Steps to Presentation Success

By John M. Buckman

Someone once said that three things matter in a presentation: what is said, who says it, and how it’s said. Of those three, the first matters the least. In other words, your presentation success will stand more on the audience’s perception of you and their reaction to your delivery rather than on the content of your message.

Presentation Rules

1. Construct a clear purpose in your opening comments. State your purpose in terms of how you plan to change the audience or what you want it to do.

2. Analyze the audience. Don’t whisper to the deaf or wink to the blind. Find out before you arrive who your audience will be. Learn about their current experiences, history, values, mood, needs, aspirations, prior knowledge, prejudices, political beliefs, demographics, socioeconomics, and expectations of you and of the topic. Prepare to push their hot buttons. Stimulate their senses with your presentation.

3. Research the topic of your presentation thoroughly. Collect more information and supporting material that you can use in your presentation. This will increase your confidence, arm you to answer questions, and empower you to take the presentation in whatever direction appears to be best at the time.

4. Cluster your ideas into three to five main points. It will be easier for your audience to follow, understand, and accept your ideas.

5. Create and use a set of reassuring notes. If you’re speaking from an outline, use trigger phrases for each point, not full sentences, so that your eyes will be up most of the time and you won’t sound unnatural when you look down.

6. Use memorable audiovisuals. People may forget what they hear but they won’t forget what they see. PowerPoint slides must be clean, clear, crisp and without a lot of razzle dazzle. Remember the rule for overhead transparencies: seven words per line and seven lines per slide. This rule is still a good rule for today’s PowerPoint. Don’t use a lot of animations in a slide unless they have a direct relationship to the message you are trying to deliver. Make certain that your handouts are attractive and easy to read. Make sure that the person who made the handout copies used a first generation original to make the copies.

7. Rehearse. Before any new presentation, practice two or three times until you feel comfortable with it in the room where you’ll give it, if possible. The best time for the final rehearsal is the night/day before the real thing.

8. Avoid oral distractions. As you rehearse, listen for unnecessary utterances (“aah,” “uhm,” “you know,” “OK”), repetitive phrases, poor uses of language, mispronunciations, and throat clearing.

9. Arrange the room for maximum advantage. Seat everyone comfortably where they can see you and your audiovisuals easily. Ensure fresh air, moderate temperature, and bright lighting. Favor larger over smaller rooms. Open the drapes for more spacious feeling.

10. Manage your stage fright. A little performance anxiety is a good thing; it energizes you. If it becomes excessive just before you perform, get it out through your mouth by , through your hands with a vise grip on a marker or on the edge of the lectern, or through your legs by walking, running, or climbing stairs. Of course, nothing beats being super prepared as an antidote for stage fright.

11. Get off to a great start. Prepare an attention getting, interest arousing, rapport building, and purpose revealing opening. Avoid opening with an apology: “I’m not an expert on…,” “If I’d had more time to prepare…,” “I hope you will…,” “I’ll be as brief as I can…,” etc.

12. Connect with the audience. Relax, smile tell humorous stories about yourself (avoid jokes) don’t hide behind a lectern, dress like the audience (perhaps a bit better), avoid pretenses, empathize with the audience, fix your eyes on audience members as you speak.

13. Inject vocal variety. Use vocal contrasts in inflection, pitch, volume, emphasis, and speed to hold your audience’s attention and to demonstrate your enthusiasm for your ideas.

14. Use your body for positive effect. Move throughout the audience; air out your armpits, be animated. Show your excitement and enthusiasm for your subject matter. Avoid distractions such as twirling your hair, juggling your keys, putting both hands in your pockets, tapping the lectern, turning away from the audience, swaying, leaning on the lectern, playing with a pen or marker or doing anything repetitively.

15. Maintain control and credibility. Handle disruptions, firmly yet tactfully. Answer questions honestly, always repeating them for the larger audience. Respond to challenges with data, not emotion. Prepare for the toughest audience objections and dismantle them confidently, yet diplomatically.

16. Finish on time. Just like starting on time is a sign of respect – finishing on time is another sign of respect for the audience. If you can finish a little early your audience will love you.

John M. Buckman is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and the immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.

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