Preparation and Closing Loops
As a consultant, I often have the opportunity to present and to attend presentations. These may be for everyday meetings, sales pitches, informational sessions, training, special interest groups, industry conferences or other casual events.
Before we get into the meat of the topic, I just want to be clear that this is not meant to focus on PowerPoint presentations, rather on presenting in a general form. So, your presentation may be backed up by PowerPoint, but I aim to address the topic from the angle of preparation, execution and take-away. Also, I am by no means a professional speaker and definitely don’t claim to be a master at this. But, I have some experience and have observed what works for me and other really good speakers at events I have attended. I hope to share this with you from that point of view.
Before I go into the first logical point – preparation – let’s pause to consider those who have never presented before but might need to at some point. There are not many things I have experienced in life that can cause the kind of anxiety that comes from presenting to a group of people for the first time. What causes this? Firstly, the spotlight is on you and it’s like stepping into a boxing ring – once it starts you are on your own. Secondly, whether you know them or not makes no difference for your comfort levels. And finally, you are assumed to be well versed in what you are presenting (not always the case). So, these things can immediately create pressure which won’t help leading up to the moment you need to start. And in my experience, the first 3 or 4 sentences generally set the tone and flow for the rest of the presentation for you and the audience. If your nerves throw you off here, it’s tough to get a flow going. The only way to ease the stress (and it will never go away completely), is to consider the following:
As with most other things in life (interviews/going out/cooking), preparation is the most obvious starting point. But what does it mean to prepare? At a high level it means a few things:
- Don’t procrastinate – waiting for the day before to work under pressure and claiming this is when you do your best work is nonsense. The best presentations I have done were prepared in advance with time to review and tweak the content the day before. Included here is your PowerPoint presentation or any other tools/props/documents/electronic devices you are going to use for the presentation.
- Understand your topic like you do your hobby – this is crucial for two reasons. You can get thrown off during the presentation by a question or distraction but still restore the flow naturally. And the audience experiences a natural tone from you, not as if you are rehearsing something.
- Plan your presentation to make sure you will stay within the allotted timeframe
- Be on time
As a minimum when presenting you need an intro, the body, a wrap-up statement to close the loop and a golden thread.
- Some presenters will open with a relatable story, a shocking statement or catchy line. This is to anchor your attention, to get you interested and to set a scene. I start with something like this, but what also works, depending on the type of event or meeting, is to explain why you are presenting and where your topic fits into the rest of the event or discussions – context. What you want is for the audience to understand why they should pay attention to what you are about to tell them and what they will take away from it. It even helps to say it to them – “I am so-and-so, I will be talking about this-and-that and this is what I hope you take away from this presentation…”.
- The body is the core of what you will present or report on and you have prepared. The easy part. Don’t rattle off bullet points here – find a way to create a flow. Tell a story or take your audience on a journey during your presentation. Something that I learned late but is extremely important and please remember this – pause. Pause after specific or logical points. Pause and breathe.
- Closing the loop – this is extremely important. If you’ve ever watched someone lose their train of thought and how awkward it gets watching them try to return, you will understand why closing a loop is important. Although it doesn’t always end up as awkward as the guy losing his train of thought, it is equally frustrating to listen to someone who doesn’t seem to be getting to the point. Make time to conclude and tie your main theme into the rest of the points you made. This is where your audience should go “ah-ha”. Now they see why you started with that controversial statement or funny story and why it was relevant to what you were going to say. You have to close this loop for them, go full circle and end with clarity on the context. This is where you can give or reiterate the ‘take-away’, what you want each of them to leave with.
The Golden Thread
You will not be able to give a proper conclusion or ‘take-away’ to your audience if you don’t maintain a golden thread.
- This will be one or two ideas or thoughts that you maintain throughout your presentation to keep you on track and keep your presentation contextual. Make sure that before you present, you understand what that golden thread is and that you can communicate that golden thread on its own. The rest of your presentation should be fluff around this golden thread. You can take all the meat off of a skeleton but when only the skeleton is left you can still tell if it is a dog, human or dinosaur skeleton. The golden thread should be the same. Even stripped down to its bare minimum, it still makes sense.
Lastly, when you have put these elements together, you should be able to deliver this in a conversational style. Not necessarily getting responses from the audience, but speaking naturally as if you were in a normal conversation.
Feel free to add any lessons or experiences (good and bad) you have had in the comments section below.