would any presenter in his or her right mind do that to any audience? Would you do that if you were trying to attract potential clients? Would you do that if you were trying to clinch a sale, raise investment capital, or convince analysts that your company is solid? Hardly.

The objectives of all of the preceding presentations are varied, but they all have one factor in common. In every case, you are trying to get the audience to do your bidding, to respond to your call to action, whether that means endorsing a proposal, signing a contract, writing a check, or working harder and smarter. The Five Cardinal Sins stand in the way of achieving this goal.

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