Perhaps your presentations have not gone as well as you'd hoped -- or maybe you've felt great about them, but your ideas weren't heard. Either way, there are steps you can take to boost your presentation skills.
“Presentation skills are the keys to promotion and success," says Steven D. Cohen, PhD, a leading expert of persuasive communication and effective presentation skills and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “We think that senior leaders have this magical ability to communicate but the magic is not innate; it takes practice, and the skills will serve you throughout your career."
Many of my students assume that securing a job marks an end point, but in fact, it's the beginning of a lifetime of career management. If you want to grow in your career (and I hope all of you do!), valuable contributions to your team are essential, and you therefore may want to learn how to present so your ideas are heard. Maybe you'd like your employer to use different software or your colleagues to do community service. Perhaps you are assisting as a consultant or motivating your team to be more active on social media. Whatever the goal, effective presentation skills can help you achieve it.
“Younger employees have good ideas -- in fact, their ideas are innovative and advanced -- but they often don't know how to structure and present them," Cohen points out. “Monroe's Motivated Sequence (MMS) provides a great framework," and using it as a guide will help you become an effective presenter. The framework consists of five steps, outline below.
With the opening, you hook your listeners so they are intrigued and want to hear more. A startling statement, an engaging anecdote, an eye-opening quote, a rhetorical question or a gripping statistic are all possible techniques to grab your audience's attention. “An effective opening needs to be something the audience cares about," says Cohen. Therefore, “you want to understand your listeners and especially what's in it for them: What do they get from your idea?"
Similarly, Nancy Duarte, author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, writes, “the people you're addressing will determine whether your idea spreads or dies, simply by embracing or rejecting it" so you may want to “use their desires and goals as a filter for everything you present." Before presenting in front of leadership or colleagues, be proactive and note what they care about. What motivates them to act? As Cohen emphasizes, “It's got to be all about the audience."
Once you have the attention of your audience, you want to help them see the problem and show how it affects them. “Even if they know why they are listening to you, remind them of the pain point that keeps them up at night," says Cohen. Ways in which you could achieve this include a specific example, statistical data or a testimonial. When presenting to colleagues or leadership, share examples and testimony you are all familiar with, such as recent issues with your current software or a challenge to your employer's reputation or brand. Whatever the problem, be sure to highlight it using stories from your shared experience. When you are done with this step, your listeners should be so interested in what you are presenting that they can't help but stay tuned for your recommendation.
“In step three, you tell your audience how you will make them sleep better," says Cohen. Now that your audience is reminded of a common issue you all face, follow up with your proposal. Have a recommendation that is concise and clear so listeners understand what it is and offer evidence to show how it addresses the problem.
“Dig up other presentations, industry studies, news articles, reports, surveys -- anything that's relevant to your big idea," says Duarte. For instance, if you are proposing implementation of new software, you may share examples of applications elsewhere and the positive outcomes. Highlight what experts in the field say about it. Again, know your audience so you understand which evidence resonates with them. “Strike the wrong balance of analytical and emotional content in your presentation, and you risk alienating the audience and diminishing your credibility," says Duarte. Knowing your listeners ensures not only a well-organized presentation but also an effective one, which elicits the intended response.
In the fourth step, you want to transport your listeners into the future and “make them envision why they should do what you want them to do by using cases, images and details," says Cohen. Three strategies you could use to complete this step include:
- The positive method: Highlight the positive outcome of implementing your recommendation.
- The negative method: Highlight the negative effects of not following your recommendation.
- The contrast method: A combination of the two, starting with the negative and ending with the positive.
Be vivid in your descriptions so your listeners see themselves in the situations you paint for them. You may want to introduce specific details with “picture yourself" or “imagine" and avoid generic pronouncements such as “this will result in a stronger reputation." Walk them step by step through life as it will be if they allow you to implement your plan.
The last step in the sequence is a call to action, which is your chance to have your listeners commit to your plan immediately. To achieve that, do your homework and be ready to give them the next step they can easily take after your presentation. The key word is "easily." An action step that is too lengthy or complex may turn people away, even if your presentation inspired them to act. If you are encouraging your colleagues to volunteer, for example, share information about the organization (ideally one that addresses an issue your listeners care about), introduce the activity you could do and ask for volunteers to sign up on the spot. “Presentations move people to act -- but only if you explicitly state what actions you want them to take, and when," writes Duarte.
As you prepare your speech, practice it aloud in front of a mirror so you become comfortable with the important elements: the beginning, the complex parts and the closing. Practice helps you avoid filler words like “um," “like" and “you know," which weaken your communication skills and decrease your credibility, and it also allows you to “speak with poise and power," says Cohen. After practicing on your own, practice with a mentor or a friend and solicit constructive feedback. Keep in mind that MMS offers structure to get you started, but the goal is to internalize and use it so it doesn't seem as if you are checking steps off. Knowing the steps, therefore, is not enough. As Duarte points out, “it's in crafting and recrafting -- in iteration and rehearsal -- that excellence emerges."
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