Make a Statement

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted January 31, 2001
by Angela R. Garber

Presentation tools are no substitute for communication skillsJacquelyn Rardin recalls one particularly painful meeting. An account executive from a research firm came to deliver a sales pitch to her public relations agency. It was so bad, she says, she almost forgot why he was there.

"He was very animated," she explains. "There were lots of cutesy noises embedded in the presentation, but not many examples of their services. He focused so much on the 'wow factor' of his pyrotechnics, rather than actual content, that it was distracting."

Rardin has learned from experiences like this one and from training she received as an account supervisor in the Austin, Tex., office of Vollmer Public Relations. New technology can simplify the creation and production process and help you achieve impressive-looking results, but don't let that technology get in the way of the message.

If you've put together a laser light show with a rock-and-roll soundtrack, you've probably let technology overwhelm the presentation. But whether you're using PowerPoint, Web-conferencing tools, or electronic whiteboards, always keep your message and audience in mind. Then think about the best way to get that message across.

Take The Message Out Of The Can
Rardin gives presentations nearly every day -- fairly common for someone in a client-based business. Sometimes that simply means explaining to a client via telephone or e-mail why a particular piece of information should be included in a press kit. Other times she and several other Vollmer colleagues must travel to an unfamiliar boardroom with a complex new business pitch, present examples of other client successes, and explain what they hope to do for this new prospect.

Although Vollmer's employees are spread across three different locations, the company takes the time to give every employee in-house presentation training. "We want to make sure that every employee has the information, tools, and practice they need to give effective presentations to clients," says Tony Shelton, president of Shelton and Caudle, the Houston, Tex.-based communications-training division of Vollmer. "And while electronic tools are certainly helpful, and they seem impressive, employees need to think carefully about how they use them."

Even PowerPoint, the most widely recognized presentation-software package, can be misused. "I think a lot of organizations assume that everyone will have PowerPoint and go with it because it's what's expected," Shelton says. "But you should never approach a presentation that way. The message absolutely has to come first."

Rardin agrees. "It's so important to think through the objectives and the intended audience before just approaching the presentation in a canned method," she says.

The Right Stuff
After the purpose of the presentation has been determined, then and only then should the presenter start thinking about the high-tech options he wants to use to hammer the message home. And there are more bells and whistles today than ever before. The "standard" PowerPoint presentation contains slides in which talking points, charts, graphs, and pictures are either projected on-screen, displayed on a laptop monitor, or printed out and bound. But some businesses have begun using videoconferencing and electronic whiteboarding, as well as Web-conferencing tools that incorporate streaming audio and video.

Each tool has its advantages, and any one of them may be appropriate or inappropriate in a given situation. Rardin always considers the purpose of the presentation, her budget, both the number of people presenting and attending, and the size of the room. "I often end up using a PowerPoint presentation," she says, "but what I do with it depends on my message."

When more than one person will be giving the presentation, they need to work closely to craft a message. "When I was putting together a press tour for a client, I came up with an outline of ideas he should discuss," Rardin says. He got an e-mail attachment of her draft and flushed out the talking points. "Then I got it back and cut it down some, and we went back and forth until he was comfortable with the presentation. It's a useful method for collaboration."

She says her slide presentations consist of clean and focused talking points, scanned-in clips of media coverage, photos, and other graphics. Sometimes she projects them, sometimes she prints them out as leave-behinds, and sometimes she lets people go through them as she talks. For the media tour (primarily one-on-one desk-side briefings), Rardin created a miniature flip chart to use during the presentations and then left a copy with each journalist at the end of each presentation. This, she says, created a successful dialogue without permitting overeager listeners to flip ahead in the presentation, and so stop paying attention.

Pay attention to the little details as well. Don't treat an intimate audience as if it were a faceless crowd. "In a meeting with two people it would be overkill to dim the lights and throw the slides up on a huge screen," Rardin says. "But if it were a room full of people, that might be the best way to keep them all focused on what you are talking about rather than losing some of them [to work they brought in with them]."

Ends And Means
Shelton has trained a wide variety of clients, all with different agendas, budgets, and personalities. But he tells the same thing to salespeople who need effective interactive presentations at a trade-show booth, chemical-company executives who want to draw in an audience with an otherwise mundane PowerPoint presentation, and NASA officials who want to put together a videoconference between space-station astronauts and elementary-school students.

"I tell my clients never to let technology get in the way of the message, and to consider how much money, setup, and training will be involved," he says. "Some things like videoconferencing involve equipment and setup on both ends. It can be very expensive even to rent. I want to make sure it's the best way and worth the investment before plunking down the money. A flight may be cheaper and more personal."

Shelton says that even after selecting the presentation tools and deciding how to use them, you should make sure to maintain a personal connection. That personal connection, after all, distinguishes a presentation from a memo or e-mail.

Remember the overall purpose of the presentation: to win people over, not run through a rehearsed list of points or show off fancy technology. "Whether you are sitting in the same room or not, look at how you can emphasize the person-to-person presentation so they will do or think what you want them to," Shelton says. While technology can be a valuable tool to help you convey your message, always rely on the personal connection, rather than the technology, to engage your audience.

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