May 19, 2011

News & Opinion: Presentations in Action

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 1:06 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

We all know a great presentation when we see it. With Jerry Weissman's new book, Presentations in Action, we get lessons from 80 great presentations about what makes them great.

For those that have ever presented to a group, you're familiar with the myriad of issues one needs to address (and often realizes they missed once in front of the group - too late!). This book can help keep those lessons in mind before it's too late.

Needless to say, it got me thinking a lot about presenting, so I sent the author some questions he's answered here:

Public speaking is the world's greatest fear. What are some basic things experts have done to take the edge off?

35 years ago the bestselling The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky included a survey that asked respondents what their worst fears were. At the top of the list was speaking before a group; it ranked more fearful than death, flying, and insects. Since then, countless experts have offered countless solutions, among them:

• Lie down to slow down your heart
• Run around the block to pump up your heart
• Pop a pill
• Take a swig of alcohol
• Focus on an imaginary spot in the back of the room
• Imagine your audience naked

Most of these are purely physical solutions to what is not a purely physical problem. Moreover, a physical approach to overcoming the fear of public speaking will make presenters or speakers feel like performers, and intensify their anxiety.

The simple solution is to put presenters’ minds at ease by doing what comes naturally: treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations. This focus on concentration is practiced in many related fields such as sports, music, and acting. Presentations in Action offers several case studies of each, including one example of the power of the conversational approach involving Bill Clinton.

Presentations are about more than just how you communicate. What are some tips for specific words to use, or avoid?

In this day and age of Sarbanes-Oxley wariness about forecasting and hyperbole, businesses have become defensive in their outbound communications to the public, press, and customers. Counseled by their legal staffs, corporate communicators—at all levels and in all forms—express their future plans in the conditional mood: “We believe…” or “We think…” or “We feel…” so as not to make forward-looking statements. While this may satisfy the attorneys, it sounds weak and uncertain to audiences who seek guidance about future direction and plans.

This is not to say that communicators should immediately switch to the declarative mood and start making rash predications. By all means, use the conditional mood, but instead of “believe,” “think,” and “feel,” try:
“We’re confident…”

How can some key principles easily translate when you present in a different country?

The entire thrust of Presentations in Action is to demonstrate the universality of all communications. Two of the key aspects of all presentations are applicable in any country.

• PowerPoint slides. All humans—regardless of their native language—perceive slides with their highly-sensitive sensory systems. If the slides are too dense, your audience becomes overloaded and stops listening to you. A simple rule of thumb to reduce sensory overload is to treat your slides as headlines and let your audience get the story from you. To make it even easier for your audience, confine the headlines to one line—avoid wordwrap.

• The presenter’s delivery style. Most humans are comfortable in one-to-one conversation. Most presenters try to become performers in front of the room. A simple rule of thumb is to treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations.

How can a presentation best inspire action in people?

Action occurs only when a presenter addresses both ends of the spectrum that spans the gap between what the presenter wants and what the audience wants:

• Call to Action. “What’s your point?” is anathema to audiences, yet many presenters fail to do what salespersons are urged to do: Ask for the order. This failure comes about as a result of two misguided assumptions: that the audience will reach a conclusion on their own, or that asking for the order is too pushy. Faint heart never won fair lady. Ask for the order.

• Provide a benefit. Generations of sales managers have had to remind their sales forces to sell benefits, not features, and yet the problem persists. To prompt a benefit, presenters can leverage the common axiom, “What’s in it for me?” by saying instead, “What’s in it for you?” or its acronym, WIIFY. The shift from “me” to “you” triggers the benefit to the audience.

If you use only one acronym, use WIIFY.


Jerry Weissman is the world's number one corporate presentations coach. His private client list reads like a who's who of the world’s best companies, including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix, Dolby Labs, EBay and many others.

Mr. Weissman founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988. One of his earliest efforts was the Cisco Systems IPO road show. Following its successful launch, Don Valentine, of Sequoia Capital, and then chairman of Cisco's Board of Directors, attributed “at least two to three dollars” of the offering price to Mr. Weissman's coaching. That endorsement led to more than 500 other IPO road show presentations that have raised hundreds of billions of dollars in the stock market.

Mr. Weissman's focus widened from coaching IPOs to include public and privately held companies. His techniques have helped another 500 plus firms develop and deliver their presentations.

Mr. Weissman is also the author of four business books Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America’s Top Speaking Coach; In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions, and Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.