An effective business presentation is so much more than facts, figures, and carefully crafted PowerPoint slides.
Every great presentation involves the same three key elements: an engaging opening that captures the audience's attention, a clear and logical structure, and a confident, knowledgeable presenter.
The great thing is that all three elements can be taught and quickly improved. Nobody is born to be an amazing presenter, but I strongly believe that everyone can become one.
Over the past 30 years, my presentation methods have completely changed. I used to dread giving presentations; now I relish them.
Here are some of the ways that I improved my presentation skills and changed my perspective.
How to Start a Business Presentation
First impressions are really important in a presentation. Your audience will be more likely to engage with what you have to say if you capture their imagination in the first five minutes.
There are a few ways that I like to start a presentation to captivate my audience.
The first is with pictures. People like pictures. People especially like pictures of people. If you can fill your first few slides with pictures and a short but interesting story, your audience will thank you.
The second is with personal references to members of the audience. People enjoy being referenced and recognised for their involvement and achievements. This is an especially effective technique if you will require audience participation later on. The people you referenced at the beginning will be more inclined to answer questions because they feel personally involved with the presentation.
This leads me on to my third and most common method of starting a presentation. Starting with simple questions you know people will want to answer. The type of question is irrelevant; all you need is feedback as quickly as possible.
We all know what it's like asking the room a question 30 minutes in and being met with total silence. There are two likely reasons for this situation every speaker dreads. You are either talking about the wrong thing, or your audience is not confident.
You can avoid the first problem with careful preparation and a quick analysis of your audience. Starting with easy-to-answer questions avoids the second problem because you have already broken the ice, meaning that people will feel more confident to engage with you.
How to Structure a Business Presentation
There is no one perfect way to structure a presentation"”it depends on the topic. However, there are a few best practices you can follow.
Keep Your Presentation Length to a Minimum
If possible, your presentation should sit under the half hour mark for maximum information retention. However, I know that is not always possible. I have given many 3 hour presentations that were originally cut from 6 hours or more. If your presentation exceeds an hour, it is important to schedule in breaks or you will lose attention. This is because the human brain cannot concentrate on any one thing for over 45 minutes before needing a break.
Break Your Content into Sections
Breaking your presentation makes it easier to follow. It also means that if you lost someone in one section, you have a chance of reengaging them in the next section.
Creating sections also gives you the opportunity to engage regularly with your audience. I always ask if there is anything people want more detail about after I finish each section. There is always one person who enjoys asking questions, and in asking questions, they will put the rest of the room at ease and build group confidence.
It is a fault to create a rigid presentation structure that cannot be changed regardless of the mood of the room.
Sometimes you just won't get the reaction you were expecting. Maybe the topic is tedious, maybe the room is too hot, maybe it's late in the day. Whatever the reason, there is no point giving a top-class presentation to people who aren't listening.
I like to pre-prepare industry specific jokes and short stories just in case this happens. A short 5-minute break can be enough to re-engage your audience.
How to Improve Your Presentation Skills
Public-speaking can be nerve-racking and difficult to master. You need to be confident, have excellent timing, and have the ability to read a room. These are all the skills that a great actor has.
I believe that the best way to improve your presentation skills is to take learn to act.
My Experience With Acting
Like most children, I had my first encounter with acting in primary school. I played the innkeeper in my first Nativity and immediately fell in love with the feeling of being in front of an audience. I went on to do drama at O level and took part in a variety of competitions and events.
Through these experiences, I learnt how to distance myself from the stress of public speaking and fake confidence. After a while of faking it, I made it and public speaking no longer phases me.
How Acting Has Improved My Presenting Skills
My experiences of acting as a child have absolutely helped me progress in business.
The first time I ever went to get a loan for my business, I wrote a script, practiced in front of my mirror, and learnt my pitch by heart because I was used to it. I was awarded the loan in part because I was used to performing in front of people, which allowed me to convey all the important information without getting flustered.
Why Learning to Act Can Improve Your Presentation Skills
I would recommend that anyone who wants to be a business leader should take some acting lessons to get over the hurdle of feeling self-conscious or embarrassed.
In acting lessons, you are taught to breathe and speak so you always sound calm. This is really important for presentations as you will only be able to put your audience at ease if you too are at ease.
Learning to act can also improve your overall awareness of your audience. You will learn to sense the pace of the room react accordingly. If you know how your audience is reacting, you can tailor your approach to say the right thing to get through to them.
The way I do this is through a trick I learned in drama school: following a select few in the audience to see if I still have them. If you have lost your chosen audience members, chances are you have lost most everyone else.
The single most important thing to remember is that people are not born with excellent presentation skills; they developed them. So, do not despair!
If presentations are the bane of your working life, you are not alone, and you are not destined to dislike them forever. By taking some acting classes now, you may save yourself a lot of time and stress in the future.