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7 Golden rules to giving great presentations

Speaking in public ranks close to death as amongst most people’s greatest fears. Yet being able to present well is a vital skill needed to succeed in most careers.

Presentations are critical ‘moments of truth’ – where we persuade prospects to hire us, existing clients to fund new campaigns, or colleagues and bosses to support our ideas. Yet we often neglect simple rules without which presentations will fall flat and fail.

Here are the 7 Golden Rules I have learnt to ensure I give winning presentations. And the first and most important was learnt from a man who epitomised Danny Devito on crack.

The late Steve Lyons was a remarkable human being. Small in stature, he was a genuine giant of a man who touched the lives of so many young public relations executives in the 1980s and 90s during his time at Burson-Marsteller, Ogilvy PR and Motorola. Steve made you believe anything was possible, and it was his secret that helped so many of us overcome our fear of presenting.

Whenever Steve was about to present, he would first go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and shout at his reflection: “Ok kiddo- let’s get this show on the road!” That was his secret. When it was presentation time, he would calibrate his tone, manner, pace, humour, and style for the audience.

That’s the first and most important of my 7 Golden Rules to Great Presentations:

  1. ‘Put on a performance’ right for your audience. Get into the groove for the executives you’re presenting to. Pitch your tone and manner with genuine sensitivity to what will ‘work’ for the audience. Presentations are about selling- about persuasion. Irrespective of your mood or normal style, make sure you give a great performance that ‘connects’.
  2. Rehearsing is the second golden rule to nailing presentations. Great performers know delivering a superb result every time needs constant rehearsing. Most of us ‘rehearse’ presentations by deciding in the cab ride who will present what parts. Rehearsing helps you ‘get fit’ – to find the most concise and persuasive way to get your points across. On your first rehearsal, it takes 37 minutes: second time 32; third 28 minutes! You’re now fit to sell. Rehearsing does not make you look slick- it makes you look professional.
  3. Memorise the first three sentences you are going to say: nerves are vital to giving great performances, but panic as your moment to speak approaches is never helpful! No matter how nervous you are, by having memorised perfectly your first three sentences, when it’s your turn to speak you know you’re going to get off to a safe start. And that’s all you need to calm your nerves and get into a groove as you wait your turn.

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  1. Practice your ‘pass alongs’: carefully plan how you introduce the next speaker. Position the next speaker as an expert in what they are about to speak about. “I will now hand over to Michelle, who as mentioned in our introduction, was the strategic brains behind the launch of the XYZ low carb beer- which grabbed 15% market share within a month. She will now take you through our strategy to launch YOUR low carb beer.” (“Wow!” says the prospect to themselves. “She did that great campaign! I am sure going to pay attention to her.”)
  2. Anticipate the five toughest questions you could get: agree and rehearse answers (and who will answer which). Being ready for the worst the client can throw at you gives you extra confidence.
  3. Practice ‘spontaneous’ moments of humour: make presentations light and fun. Work out some moments where you can inject levity, and rehearse them.
  4. Sweat the details: who will greet the client, where will you have coffee, where do you want the clients to sit, where will you sit, back up if technology fails, ensure no bright external light behind your speakers as the client won’t be able to see your faces, etc.

During the actual presentation, pay attention to your colleagues. Nod your heads, laugh at their jokes, watch your prospects’ reactions, add clarification if you feel ambiguity is in the air. Be alert, while ‘putting on a performance’ of being relaxed and quietly confident and assured. Oh- and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. It’s how Oscars are won, and ideas sold.

> View a video of Chris retelling this post

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22 Responses to 7 Golden rules to giving great presentations

  1. Justin Di Lollo July 6, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    This is great advice. I train MBA’s at the Australian Graduate School of Management in debating skills every year and will borrow (with acknowledgement, of course!) some of these ideas.

    In addition, I’d suggest:

    1. Eye contact is really important. Way too many people, when they’re nervous, look up, look down, look anywhere but into the eyes of the people they’re presenting too. Once you’ve caught someone’s eye, you’ve literally captured them for at least the next 90 seconds. You can just simply look repeatedly into the eyes of the people you’re speaking to, one after the other. This works brilliantly in a boardroom setting but also works in large audiences. Make sure you’re positioned in the room so you can see everyone’s eyes. It’s a bit of a “three card trick” but it really works!

    2. Don’t use PowerPoint if you can avoid it. So many presenters “hide” behind their slides. This just gives your audience the excuse to stare at the slide and then drift-off and lose attention. If there’s nothing on the board, they have to look at you and you’ll hold their attention. If you want to use slides to help make a point – use pictures, simple graphs and as few words as possible. NEVER read off a slide!

    The adrenaline rush you get from public speaking can be addictive. Above all, enjoy it!

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

      Thanks Justin. Great additional points! Rob Reilly of Crispin Porter Bogusky talks about “find a fan in the audience and play to them”. That kind of builds on your eye contact thought. Thanks again. Chris

  2. Jason HIll July 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Great advice, Chris. I remember my Dad teaching me how to give an awards speech to a room of over hundred golfers when I was 15. Remembering the opening lines was front and centre. It’s still the way I rehearse today – definitely gives you extra confidence when you “hit the stage”

  3. Peter Stephenson July 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    A few additonal thoughts;

    Don’t be afraid to be yourself and keep it real. Let your true personality come through – it creates sincerity and credibility with the audience – don’t be a machine.

    Tell stories from your experience to bring alive your points – it engages your audience and makes your points in a more relevant and powerful manner.

    Above all enjoy it and show some passion, it creates audience engagement and builds anticipation and involvement.

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

      Thanks Peter. I always remember you as one of the most “authentic” presenters I have seen. Your suggestions make it clear why you came across so well! Thanks again. Chris

  4. Rob Irving July 6, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Love this stuff, Chris, as you know.

    Let me add a couple more ‘musts’: 1) Know thy audience 2) Define desired responses (goals) 3) Structure for clarity – and response.

  5. Rob Irving July 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    And one more thought, Chris:

    4) Use the power of stories to connect:

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

      Thanks Rob- great suggestions from a master presentation coach! Appreciate the contribution and interest. Chris

  6. Tony Spencer-Smith July 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Great advice here, Chris, for turning yourself into a flamboyant and effective presenter.

    I would just add one thing: all these tips and tricks presuppose that you have something powerful and persuasive to say!

    Before the performance come the words: the honed message that fits the audience, tells them exactly what they need to know, and gets them eager to act.

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

      Thanks Tony. Well said! The content is the key. The presentation secondary to that. I have always believed a great idea poorly presented will beat an average idea well presented. Chris

  7. Stella July 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Chris is one of the most gifted orators (and storytellers!) I’ve ever come across. These free pearls of wisdom are worth more than any presentation skills course you’ll ever attend. Sounding confident and sincere when presenting in any situation takes effort, but ive seen Chris’ coaching using this advice in action and it will make your next presentation look smooth and effortless. Great advice.

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

      Thanks Stella! The cheque is in the mail! Chris

  8. Marion McDonald July 6, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Another great post Chris. Thanks!

    As a theatre performer and director, I have the privilege to also train communications leaders across the region. Chris is right – this is a perfomance. I remind teams presenting together that, just like in theatre, a cast needs to ‘spark’ together. People buy people that appear to genuinely enjoy working with each other, not charts.

    Also ASK questions and use them to engage the audience. Works well upfront to invite participation and again when the audience appears to be flagging.

    Am enjoying the blog Chris. Keep it up.

    • Chris Savage July 6, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

      Thanks Marion. Agree. Rob Reilly, the executive creative director at Crispin Porter Bogusky, said at Cannes a couple of weeks ago:”Don’t present until the presenting team has had a few too many beers together a few too many times.” His point was the team needs to gel, work well together, like each other. Your point on questions is very apt too. Breaking the silence mode is a key to great presentations. “When you’re talking, the client is critiquing. When the client is talking, you’re selling”. Thanks again for contributing. Much appreciated. Chris

  9. Amanda Little July 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Chris: thanks for remembering Steve Lyons. He was a giant and influenced so many of us.

  10. Carl Sherriff July 7, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Great tips Chris, thanks. I can only add that sometimes unique, unforgettable visuals can help engage and connect with an audience. But hey, I would say that! Cheers!

    • Chris Savage July 7, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

      Great point Carl. You’re absolutely right. A few high impact visuals tell a far more persuasive story that a deck of powerpoint. Thanks for contributing. Chris

  11. Andrew July 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Hey Chris, great stuff as always. We just had our worldwide public affairs meeting in Dubai and each of our 10 consultancies around the the world had to present to the wider team of 50 or so. One really stood out, and he was from Ogilvy in Asia you’ll be happy to know, because he was a gifted story teller. He probably followed 90% of what you outlined above, ie rehearsed, relevant to audience et al. But it was the power of the story that won me and the room. It was magic. So to me it is telling a story, backed by evidence and facts, that wins every time. Thanks again for sharing the wisdom, for free…

    • Chris Savage July 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

      Thanks Andrew. Great insight. I think it was Coco Channel who said: “When a woman walks into a room and someone goes up to her and says ‘Wow- what a great dress!’, then the dress failed. But if the woman walks into a room and someone goes up to her and says “Wow- you look amazing’, then the dress succeeded. The presentation is just the dress. The content (the ideas) and the way it is communicated is the essence- the power. Your story telling insight straddles both. I will work it in to an expanded, redrafted post in the future. And fyi, we had an outstanding Emirates experience on the way to Europe two weeks ago. Actually looking forward to the fligt home next week! Thanks for contributing. Chris

  12. Colin April 29, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    Good stuff. Like the point on rehearsing- a highly underrated aspect of the preparation. The audience can easily pick up on your levelof preparation and will make a judgment based on that.

  13. Irma Salinas Pineda January 24, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    Great article, I will use many of the advices, thanks

  14. Dev November 30, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    Informative article, i will use those advices for my coming presentation.

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