4 Key Steps to Preparing for a Business Presentation
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Careers Marketing Leadership Sep 6, 2018

4 Key Steps to Prepar­ing for a Busi­ness Presentation

Don’t let a lack of prep work sab­o­tage your great ideas.

Based on insights from

Timothy Calkins

Being able to effec­tive­ly present ideas to oth­ers is a cru­cial skill in many careers. But too often, hon­ing the abil­i­ty to stand in front of col­leagues and deliv­er rec­om­men­da­tions gets neglect­ed in the shuf­fle of oth­er more press­ing priorities.

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Yet strug­gling to get your ideas across can shake oth­ers’ faith in your abil­i­ties. That loss of con­fi­dence can quick­ly reduce your chances of advance­ment and long-term suc­cess, says Tim Calkins, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School who spent years as a brand man­ag­er for Kraft Foods and now serves as a consultant.

You can be the smartest per­son in the room,” Calkins says, but if you can’t put togeth­er a good busi­ness pre­sen­ta­tion, you’re going to be frus­trat­ed because the senior peo­ple will think very high­ly of the per­son with the nice pre­sen­ta­tion, even when they might not have great ideas.” 

It’s not a TED Talk,” he says. It’s not like doing a speech at a wed­ding. A busi­ness pre­sen­ta­tion is a real­ly unique event.” 

Calkins, the author of the forth­com­ing book How to Wash a Chick­en: Mas­ter­ing the Busi­ness Pre­sen­ta­tion, offers four rec­om­men­da­tions that can help you pre­pare and present with con­fi­dence (for those curi­ous, the book’s title refers to the first pre­sen­ta­tion Calkins ever gave, as an eight year old boy at a 4-H fair). 

Ded­i­cate Time to Prepare

Prepa­ra­tion should start the moment the pre­sen­ta­tion is sched­uled, Calkins says. And by prepa­ra­tion, he may not mean quite what you think.

A lot of peo­ple wor­ry about deliv­ery, their breath­ing and how they move around the room,” Calkins says. You should real­ly spend your time ahead of the meet­ing think­ing about your audi­ence, devel­op­ing a clear rec­om­men­da­tion, and find­ing a clear and log­i­cal story.”

Specif­i­cal­ly, Calkins stress­es the impor­tance of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, draft­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion, and allow­ing plen­ty of time to incor­po­rate feed­back from stakeholders.

Calkins recalls a time at Kraft when he was prepar­ing for a big pre­sen­ta­tion. He knew that the com­pa­ny need­ed to shift its strat­e­gy with regard to its line of bar­be­cue sauces. After iter­at­ing with his team for weeks, the team deliv­ered a strate­gic rec­om­men­da­tion to cut back on pro­mo­tions and improve the product’s qual­i­ty. Tak­ing these actions would cause an ini­tial loss, but would lead to lat­er growth. Though the strat­e­gy was some­what risky, it was approved.

The pol­ish” on the speech Calkins gave to senior lead­er­ship — his pres­ence in the front of the room, the author­i­ty in his voice — was near­ly beside the point.

The pre­sen­ta­tion was so log­i­cal and clear that we could have sent any­one on the team to present it,” Calkins says. Heck, we could’ve sent the sum­mer intern up there. The rec­om­men­da­tion was just that tight.” 

Fig­ure Out Your Story 

Calkins is often amazed by how many peo­ple deliv­er pre­sen­ta­tions with lit­tle sense of the nar­ra­tive they want to convey. 

Peo­ple often start writ­ing and con­struct­ing pages before they know the sto­ry,” he says. That’s a dis­as­trous approach because what you end up with is a lot of data, but you don’t end up with a sto­ry, a nar­ra­tive flow that makes sense.” 

Calkins sug­gests that pre­sen­ters look to their objec­tive — the rec­om­men­da­tion — to deter­mine the key points they can deploy to sup­port that objec­tive. From there, fram­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion is as sim­ple as deter­min­ing what infor­ma­tion to include in its begin­ning, mid­dle, and end.

We’re swim­ming in a world with so much infor­ma­tion. We spend our time think­ing about ana­lyt­ics, big data, and all these won­der­ful things we can do. But peo­ple can­not under­stand a page of num­bers very well.” 

Calkins rec­om­mends start­ing with the company’s sta­tus quo along with a quick back­sto­ry on how it came to be. If your audi­ence doesn’t know much about your busi­ness, then a bit of his­to­ry might be use­ful to pro­vide some per­spec­tive on the sit­u­a­tion,” he writes. 

You can move from there into your key points, with data back­ing up each state­ment. Once you have estab­lished those key points, it is crit­i­cal to ask your­self how each of those state­ments clear­ly relates to the oth­er points — and how it lad­ders up to the rec­om­men­da­tion itself.

What you’re try­ing to find is a sto­ry that you tell page by page, one point to the next point,” Calkins says. 

Make Sure Your Data Serve Your Story

Just as there should be data to back up each of your main points, there should be a main point to each piece of data.

While data are key to build­ing a rea­soned, sup­port­ed argu­ment, you have to be judi­cious — more is not always bet­ter. A del­uge of data can mud­dy a presentation’s flow and frus­trate your audi­ence to the point where they tune you out to check their email. 

We’re swim­ming in a world with so much infor­ma­tion,” he says. We spend our time think­ing about ana­lyt­ics, big data, and all these won­der­ful things we can do. But peo­ple can­not under­stand a page of num­bers very well.” 

Rather than using every bit of infor­ma­tion at your dis­pos­al, Calkins rec­om­mends whit­tling that data down to the ele­ments that pro­vide the most com­pelling sup­port for your points — and which allow you to move on to the next part of your narrative. 

Remem­ber, too, that not every piece of data is equal­ly cred­i­ble. Analy­sis from a trust­ed provider will car­ry more weight. Only use sup­port points that you under­stand and trust,” rec­om­mends Calkins. You don’t want peo­ple to ques­tion your sources.”

Keep Your Lan­guage Sim­ple and Relatable

We all want to sound smart — or would that be eru­dite?—when we speak. This sig­nals to oth­ers that our opin­ions are sound and our rec­om­men­da­tions are well rea­soned. But it turns out that the key to gain­ing people’s sup­port for an idea rests on quite the oppo­site track. 

One of the things that hap­pens when peo­ple present is they try to use all these fan­cy words because, in the­o­ry, it makes them look smart,” he says. But it’s total­ly opposite.”

Stud­ies have shown that reach­ing for big words tends to make texts unnec­es­sar­i­ly com­plex, when sim­pler ver­sions are more under­stand­able and digestible. They also make the author of the sim­pler ver­sion seem more intel­li­gent than their more loqua­cious counterparts. 

The sim­pler you make it, the small­er the words, the more com­pelling it is,” Calkins says. And that’s the heart of any pre­sen­ta­tion. If it feels sim­ple and easy and log­i­cal, peo­ple are going to under­stand it and they’re going to accept it and they’re going to approve it.” 

About the Writer

Glenn Jeffers is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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