Presentation Lessons You Didn't Learn in B-School

I recently gave a seminar on presentation skills to a group of Fortune 500 marketing professionals, many of whom hold MBAs from top business schools. After the seminar ended, several participants told me the core curriculum in their schools didn’t cover the techniques I had discussed.

While a few schools do require communications courses, most of the estimated 90,000 people who graduate with MBAs each year in the U.S. aren’t required to take courses designed to improve their presentation skills. With that in mind, I put together five essentials all business owners should be aware of when presenting, regardless of where they want to school or how many degrees they earned.

You should take center stage—not the slides themselves. I can’t tell you how many MBAs present their slides like this: "As you can see on the slide, this chart shows…" Outstanding communicators, however, do not use slides as a crutch. Their slides are highly visual and incorporate less data than you might expect, forcing the audience to focus on the speaker, not the slides. The slides act as a complement to the speaker and not the other way around. Of course, quantifiable data is very important and must be included to support your points. But be sure to balance your data-heavy slides with slides that have more images and fewer words.

Deliver a message with a specific audience in mind. Although business schools strive for diversity, classes are largely homogenous environments—type-A personalities with similar educational backgrounds. Presentations are usually given to the same group of faculty and students who have similar knowledge and interest in the content. But outside of the classroom, presenters regularly face a much more diverse audience. Most won’t care about the message unless it benefits them directly. On any given day or week, you might be speaking to senior management, scientists with PhDs, sales professionals, or customers. Remember, your content needs to be created with a specific audience in mind.

Adapt your presentation to your audience. Many schools pride themselves on showcasing staff and students from different cultures. This is all well and good, but few teach their students how to adapt their presentations when speaking in different countries. Everything from word choice, eye contact, and emotion can be interpreted differently, depending on the country. Audiences will react in different ways: Some will be more animated while others will sit quietly and even close their eyes. Of course, I can’t detail what to expect in each place or from each group in this column. The best advice is to acknowledge that there are cultural differences and to learn from your local team or recent visitors who have more experience than you do with the culture.

Be aware of your body language. Did you know that when jurors are quizzed after a trial and asked what made a particular witness credible, they often talk about the witness’ body language? Whether we like it or not, your audience will size you up and make snap judgments about you in the first 90 seconds of your presentation. What’s scarier is those judgments are very difficult to change. Ninety seconds doesn’t leave you a lot of time to get very far through your PowerPoint deck. In other words, your body language speaks volumes before you deliver the bulk of your message. Before you reach your most important slide, most of your audience will already have decided whether your information is credible or not.

Practice even if you think you can wing it. Those presenters who appear to improvise effortlessly and quickly respond to tough questions on the spot are often those who rehearse more than average. Most people underestimate just how much practice skilled presenters apply to their craft. The vast majority of speakers will glance at their slides the night before a presentation (typically slides created by someone else). The best speakers spend many hours over many weeks ahead of a presentation to get everything just right. They also practice tough questions in advance.

I’ve talked to several recruiters who assumed candidates from top B-schools would be good presenters, only to discover the opposite. Whether or not you’ve earned an MBA, keep in mind that one of the most important soft skills you’ll ever learn and put to use in business may not have been required reading.

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