The truth is, most business presentations don’t work. Yes, deals get done, and, yes, sometimes they even get done in close proximity to PowerPoint presentations. But, the vast majority of those deals happen in spite of the presentation, not because of it.
Back in the good old days of the “dot-com bubble,” a prominent IPO-churning investment bank asked me to assess the presentation materials they used to pursue private companies for M&A and IPO underwriting. The “right pitch” (or so they reasoned) could bring in millions for the firm with a single win, but competition was fierce with numerous banks offering virtually identical opportunities.
Their PowerPoint pitch droned for nearly 80 pages about the company’s great history and achievements — and then the real meeting started! But this isn’t a history lesson. The addiction to PowerPoint-driven, self-absorbed presentations remains alive and well today.
What’s the real cost?
So, how has PowerPoint cost the US economy billions of dollars? Well, take the investment bank as an example. How much did the investment bankers pay the smart young analyst trainees to stay awake until sun-up consolidating reams of data and plugging it into PowerPoint? What was the executive presenter’s time worth? What if he could have closed more deals in less time? What was the opportunity cost of a wasted “branding opportunity?” What is their “opportunity cost” for failing to differentiate themselves from the competition? Boy, this can really add up!
In fact, the real cost may be in the formulaic thinking these presentations tend to reinforce. If we‘ve learned anything from the cyclical collapse of various “bubbles,” it’s that you have to have a great business before you can tell a great story. PowerPoint has little to do with either one.
What’s the objective?
As business communicators, leaders must move other people to action. It is not enough for people to simply hear or even to understand you. Yet most standard business communication tends to look and feel like a “data dump.” Guess what? By itself, data doesn’t connect – people do.
Learn to connect first
If PowerPoint “data dumps” don’t work, what does? In a word…connection. Relax, no group hugs necessary. As a business communicator, connection means that everything you say and everything you do is driven by the result you want in relationship to the reality of the people you are talking to. The way you use your body and voice, as well as the ideas you choose, must meet the needs of your audience if you want them to change in some predictable way. And that means that you must be driven by the result you want but presented in a way that is completely focused on them. That way, you’ll communicate with them in a way that deepens the relationship, creates value and differentiates you from your competition.
Establish a core message
Let’s say you need to talk to higher-ups in your company to get approval for the budget for your next client event – a budget they’ve been trying to squeeze as much as possible. You don’t begin by planning with PowerPoint — PowerPoint may help you clarify or reinforce your message, but not plan it strategically. Instead, first identify the specific result you want from the meeting and the needs of the people you will talk to, and let that combination drive your core message: what’s in it for them to do what you want them to do.
Graphics as friend, not foe
Only when your ideas are listener-focused and results-oriented is it logical to ask whether some of these ideas should be made visual. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go have a pint at a local pub….or at least imagine it. In a pub, sometimes a complex concept can be made simple with a quick sketch on a cocktail napkin. If you are willing to work hard enough to evaluate your ideas from the standpoint of the people you are talking to, the effective use of visuals is pretty straightforward.
But, you don’t doodle everything you say in a bar. And by the same token, you shouldn’t try to reinforce everything you say at a meeting with PowerPoint. That’s not reinforcement…it’s visual noise.
Make an impact
As a business person, you don’t talk in public forums to entertain, to look smart, to inform, or even to educate. Your job is to communicate with empathy, power and influence. That’s how you drive results when you talk, and that’s strategic communication!