How to Be Clear and Compelling When You Make an Important Presentation

As a management consultant and executive coach, I’m often present when crucial presentations are being made to boards, senior leadership, and top customers. Although many presenters have good technical chops, know their stuff, and care a lot, their presentations often confuse rather than persuade their audience. It’s remarkable how often an audience will leave the meeting room or Zoom session feeling less positive about the presenters and their competence or capabilities than they did before they heard the presentation.

Many aspects of presentation skills can crater a pitch or report. Here’s one area that is often overlooked but which I’ve seen create problems time after time — along with some things you can do to improve the situation.

Don’t Assume People Understand You

One of the quickest ways to put off an audience and damage your relationship with them is to focus on technical content rather than the issue or question the audience cares about. Technical content doesn’t have to be as complex as physics or genetics — it could just be quantitative data about memberships or new hires. But it can be hard for people who are steeped in data every day to present the specifics in a way that the audience understand in context without deep study.

Even if you’re presenting to a leadership team that hears you report every month, keep in mind that they won’t be as familiar with the terms and jargon as you are, and therefore may not remember what those words are supposed to signify to them. That means they’re likely to follow your presentation two full minutes behind you, not really understanding what you’re confidently reviewing.

This creates a weird dynamic in which the audience’s lack of full understanding can lead to an absence of trust and confidence in you and your data, no matter how expert you are. They’ll think, “I’m smart enough, and I’m supposed to understand this stuff, so something must be wrong here because this doesn’t make sense to me. And they’re talking so fast! What are they trying to hide?”

Drill Deep to Create Context and Understanding

Part of what helps — and, admittedly, it’s a horrible exercise — is to drill presenters (or yourself) over and over again: “What’s the point/takeaway/thing you want the audience to understand? Okay, now what’s the evidence for that point?” Otherwise, technically adept presenters often move from detail to detail, leaving the audience awash in facts and data they don’t really comprehend, and letting the important points go unmade.

Theoretically, you want to secure the audience’s understanding right away so that they will take an action that creates movement or progress toward your desired outcome. So before you start crafting your presentation, think carefully about where you and the audience have a mutuality of interest: “What’s our shared mission or goal? What’s the current situation we’re facing? How is it a problem for them/me/us? How would my proposal help ameliorate the shared problem — not just my problem?”

Think through your answers to these questions before you ever draft a PowerPoint presentation. This helps ensure you have an arc to your story instead of just a bunch of relevant facts that sound disconnected to people who don’t already know what you know or might not remember what you’ve already explained to them.

Take All Questions Seriously and Slowly

Similarly, it can undercut your credibility — either as part of your presentation or in answer to questions — if you jump from technical term to technical term or number to number to try to provide a quick answer to a leader’s specific question or concern.

Connect your technical answers to a human or organizational purpose or story to be more compelling, even if it means you have to reflect for a few moments before you answer. You could say something like, “That’s a fair question. Let me think for just a moment about how I can use the data to illustrate the situation we’re facing and what our options are…” Then actually speak slowly enough so that you craft a through-line rather than simply tossing numbers around.

Let’s say a skeptical leadership has asked you to show a connection between your proposal for improved working conditions and employee retention. You might structure your response this way:

  • “As you all pointed out at our last quarterly business report, we’ve been losing too many good people because of …” [problem statement/giving credit to the leaders]
  • “We researched and found…” [demonstration of responsiveness]
  • “So we’re recommending that we change the following practices…” [proposal]
  • “We expect this to result in…” [benefit]
  • “…although we recognize that the following downsides may also occur…”

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  • “…which we’re trying to deal with by…” [mitigation of risk]
  • “We’d like to be able to explain this to the team in the following timeframe and sequence…” [implementation plan]
  • “Now let me walk you through the data that shows why this is so important.” [supporting evidence]

Support Your Pitch

If the case you’re making isn’t part of your audience’s day-to-day focus, it may not matter much how good your points are. They’re most likely to notice their own feelings of comfort or dis-ease depending on whether or not they understood you and felt you were credible. So before you start your slide show or open the discussion, make sure you’re using data and evidence to support your pitch —not to drag the audience through a thicket of facts and figures they have no idea how to interpret.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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