Jerry Weissman has quite the resume. He’s worked with some of the world’s most powerful companies and some of the most influential leaders in business today, helping them transform boring presentations into effective, compelling talks. His bestselling Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story is the presenter’s bible. Weissman’s advice is masterful and poignant, and strengthened by powerful case studies. If his advice doesn’t transform your dull presentation, nothing will.
Thirty million presentations will be given today, and most will probably fall into the category of dry and mundane. Weissman wants to help you avoid this fate, and he begins his lessons by listing the five cardinal sins presenters can make.
The first cardinal sin is committed if the presentation has no clear point and leaves the audience wondering what the presentation was supposed to be about. Don’t leave the audience wondering what they were supposed to make of your presentation. As Weissman says frequently throughout Presenting to Win: Don’t make the audience think. Present your thesis, your main point clearly and frequently. If you think you’ve said it enough, say it one more time for good measure.
The second sin is committed if the presentation doesn’t offer any benefit to the audience. This is the most important sin to avoid, for what is the point of a presentation if the audience’s interests are left out? The entire point of giving a presentation is to persuade or inform the audience of your material. If you neglect the audience, you might as well not give the presentation at all.
Weissman says to master “audience advocacy,” meaning learn to view your entire presentation and all of its characteristics through the eyes of the audience. “For people to act on anything they must have a reason to act, and it must be their reason, not yours,” writes Weissman. Tell the audience why they should care, and be sure you’re giving them a good reason.
If your presentation has no clear flow, you’ve committed the third cardinal sin. Weissman lists sixteen possible flow structures, including problem/solution, spatial, chronological, features/benefits, and many more. Choose one and stick to it. People like to be able to follow along, whether it’s during a movie, television show or presentation. The flow should be clear, and also intuitive. Don’t get too tricky with the flow of your presentation. Make it obvious where you’re heading next.
The fourth cardinal sin is one that is often committed unwittingly: your presentation is too detailed. This goes hand in hand with Weissman’s aptly named data dump (“a shapeless outpouring of everything the presenter knows about the topic,” which should be done during the preparation). A presentation’s main point can easily drown in an ocean of facts and statistics and graphs. Stick to presenting only the most essential information that highlights and nuances your focus.
Lastly, you are committing Weissman’s fifth cardinal sin if your presentation is too long. Remember, the average person’s attention span is eighteen minutes, so shoot for a presentation length around that time. Weissman makes a good point: “How many times in your entire professional career have you ever heard a presentation that was too short?” Probably not often, and in fact, you’ll probably be remembered more acutely just for giving a short presentation. Short and sweet, that’s what audiences like.
As you’re brainstorming, researching and organizing your upcoming presentation, ask yourself if you’ve committed any of Weissman’s cardinal sins. You’re going to have to be very honest with yourself, but making the changes now will certainly pay off in the end.
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