Back to the Basics for an Effective Presentation

We’ve all heard the proposition that the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) form the
basis for a solid education. Proponents of this approach argue school curriculums have become
cluttered with extraneous courses and activities at the expense of the fundamentals. The result
they say, is that we graduate students without even minimal levels of competency. We’d benefit
from looking at the basis for a solid presentation as well. Today’s presentation technology that
includes whiz bang special effects, the ability to incorporate multimedia elements into electronic
slide shows and a plethora of font types, sizes and colors is producing more and more
presentations that neglect the fundamentals by focusing too much on the superfluous.

In the schools of rhetoric in ancient Greece, aspiring speakers learned the three fundamentals
of producing effective presentations: Invention, Arrangement and Style.

Invention centers on laying out a clear proposition and then supporting it. In the initial phases
of my work with clients, I consistently find many unable to answer the question “What do you
want to accomplish by the end of the presentation?” This inability to articulate the goal of the
presentation arises because too many speakers focus on what they want to say, instead of the
results they want to achieve. They’re more concerned with constructing bullet points than
making logical points. Thoughtful decisions about what types of evidence and proof points will
strengthen the presentation require a clear statement of purpose. It’s impossible to get where
you’re going with no destination in mind.

Arrangement refers to the organization of the material in a logical progression. At the
broadest level, good organization means a clear introduction, body and conclusion. Each part
must fulfill specific functions to create an overall effect. For example, an effective introduction
will overcome preoccupation by getting attention, overcome indifference by showing the
audience benefits and overcome uncertainty by previewing the key messages. Instead, I witness
introduction after introduction that accomplishes none of these essentials and instead spends
the first ten minutes reviewing where their firm has offices, how many years of experience they
have and how many associates have some type of professional designation. Within the body,
key messages should be structured around a logical thought pattern such as problem-solution
or sequential. Moving from one key message to another requires thoughtful and apparent
transitions. The conclusion has three functions as well. The first is to provide intellectual
reinforcement of the key messages. The second is to provide psychological closure. The third
is to provide a call to action. The conclusion shouldn’t be used as an “overflow” bin to fit in
information left out of the body because of time constraints or changing circumstances.

Style means the skillful use of persuasive language. It’s concerned with both selecting individual
words to establish the appropriate frame (rescue vs. bailout, or approval vs. signature) as well
as combining words to create rhetorical effect through figures and tropes. Examples include
metaphors and the use of anaphora, repeating the same words at the beginning of successive
sentences (“We have to solve this problem before it gets any bigger. We have to solve this
problem before it creates a domino effect. We have to solve this problem before we do
anything else.”). Recognize that style involves much more than just grammatical correctness. It
also involves finding your own voice and communicating in such a way so as to build trust.

I don’t mean to suggest that you abandon electronic slide shows entirely. They’ve become so
entrenched in most business and professional presentations you probably couldn’t eliminate
them even if you wanted to. But be mindful of the role they play; they are support for a
thoughtful presentation, not a substitute. Don’t let a PowerPoint template determine how you
create and communicate your value proposition to clients. Expecting an impressive deck of
PowerPoint slides to help you create a powerful presentation is like expecting a word
processing program to help you write a great novel. Great literature existed long before word
processing and great speeches existed long before PowerPoint. Get back to the basics. You’ll
change audience expectations and add influence to your expertise.

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