First Class Coach


by MARGARET EXLEY, leads Towers Perrin's European practice onchange and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also adirector of HM Treasury's Management Board
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: I am not a natural at making presentations, yet in my role as managing director I am increasingly required to present internally, particularly to the group board, as well as externally. How can I improve my presentational techniques and my confidence?

A: You are not alone. Making a presentation involves completely different skills from those you need to run a company, yet more and more senior executives are expected to be accomplished at it. Fear is natural - surveys show that about 85% of seasoned presenters regularly suffer from 'butterflies' or some other form of stage fright - but it often helps to keep you alert and encourages you to practice and prepare thoroughly.

This does not mean that you should memorise your presentations. There is a chilling story about Vance Bushnell, when he was vice-president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society in the US. He memorised a speech to 2,000 salesmen at their annual conference in Virginia but, when he stood up to speak, nerves caused his memory to fail. Every time he tried to start again he took two steps back to compose himself. The third time he did this, he fell off the back of the platform and disappeared from view. Deeply embarrassed, he resolved never to memorise a speech again and, in later years, became an extremely successful speaker.

You ask how you can strengthen your technique. First, be focused about your purpose. If you are trying to inform your audience (rather than persuade them), plan the main points you want to get over. Don't try to cover more than two or three or your presentation will become confusing, and fail.

At board meetings you will rarely have more than 15 minutes before people start to switch off and, if you overrun, you will irritate the chairman and your colleagues and may be cut short. You may also convey a subliminal message that you are disorganised.

Even at a conference, 20 minutes is usually long enough before you start taking questions and encouraging discussion. Arrange your ideas in a logical sequence and help the listener with a 'road map' of the presentation. Keep letting them know where you are on the 'map'. Where ideas are obscure and difficult, compare them with something familiar. For example, at a recent board meeting I attended, the IT director was trying to explain how much work was involved in preparing for Y2K. It all washed over us until he said the analysts had had to test five million lines of code. Suddenly we saw the scale of what he had done, and understood the cost implications.

Avoid jargon and technical terms - an utter turn-off. If you absolutely must use a technical term, always explain it. Most people will not only not know what the terms mean (particularly outsider non-executives) but, worse still, may never ask, so your point will be lost.

Use visuals, exhibits and artefacts. They should be complementary to what you say: not only lists of the points you are making verbally but diagrams, pictures and charts to enhance them. Check in advance whether they are legible, and a good rule of thumb is one overhead or slide for every two minutes of your presentation - say, five or seven for a typical board presentation.

Two other things to remember. First - the opening - make it attention-grabbing and compelling. Do not (as a colleague did recently) start with an apology or with a platitude. Second, if you are trying to convince your audience of something, you have to be convinced yourself. Demonstrate your conviction in the passion and enthusiasm you bring to the presentation.

That means you must do your homework. Test your proposition carefully in advance, preferably with colleagues. Ask them to identify the 'hard questions' your audience might put to you. Identify the contentious or weak areas of your argument and prepare your case. If you are trying to convince an audience of something, you need to build a positive climate from the outset. Begin with an area of common ground that people can sign up to and build gradually towards the conclusion you want to reach, exploring and dealing with all the objections people may be feeling as you go. In this way the argument becomes an explanation, which is much easier to accept.

One of the most accomplished speakers I know told me that he has never lost his stage fright, particularly in the run-up to a presentation. By following these simple rules, you will eventually start to enjoy making presentations as you become more accomplished, and you will improve your chances of success.

How to: Q&A

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