A Practical Presentation Checklist

I recently wrote a guest post on Business Consulting Buzz on getting client buy-in, a critical skill for any consultant.  That piece covers the more process-oriented aspects of building trust and credibility with clients, but simply presenting well is also important.  For that reason, I thought I’d cover some presentation tips in this article.  This advice isn’t meant to be exhaustive or necessarily groundbreaking, but it does serve as a useful checklist to consider leading up to any presentation.

Practice

Rehearsing a presentation beforehand is probably the single most important thing you can do if you want to be a great presenter.  You’ll be less nervous, more articulate, and better able to focus on the audience’s reaction instead of what to say next.  As you practice, you’ll also notice parts of the presentation that need to be revised, something that often is not apparent until you actually deliver it.  I tend to skip the practice, and a result many of my presentations in the past have been just a notch above mediocre.

Ideally, you should practice in front of someone.  Failing that, record and critique yourself.  The iPhone’s voice memo feature is excellent for this approach.  Video is even better, so get a Flip camcorder.

Rehearse using the same format in which you’ll be presenting (e.g., paper document, projector).

Be energetic and vary tone and pacing

If you sound bored or tentative, that message will override anything you actually say.  So as trite as it sounds, make sure to project enthusiasm.  In an appropriate way, of course – no one wants a cheerful discussion of layoffs.  Change up your speed, and especially try to slow down for important points to let them sink in.  Also make sure you have some inflection in your voice.  These aspects are difficult to master without practice, so refer back to my previous point about recording yourself.

Ask for questions

If the audience is quiet during the talk, stop at a couple of points and ask whether they have questions.  The best presentations are discussions rather than monologues, and a disengaged audience may not understand or agree with your points.  Best to get those issues out in the open.  Of course, individual questions may not be feasible if there are more than 10-15 people in the audience, unless they’re part of a separate Q&A session.

Speak off the page

Please do not read from the document.  Nothing is more painful for the audience to sit through.  In fact, you should think of your talk as covering the main points on the page but overall being more like color commentary.  When getting ready for a presentation, I jot down 2-3 points per page to make sure to cover, and some of them may not be written in the document at all.

Decide whether it’s a presentation or a deliverable

In contrast to a keynote presentation, where the slides have been pared down to the minimum and may just have a few words of text on the page, most consulting presentations are rather wordy, crowded affairs.  The presentation doubles as the leave-behind deliverable, so it has to convey most of the information in text.  Also, most consultants are habitually averse to leaving out any three-syllable words that might make their ideas seem more sophisticated.

I won’t really criticize this approach because I do it as well.  However, you should make sure to send the document to the client at least 24 hours in advance, preferably more, to give them time to review it.  Don’t make them struggle with trying to read it while you’re presenting.

Have someone proofread the document

Enough said.

Think about the storyline

Every presentation places the main point or conclusion either at the beginning (often in a one-page executive summary) or at the end.  Stating the conclusion up-front is helpful if the audience is short on time or attention span (like many senior executives).  Waiting until the end allows you to build up to your conclusion with supporting evidence and analysis, which may be better for a skeptical audience or controversial point.  It can also be good for building up some dramatic tension.  Either way is fine, just make a conscious choice based on the situation.

Those are my main points.  What would you add to the list?


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