Say it with Presentations

Monday, March 9th, 2009 0 comments

say-it-with-presentations-thumbSay it with Presentations: How to Design and Deliver Successful Business Presentations by Gene Zelazny

Most people who have had significant dealings with management consultants might be surprised to learn that McKinsey & Company even has a Director of Visual Communications. But they do – Gene Zelazny – and this is the book he’s written on presentations, perhaps to encourage McKinsey’s army of consultants to present effectively.

Many books about presentations can be assessed on four measures:

  • How clearly and insightfully do they critique the standard approach of reading out slides?
  • How effective a process do they describe for developing a presentation?
  • Does the way the author recommends using visual aids make sense?
  • Is there anything new or insightful in the work?

Zelazny’s book – Say it with Presentations is excellent in describing a process for presenters to follow. In places the process is obscured (for example, by a long aside about developing imagination), but in general, following Zelazny’s approach from start to finish will work well. This is a book I can recommend.

Define the Situation

Most good books about presentation will make the point that the place to start in designing a presentation is well away from PowerPoint. Zelazny recommends starting by asking four basic questions – Why present? What are the key audience members like? How much time do I have? What medium should I use?

Asking why one is presenting encourages clear, realistic, objectives to be set. Thinking about the key audience members makes sure that the presentation is tailored to the way key individuals like to receive and process information. Zelazny also reminds us that sometimes the audience might accept our rational arguments, but be resistant to the change these arguments bring. Being convincing, rationally, isn’t always enough.

Zelazny makes the point – ignored by many other authors – that there are a number of types of presentation. Presenters may stand up and use slides, transparencies, or whiteboards; deliver a videoconference, or use a web presentation service. Nowadays, some presentations are recorded and served on demand. Technology has enabled new types of presentation. It doesn’t make sense to automatically turn to PowerPoint where pen and paper might be more suitable.

Design the Presentation – Message

Say it with Presentations sets out four stages for shaping the messages of a presentation.

First, presenters should determine their overarching message. This message serves as both summary and introduction. (e.g. ‘To counter the limited potential for growth at home, J.J. Ltd. should proceed with its efforts to tap the significant growth opportunities of the United States’.) The overarching message is a thirty second summary of the rest of the presentation, and for Zelazny it should be presented right up-top.

Second, presenters should craft a clear storyline. Here, Zelazny follows the approach of his McKinsey colleague Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle. A presentation (or document) should start with the recommendation, then giving an overview of the conclusions supporting that recommendation, and then, in turn, look at each conclusion and the evidence that leads to it.

This is the approach advocated by m62 for sales presentations. The recommendation is, of course, to buy. The conclusions supporting this recommendation are value proposition statements (e.g. ‘single supplier’, ‘proven track record’). Then, once we have presented each value proposition statement in turn, we revisit each one and look at the evidence that supports the claim. Instead of a meandering linear structure, we end up with a clear and effective presentation structure.

Third, once a storyline has been crafted, Zelazny recommends writing both an introduction and an ending. Presentation introductions are compared to airline pre-flight safety announcements. Routine and boring, we tend to ignore them. Instead, by talking about the purpose of a presentation, arguing for its importance, and previewing content upfront, dullness can be avoided.

Fourth, endings should summarise the presentation; make clear recommendations; set out, and ask for commitment to actions; and list next steps.

Zelazny recommends scripting both introduction and conclusion. We tend to be opposed to scripts at m62 – not least because in delivery they can end up stale and stilted – but if limited to a few lines at either end of a presentation, these negative effects ought to be minor.

Design the Presentation – Visuals

Say it with Presentations, as one might expect from an author responsible for visual communications in a large company, does not advocate the extensive use of bullet points.

“If you read the words exactly as they appear on the visual, it doesn’t take long before the members of the audience feel their intelligence is being insulted because you’re reading to them what they can obviously read for themselves … Another option is to paraphrase. The problem with paraphrasing is that few people can read one set of words while listening to another.”

Text can be used to ‘help the audience see the structure of a complex presentation’ or to ‘reinforce important sets of ideas such as three conclusions, four recommendations, five issues, or six next steps’. But even then, the presenter should ‘translate the text visual into … a structure visual’.

Perhaps because there are an infinite number of possible messages, and an infinite number of visual representations of those messages, creating a framework for visualisation (or ‘visual translation’) is impossible. (Notwithstanding the efforts of Dan Roam.) If Say it with Presentations has one major failing, it is that it doesn’t really give the reader much sense of what types of visuals work well. There are ideas for what visuals can be used, and a section aimed at encouraging imagination, but having an idea and having a good idea are not the same. Even some of Zelazny’s own examples look fairly ineffective, and some go against his comments on the use of text, quoted above.

Zelazny’s experience of which visuals to use in which situations to use in which situations is not distilled for others to use. Presenters should use visual slides, but this book is of only limited help in explaining what these slides should look like.

Deliver the Presentation

Successful presenters, Zelazny notes, have confidence, conviction, and enthusiasm. Confidence comes from self-knowledge, mastery of one’s material, and understanding of the audience.

Conviction is necessary. For Zelazny, a sales person who does not believe in the company presentation she has been asked to deliver should try to change the presentation, change the company, or change jobs.

Presentations should be rehearsed, more than once. The first time alone, but delivered aloud. The second time with colleagues each feeding back on a different aspect of the presentation (as m62 do as part of the m62 STAT service). Questions should be anticipated and prepared for. Video recording as part of the rehearsal can be hugely useful.

Facilities and equipment can go wrong. Zelazny’s approach borders on the paranoid – but one knows full well that this careful approach makes sense. Get to the venue early. Check everything, twice. Carry spares. Expect the worst.

When presenting, Zelazny recommends introducing the next slide before showing it, so that the audience is not overwhelmed with two sources of information at once. Yet, m62 would recommend instead the use of slide builds – so that the framework of a slide can be shown as it appears on screen, helping the audience understand what the presenter says as they introduce the slide. As an example, rather than explaining that the next slide is going to be a graph, and what it will show, m62 would suggest showing the slide title, and then animating in the axes of the graph. This approach avoids information overload, yet makes information easier to assimilate.

Presenters, Zelazny argues, should be prepared to listen, and to allow silence. Questions should be accepted patiently. Where presenters don’t know, they should admit it. And presenters should have the ‘courage to be quiet’ – giving the audience time to reflect.

Should You Buy It?

Say it with Presentations is a worthwhile read. It isn’t groundbreaking, or even innovative. It doesn’t really give answers as to which visuals work well on slides. It focuses more on selling ideas and arguments than on selling products and services. It has little to say about presentations for education or training.

What Say it with Presentations does do is set out a sensible process for those wanting to write, design, and deliver presentations. For that alone, this book will be useful to many.

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