What Matters Most in Any Presentation

Last month the New York Times ran a front-page story on the health-care debate. The first two sentences read: "What's in it for me? On the subject of health-care reform, most Americans probably don't have a good answer to that question." Obama got the hint. In his televised press conference the very next night, Obama tried to connect the dots more clearly. "I realize that with all the charges and criticisms that are being thrown around in Washington, a lot of Americans may be wondering: What's in this for me? … So tonight I want to answer those questions." He proceeded to answer his own rhetorical question by outlining the plan's benefits for three categories of individuals—those who have insurance, those who are uninsured, and those who own their own small business. Although it's too early to tell what a new health plan will look like under the Obama Administration, it's clear that Obama is relying on an important communications technique to sell the benefit of his ideas—a technique that you can and should use in your pitches, presentations, and sales calls. It's as simple as connecting the dots for your listeners by answering the one question that matters most: Why should you care?

As an author and journalist, I receive a mountain of e-mail pitches, the vast majority from business owners or public relations specialists promoting some vague product or service that usually remains unclear. The most common word in these e-mails is the pronoun "I." The same is true for presentations. The most common slide: About Us. The harsh truth is that your audience could care less about your "best of breed solution." They care about themselves. Will your product or service save them money, make them money, or make their lives easier in some way? Answer the question directly and you'll have them hooked. But you need to hook them fast. Consider the following tips.

The 90-second rule. If you can't explain the benefit of your company in the first 90 seconds of your pitch or presentation, your audience will tune you out. About a year ago, I had a conversation with John Medina, a University of Washington research scientist and author of Brain Rules. He told me that the importance of grabbing your audience's attention in the first few seconds of your presentation is "powerfully represented in the neuroscience literature." Medina says we place a tremendous amount of "credibility weight" in the first few moments of learning. "From the brain's perspective, most of the neuroanatomical processes that predict whether something that is perceived will also be remembered occur in the first few seconds."

The most powerful pronoun: You. So how can you connect the dots for your listeners in the first few seconds of an interaction or presentation? Michael Wilkinson, managing director of Atlanta-based Leadership Strategies, has an answer. He recommends that in the opening statement, speakers "excite" the audience by using the words "you" or "yours" at least four times, if not more. Wilkinson offers the following examples. In the first scenario, the speaker uses the pronoun "we"—not bad, but not as engaging as the second scenario, where the speaker uses "you" or "your" seven times.

Scenario 1: "Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here this morning. The objective for the next two days is to walk away with a plan for improving our company's hiring process. What is exciting about this? If we are successful, we will walk away with a new hiring process that will help our organization get the right people hired and get them hired quickly."

Scenario 2: "Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here this morning. Our objective for the next two days is to walk away with a plan for improving our company's hiring process. What is exciting about this? Today you may have people on your staff who don't have the skills or the attitude you need. As a result, you are having to work much harder to make up for what they aren't doing. This is your opportunity to put strategies in place to ensure that you get the people you need to get the work done."

Going back to the example of Obama's health-care reform plan, if you pay attention, you will hear that Obama is using the pronoun "you" more often in his speeches. "Nobody is talking about some government takeover of health care," he said in one speech. "I've been as clear as I can be, under the reform I've proposed, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your health-care plan."

As you know, it's harder than ever to grab the attention of your listener. Remember to cut through the clutter by answering the one question that matters most: Why should you care?

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