“Dynamic Impressions” – An article on public speaking in The Lawyer

“Dynamic Impressions” – click here to read an article on public speaking in The Lawyer


At any given moment, there are any number of corporate presentations going on around the world during which people are being bombarded by a barrage of endless lacklustre slides over-filled with interminable data and incomprehensible jargon. We’ve all sat through them, daydreaming of a distant holiday or fighting determined eyelids whilst praying for a fire alarm to punctuate the tedium. Indeed, rarely does one hear said after a presentation: ‘Wow, that was really great, but I wish it had gone on for longer and had more slides in it.’

None of us really wants to be the person responsible for that so to avoid putting your audience to sleep here are a number of key steps you should follow every time you create a presentation.

  1. Identify your objective – if you don’t know what you want to achieve from creating and delivering your presentation, your audience certainly won’t. Presentations of any form have three primary purposes: to inspire, to inform, to persuade and you need to be very clear about which purpose, or combination thereof, you are trying to achieve. You need to ask yourself, ‘what do I want my audience to feel or understand or do after my presentation?’ One of the most effective ways of identifying this clearly is to complete the following sentence when you start the creative process: “At the end of my presentation I want my audience to ….”
  2. Focus on your audience – your presentation is for your audience, not for you and your audience has some basic needs: ‘please tell me something I don’t know’; ‘please don’t bore me with information and jargon I don’t need to know’; ‘please make my life easier’. To ensure you meet those needs you must, as a top priority, research your audience to find out as much about them as you can. At the very least you should know: Who are they? How many are there? What is the age range/gender ratio? What is their level of responsibility? How much do they already know about your topic? What do they need to know? How much time do you have? When are you presenting?
  3. Structure your key message– you need to be able to write down in one sentence what they key message of your presentation is. This can often be the most difficult part of the preparation but once identified it must be rigidly adhered to; it is the backbone of your delivery. From that will come your introduction which is your opportunity to tell people why they should listen to you and is crucial as it is the moment when you will either grab your audience or lose them and it is much harder to get people’s attention back if you have started badly. Then you have the main body of your presentation which should consist of a logical development of ideas and proposals, each of which should be treated as a min presentation in itself (i.e. have a beginning, a middle and end). Depending on the length of your presentation, try to keep your main points to a minimum – three is always a good number and remember to be brief and to the point. Finally, you have your conclusion which should neatly link back to your introduction and hammer home your key message.
  4. Choose the right language – use language that your audience understands and uses. You will almost certainly have to use specific words and phrases which are relevant to your role, but make sure that you don’t alienate people by the overuse of technical jargon which they aren’t interested in and don’t appreciate. If you have researched your audience well enough you will be able to demonstrate that you understand what their business is by speaking their language.
  5. Get the timing right – the golden rule of any presentation is don’t go over time! However long you have allocated to you, always aim to finish bang on time or a little bit early and prepare for that. If, for example, you know that you have ten minutes to present and you create a document that has 5,000 words in it you will you will be way over time of speaking far too fast.
  6. Create visual media to support you – PowerPoint is not the presentation, what you say is the presentation and PowerPoint is there to support you and what you are saying. No one is interested in what your computer can do (not least because theirs can do the same). We are a visual species and images stick in the mind and a good, clear and relevant image can make your message outstanding but it absolutely must add impact and should never be more interesting than you. It must also be instantly absorbable with only the bare minimum of information that the audience needs (something that Steve Jobs understood very well). Every slide must be justifiable and add to what you are saying – if it can’t be justified then delete it.
  7. Keep it simple – firstly, avoid the temptation to litter your presentation with endless synonyms of everyday words just to try and sound clever (unless, of course, like Boris Johnson that is how you normally speak). Secondly, be passionate and enthusiastic by all means – enthusiasm is infectious – but don’t frighten them! Thirdly and above all, be yourself.
  8. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse– it really doesn’t matter how experienced you are (or aren’t) at this, you need to rehearse. The first time you hear your words out loud must not be at the same time as your audience does. We write longer sentences than we speak and if you don’t hear what you have written out loud you will not know which sentences sound odd, are repetitive or too long. Rehearsal should be conducted as a strict ‘live’ event as far as possible and in the presence of someone who can give you independent constructive criticism.
  9. Perfect your delivery– think about how you look, how you sound and how you engage your audience. Dress appropriately and be well groomed. Use your voice effectively to enhance your message and think about how your physicality and posture can help – or hinder – you.
  10. Tell a story – think of your key message as a story and create the content accordingly. Pay attention to the detail and chose your words with care. Use rhetoric where you can but don’t overdo it. The more you practice this (as well as your actual delivery) the more seemingly effortless it appears.

There is much to consider when putting together a presentation and you cannot do it all at once, not least when you are stepping in at the last minute and creating something under time pressure. The good news though is that the more time you spend addressing each of the points above the more proficient you will become and the more proficient you become the further you will progress in your career because, like it or loathe it, presenting is part of your professional life. Why wouldn’t you want to be thought of as an engaging, effective and effortless speaker?