If you plan on speaking, presenting, or pitching this year, here's a suggestion—resolve to put yourself on camera to improve your presentation skills. I've been thinking about this topic because on Jan. 6 the massive annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicks off in Las Vegas. In addition to keynotes from Cisco's (CSCO) John Chambers, Microsoft's (MSFT) Bill Gates, and Dell's (DELL) Michael Dell, there will be dozens of speakers for companies displaying or introducing new products.
I've helped prepare chief executives for their CES keynotes before, so I'm familiar with speakers who dazzle the audience made up of analysts, media, and consumers. Unfortunately, many speakers leave their audience bored and eager to head out the door. There's so much to see at CES (and yes, so many parties to attend), that if a speaker doesn't hold the audience's attention in the first two minutes, there's a stampede toward the nearest exit. It's a real test of a speaker's ability to captivate an audience.
The amount of money companies spend on the audio/video for these presentations is staggering. It can go from $80,000 to $100,000 and higher just for the promotional video, slide show, and customized lighting. And that's money the secondary companies spend. Major keynotes can run much more.
Regardless of the amount spent, most speakers who fall flat do so for one reason: They don't rehearse. The most exciting speakers—those who are hailed in the press the following day—are those who spend a lot of time rehearsing their presentation on camera. When I review video of an executive presentation with a client, here are eight of the things we look for, issues that can be corrected or improved the next time around:
Listeners make up their minds about a speaker in the first 30 to 90 seconds of a presentation, which means you have less than two minutes to make a lasting first impression. All too often, speakers begin with a slide titled "About us." Well, it's not about you. It's about the audience. What are they going to get out of the presentation? Why should they spend the next 45 minutes of their time listening to you? I prefer to hear speakers start with the end in mind. If a speaker's product is going to change the world, advance an industry, or improve my life (or the lives of my customers), then hit me over the head with it right out of the gate.
Research shows that our attention span drops dramatically after approximately 18 minutes. Fifteen to 18 minutes is what I call the "window of impact" to get your message across. This is one of the reasons why we don't save the hook for the middle or the end of a presentation. Ideal presentations for new product announcements or sales pitches should be scheduled to last no more than 20 minutes with additional time for Q&A. If your announcement needs to run longer for whatever reason, then break it up after 10 or 15 minutes. Show a piece of video, hold a demonstration, or introduce another speaker who will discuss another aspect of the product. Break up the monotony so your audience doesn't get bored. Shorter really is stronger.
I once worked with a pre-initial-public-offering company whose CEO was prepared to speak to investors for more than one hour. We cut down his presentation to 20 minutes (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/12/06, "Grab Your Audience Fast"). Investors were floored, and the company went on to complete a successful IPO a short time later. The CEO was impressed with just how much he could cut out of a presentation while retaining its pizzazz.
Speaking of presentations, when you view a slide show on video from the perspective of your audience, is it hard to read? Do you have too much text? Replace text and bullets with highly visual, graphic representations of your product or service.
The most exciting presentations have few, if any, slides that contain just bullets. Steve Jobs at Apple doesn't use any (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/6/06, "How to Wow 'Em Like Steve Jobs"). An image of a particular product will be on the screen as he talks about it. That's the point—your audience should be focused on you, not the slide. Far too many speakers spend too much time (and too much money) developing the slide show, yet spend a fraction of the time rehearsing the presentation.
The main reason to avoid bullets is because as a speaker, you need to address listeners by looking at them in the eye. Eye contact is critical to connecting with your audience. Listeners want to feel as though you are talking directly to them, completely focused. Once you break your eye contact by spending 30 seconds reading from a slide, you've lost a connection. Too many breaks and you've lost your audience.
I once interviewed a professor who studies body language. He said complex thinkers use complex gestures (two hands gesturing above the waist). It's very true. Nobody will use hand gestures more effectively at CES than Cisco's Chambers. Every sentence is punctuated by a hand gesture of some type. You don't need to go to that extreme, but I can't tell you how many people stick their hands in their pockets during the whole presentation and then wonder why their audience doesn't seem more engaged. Strive to be animated in voice and body.
Movement plays a key role in being animated. In addition to using hand gestures, the best speakers work the stage and the crowd. They rarely stay in one place. They pace back and forth—without breaking eye contact, of course! They walk into the audience and look at individuals in the eye as they make a point. They point to the screen behind them to emphasize something on the slide. It's all about movement. It holds the audience's attention.
What does your wardrobe say about you? Some speakers look like they dragged themselves out of their hotel rooms and couldn't find the iron. A military leader once gave me a great piece of advice for looking your best—always dress a little better than everyone in the room, he said. Dress like a leader. Look the part (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/19/06, "Leaders Must Look the Part").
If you opened your presentation with a bang, don't end with a thud. Memorize a closing statement that reinforces the theme of your talk and again reminds your audience of how your product or service will benefit them, their clients, or their customers. Your listeners will remember the first and last thing you say, so make them count!
New Book Announcement
I'm pleased to announce that I'm working on a new book to be published later this year. Please send me an e-mail if you'd like to be kept up to date or if you have any suggestions of individuals who should be featured in the book—men and women who inspire through their communications. Send me an e-mail directly at email@example.com.