Don't Bury Your Message

Whether you're delivering a formal presentation or just pitching a client, get to the important part before people tune out

We have a term in journalism for the first paragraph of an article or the first sentence of a broadcast script -- it's called the lead. In journalism classes, we're taught not to bury the lead in the middle or end of the copy. The same holds true for presentations. Give your audience a reason to listen right from the start. Research shows that listeners tend to remember the first part of a presentation and the end. If those parts are what stick, use them to your advantage.

I have been thinking about this topic recently because several of my clients who give presentations were burying the most compelling content by choosing a boring lead. Once we corrected the problem, their presentations took on a completely different tone.


  Here's an example. One client, a vice-president for sales at a major high-tech firm, was preparing his presentation for the company's annual sales conference. He began by outlining his speech's agenda. Several minutes went by as he told his audience exactly what he intended to tell them later on in the speech.

That's a sure-fire way to lose your listeners' attention. Give the audience a reason to care. I stopped this executive before he finished rattling off his agenda and asked, "What do you really want to say?"

"Well," he answered, "I want to tell my sales people that 2006 is likely to be a record year, that we just signed the largest retail agreement in our company's history, and for most of them, 2006 could very well be the most lucrative year in their entire careers!" And just like that, a lead was born.


  Another example of this occurred when the CEO of a chip-design company was practicing his presentation to analysts at a major semiconductor conference. He began by describing his firm. "Our company is a premier developer of intelligent semiconductor intellectual property solutions that dramatically accelerate complex SOC designs while minimizing risk," he said. Got it? I didn't think so.

After I repeatedly grilled the CEO about his goals for the presentation, he decided to take a better approach. When the day of his presentation arrived, he began by asking audience members to take out their cell phones.

He then said, "Within two years, many of you will be carrying around cell phones with chips inside that we designed, chips that will allow those cell phones to be much smaller, pack more features like video and music, and last longer on a single charge." And with that, he gave the audience a reason to listen.


  Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs is a masterful communicator, one of the most compelling business speakers of our time. He always starts strongly. Jobs kicks off his presentations with exactly what the audience wants to hear. He never buries the lead.

I once watched a presentation at Macworld in San Francisco where thousands of Apple employees, analysts, and investors gathered to hear Jobs introduce new products and services. At the time, the iPod was taking off. Gadget lovers were snapping up iPods at the rate of two units per minute. The iPod had to be the "lead" of the presentation, and Jobs knew it.

Here's how he began: "We're here to talk about music, so let's get started. The first thing we want to talk about is the iPod. The iPod is amazing. These new third-generation iPods are as thin as two CD jewel cases back to back. And they have a dock which makes it even easier to charge them and sync them with your Mac. They're fantastic products. We started with 1,000 songs in your pocket. Now we're up to 10,000 songs in your pocket, an amazing product. Today we have some new features to announce to make it even better."

Jobs spent all of two minutes and six seconds to get his audience pumped up about the success of Apple's hottest product. He didn't bury the lead. In fact, Jobs always kicks off his presentations with a subject his audience wants to hear about.


  It may seem unclear how this applies to small business professionals. But think about your business exchanges as presentations -- a client meeting, a sales talk, a pitch to a consumer or investor. In presentations, the lead grabs your listeners' attention and gives them a reason to care about your message. Don't bury it. If you're struggling for a lead, remember the one question on the minds of your listeners: Why should I care?

Last year I attended a chamber of commerce luncheon at which a local outfit was featured as the company of the month -- the same scenario repeated at thousands of luncheons every day. The CEO began his speech by thanking the group and saying that his company provided Web design and hosting; he then spent considerable time describing how his company designed Web sites. He failed to grab his listeners, who came to the presentation asking themselves, "Why do I care?" After all, a Google (GOOG) search for "Web design and hosting" turns up more than five million links. What made this one different?

I spoke to the owner after the luncheon and learned some information he could have used in his lead. Imagine if he had started like this: "Thank you for making my company, XYZ, the featured firm of the month. It's especially timely this month as we helped this chamber boost its membership. Every business needs a Web site if it is to be taken seriously, but research shows that the vast majority of Web sites fail to improve business as much as they should. Our clients have a different experience.

"We design and host more local Web sites than any other firm. In fact, most of you are familiar with the chamber's Web site that we designed. We're proud to say it has a won an award as the best chamber of commerce Web site on the West Coast. But we're not in this to win awards. We're in it to make our clients money. On average, our clients find that sales soar 25% within two weeks of launching their Web site. Here's how we do it..."


  A lead like this grabs attention for several reasons. It teaches me something I didn't know before -- the company worked on the chamber's award-winning Web site and designed more local sites than anyone else. It makes me think about my own site -- research shows that most Web sites are not as effective as they could be. And it answers that lingering question -- "Why should I care?" -- by stating that the company has a proven record of boosting sales for its clients.

Whether you're speaking to employees, customer or colleagues, put on a fabulous presentation by captivating your listeners from the start. Don't bury the lead.

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