The key to an effective presentation

A dedicated Chicagoan and music lover, I was at Lollapalooza earlier this month. Several of the bands absolutely ruled, but others were exposed as not ready for prime time. Various factors had a direct impact on how well a band went over—style of music, number of well-known hits (the Cure had by far the deepest catalog), time slot (and thus the relative sobriety of the crowd and the degree to which the lighting could reinforce the mood). Of greatest importance, in my mind, was whether the band tailored its performance to the Lollapalooza audience.

The groups who really blew it out of Grant Park were the ones who understood their show would be seen not just by thousands of festivalgoers but also those streaming the show at home. These bands made a special effort to make their set memorable; for example, Nine Inch Nails started their set with nothing but bandleader Trent Reznor and a bare light bulb on stage, and they built the sound, staging, and effects until the excitement was palpable—even to a home viewer. On the other hand, some bands simply blasted out their stock set list, which wasn’t sufficient to keep the audience’s attention on a sunny and humid day with beer tents nearby—let alone the attention of those at home, watching a computer, with endless distractions available.

So what’s the connection between a music festival and business communications? It’s all about defining your audience and adjusting accordingly.

If you’ve ever been to a conference and seen a speaker trot out what feels like stock stories, you’re well acquainted with this experience. Here are some red flags that you’re on the receiving end of a generic presentation:

1) It’s not relevant to your industry or level of seniority.
2) The examples are badly out of date.
3) The anecdotes seem a little too well rehearsed.

Executives undermine their message if they are unprepared for an event or have a poor understanding of the audience. I’ve seen people take out their phone and tune out just 15 minutes into an hourlong presentation—all because they sensed the speaker’s ideas didn’t apply to them. In contrast, an engaged crowd will practically follow an executive out of the door to get more insight.

Clues abound for how to shape a presentation—from the event theme to direction from organizers to, most important, the audience. Tailoring a presentation to a new audience typically doesn’t involve a wholesale rewrite; it can be as simple as an opening that establishes a direct connection to the audience, targeted questions sprinkled throughout, and a conclusion that highlights specific recommendations.

The payoff of this effort far outweighs the minimal time it requires. After all, if you take time out of your schedule to appear at an event, the least you can do is ensure that it’s worthwhile—for you and your audience.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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