Putting your presentation on right flight path

Start with the conclusion and don’t forget to be clear, compelling and engaging
By Dene Rossouw
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/05/2012

Ask any pilot — the most critical parts of flying are the flight plan preparation, actual flight and landing. Delivering an effective presentation is similar, with three elements of delivery: the opening, content navigation and close.

The challenge for presenters is threefold:

• Have clarity about the purpose and intended outcome of the presentation.

• Prepare the argument structure to include the right mix of rich content, analogies and stories that support the purpose of the presentation.

• Deliver the presentation in an engaging and compelling manner.


“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good, impromptu speech,” said Mark Twain.

Nowadays, despite the fact information is immediately available online, an effective presenter should spend at least 10 to 15 hours preparing a one-hour presentation.

Deciding on an argument structure upfront is similar to a flight plan preparation. It takes time but helps keep the presentation tight and aligned with its theme. For example, a presenter can plan the flow as a combination of a past-present-future scenario or a symptom-problem-solution scenario.

Take the time to research audience expectations, including a few phone calls to a sample of attendees, to help keep the presentation focused and relevant.

3 preparation rules

Three simple rules should guide the preparation:

Prepare the conclusion first: During an interview on CBC’s As it Happens on May 4, 2012, author John Irving said he always determines the conclusion of a book first. He then writes towards that conclusion.

Preparing the conclusion of a presentation first and speaking towards a clear outcome has significant benefits:

• It brings clarity to the speaker about the purpose of the presentation.

• It helps shape the opening.

• It radically reduces preparation time.

In doing so, ask yourself: Is the purpose of my presentation to inform, influence or inspire? If the purpose is to inform, for example, what are three or four specific outcomes the audience should know about or act upon?

Once the purpose and a clear call to action are determined — such as a request for funding or to make a recommendation — the next step, working backwards, is to tease out the benefits, such as recognition, improved productivity and enhanced efficiencies.

A powerful component of the close is to map out an effective callback — a link back to a key fact, question, phrase, tagline, statistic or character in a story — that will be introduced during the opening. An effective callback at the close reinforces and supports the point of the message.

Prepare the opening: The takeoff or first 30 seconds of the opening of a presentation are critical to gaining and maintaining an audience’s attention. A well-planned, provocative statement, rhetorical question, statistic, quote or short story are effective ways of drawing an audience into the presentation’s theme.

For example, a presenter talking about innovation within HR could begin by quoting experts in the field: “Left to their own devices, people will choose to collaborate with others they know well, which can be deadly for innovation,” according to professors Herminia Ibarra and Morten Hansen from INSEAD, a business graduate school in Fontainebleau, France.

These opening elements need to gain attention and be relevant to the subject. They set the tone for what is about to unfold.

The opening is also the most appropriate place for positioning the theme or point of the presentation, such as a challenge or new opportunity.

A foreshadow, a key element — such as a fact, question, phrase, tagline, statistic or character in a story — should be introduced in the first few minutes. This hooks the listener’s attention and points the audience forward with the expectation the foreshadow will be resolved or concluded.

Prepare the body content: If the presenter is using slides, the text should preferably be single words or brief phrases. The visuals should consist of high-quality, impactful graphics purchased from an online stock agency such as iStockPhoto.com or ThemeForest.net.

The body needs to be tight and follow the argument structure. A guide for the allocation of time during the presentation starts with the opening at 15 per cent to 20 per cent, the body at 60 per cent to 65 per cent and the close at 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

The attention of an audience plummets every 10 minutes, according to John Medina, a molecular biologist at Seattle Pacific University.

“When I started placing hooks in my lectures, I immediately noticed changes in the audience members’ attitudes,” he says.

The “hooks” are emotional stimuli, relevant stories and anecdotes that illustrate key points and serve to keep the audience engaged.


“There comes a moment in everyone’s life when you find yourself getting to your feet with a strange feeling in your stomach and a light-headed sensation,” says Stuart Crainer, author of the Financial Times Handbook of Management. “The joys of public speaking may escape you at this point.”

The most effective way of managing fear is to go out and practise the presentation a few times in front of a “rented” audience and then make adjustments based on the feedback.

Following the advice of professors Ibarra and Hansen, the presenter should seek out a group of people who are not well-known to him. The group should be primed to make innovative suggestions and give feedback on specific points, such as flow and structure, clarity, impact, passion, rapport and use of visuals.

Arriving early, “owning” the room beforehand and socializing with the audience at coffee breaks can also make a big difference to the confidence of the presenter and help increase levels of rapport and engagement with the audience.

No amount of coaching on body language — such as restricting or enhancing hand movements or encouraging voice projection — are really effective until a presenter becomes passionate about or begins to own the topic. The alignment of body language and message is a natural outflow of internal congruency and connection with the topic, not the other way around. In the words of bestselling author Eckhart Tolle, “Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free.”

Because most presenters are the first to admit they are a work in progress, being authentic is the best way to show up on stage.

“When people feel they’re dealing with a real person, who isn’t hiding behind excuses or a mask... they know they’re dealing with someone they can trust,” says Arlene Dickinson, co-star of CBC TV’s Dragon’s Den.

Giving an effective presentation needs detailed preparation. And, like it is for pilots, the fun part is flying and taking the audience on a journey of discovery to a new destination.

Dene Rossouw is principal of AuthenticDialogue.com in Vancouver, specializing in influencing solutions. He can be reached at (778) 386-5167 or dene@authenticdialogue.com.

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