Surveys have shown that people fear one thing more than death: public speaking.
Psychologists trace this back to our early evolution, when being ostracized from a group meant certain death by predators or starvation. Today, that fear translates into our desire to be liked and accepted, and nowhere are we more vulnerable to spot judgment than when we stand in front of a crowd and try to deliver a message.
But giving a presentation doesn’t need to be scary. In his 38 years of teaching corporate and management communication at Tuck, Professor Paul Argenti has formulated four fundamentals of presentations that anyone can use to make a good impression and, most importantly, get their audience to take action. “In the end, you don’t get credit for having a beautiful PowerPoint deck,” Argenti says, “you get credit if the audience likes your idea and says ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”
First, you need to make sure you have the right strategy, you’re the right person to be communicating, and this is the right time for it. You don’t send a memo to your teenager to get her to clean her room.
During the 25 years he taught the Management Communication (affectionately referred to as ManComm) course at Tuck, Argenti always began with communications strategy. Having the right strategy means having a clear goal for the presentation, understanding your audience, choosing the right channel, and assessing your own credibility as the messenger. “People just jump ahead to the execution, and that’s a mistake,” Argenti says. “First, you need to make sure you have the right strategy, you’re the right person to be communicating, and this is the right time for it. You don’t send a memo to your teenager to get her to clean her room.”
Once you’ve decided on a strategy, it’s time to craft your story. Storytelling is the most compelling way to transfer information to people, but the story has to be compelling itself or it will fall flat. A good story starts with an attention-grabbing opening—maybe a bold, provocative statement, or a surprising statistic that makes people sit up and pay attention. After that, the structure needs to be sound. Make it logical, giving the audience the information in the order they are most likely to understand it, and be sure to have smooth transitions between ideas, so they can follow the narrative closely. “It all has to tie together,” Argenti explains. “You want content that will resonate with your audience, based on your strategy.”
PowerPoint presentations are the standard method for audio-visual accompaniment to that story, but Argenti warns that people often use too many slides and just display the same notes they are speaking. “That’s the last thing people want to see,” he says. “They want to see pictures and stories and to understand the material visually.” The visuals should be logically organized, with a strong agenda and clearly-delineated sections. Remind the audience where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Paul McCartney personally visits each venue before he appears in concert, and if he has to do that, you better believe you do too.
A vital step to good visuals is understanding the logistics of the presentation. The PowerPoint deck might look fine on your computer, but the color may be off on the screen in the room. Will there be a whiteboard if you need it? Will you have a clicker to go through the slides? Does the technology assistant have the materials for the presentation? You, as the speaker, are personally responsible for what happens in the room. Get there early to check out the space and make sure it will work for what you have planned. “Paul McCartney personally visits each venue before he appears in concert, and if he has to do that, you better believe you do too,” Argenti says.
“People judge you based on your presentation skills,” Argenti says. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.” Presenting isn’t just about delivering information, it’s also about presenting yourself as a competent messenger. That starts with being confident and poised. You can build confidence by visualizing a successful performance and using positive self-talk. Calm your nerves by taking deep breaths. During the talk, don’t stand still like a statue—use your hands naturally as much as possible. Try to avoid filler words like “um” and “uh.” Look at the people who are giving you positive reinforcement, not the ones who are frowning. Practice your presentation skills, because it’s fairly easy to make improvements.
“Giving a presentation can be a humbling experience,” Argenti says. “You want to be liked and you want it to be successful. And it can happen. But you need to do your homework first.”