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Computers may have made presentations easier, but the success of the event still depends on the performance of the speaker, says Neil J Willetts. Neil J Willetts is a freelance marketing consultant

Presentations are performances, although many of those PC-based demonstrations which dominate the circuit seem to be little more than a smokescreen for presenters to hide behind. However, the time has come for more concentration on the art of performing to make business presentations more effective.

Marketing folklore recounts the instance when a famous presenter forgot his slides. All he had in his car was a garden spade. He brought it into the presentation and put it down in front of the directors, using it as a metaphor for their particular business predicament. He won a sizeable contract through a stroke of genius, coupled with what was probably a rivetting presentation.

Any management job implies the ability to make a decent business presentation. Indeed, in sales and marketing, your career may well depend on your ability to negotiate your way through the business presentations minefield.

Developments in modern technology have had a profound impact on the art of the business presentation – most notably through PC-driven presentations. There is no doubt that the standard of the visualisation of presentations has improved immeasurably over the past ten years, but has the presentation itself? Technically good presentations are becoming commonplace, perhaps even predictable. Predictability precedes boredom.

Apparently, it is now possible to create a professional presentation in a matter of minutes. I don’t think this is anything to be proud of.

It should, and does, take much longer to develop and prepare a good presentation.

Presenters spend too much time at the PC creating a slide show and not enough time on their performance. Presenters have forgotten to plan their personal involvement and the involvement of the audience.

You can imagine the scenario: the room is dimmed, the first slide goes up, then the presenter clicks through 30 or 40 of them, simply reading the thousands of words on the screen. The result: an unscheduled nap or a chance to plan the weekend.

This is the nerd’s presentation – full of computer cleverness and nothing else.

The real tragedy is that what started out as a simple tool for the creation of high-quality presentations has become the very reason why presentations can be so dull.

“The point of a presentation is to achieve a sale. It gives you an opportunity to show that you have vision and energy and should transfer your enthusiasm to the audience,” says sales director of The Presentation Company, Rob Oubridge.

One of Oubridge’s clients is Butlin’s, which recently secured funding to develop its sites for the millennium. One short presentation was key to securing 140m of investment funding.

With such high stakes, it just doesn’t pay to do anything less than the best. Butlin’s had the sense to invest in creating a vision of how it saw the future. The company’s presentation to the City, and subsequent presentations to the press, employees and local council planners, was supported by some clever hi-tech video animation, which was notably short but very intense. It made the vision real, it transferred enthusiasm, it worked.

Impact, interactivity and flexibility are the key factors to a successful presentation.

Impact means you have to perform. Presentation is performance. Make it dramatic, make it “loud”, make it unusual, play to the audience. It’s a show. It’s show business.

It goes without saying that people enjoy high-impact presentations. People want to be stretched, motivated and stimulated. They want to see unusual things, they want to see people performing, they want to see commitment and emotion. Using a garden spade in a presentation could be considered a desperate gimmick, but it really does raise the attention of the audience.

Interactivity means involving the audience. If they are not interacting directly with the presentation they have a choice: either to be completely in awe of your presentation, or go to sleep.

Susannah Howard, marketing manager at the Globe Theatre in London, a venue for performances as well as presentations, says that they actively encourage audience participation, even heckling. In many performances, actors mingle with the audience and perform from the stalls and even boxes. They do this to heighten the atmosphere, maximise the performance and raise the attention of the participants – meaning the audience – as much as possible.

If you can get your audience to participate, you are closer to achieving the objectives of the presentation.

Flexibility will test presenters, but also will allow him or her to shine. Every presentation should have a story line – a beginning, a middle and an end. A major effect of interactivity is the need to be flexible with that story. Unexpected events may scupper the best-laid plans, thus the formalised, computerised slide show may become inappropriate through built-in inflexibility. An unforeseen question may grind your presentation to a halt or, at the very least, demand an explanation away from the sequence of the slides. You are on the spot, there is nowhere to hide now: you will have to perform.

My paradigm is the guitar. The guitar represents a tool that supports presentation, rather like a PC, but that can never do the performance for you.

From my own experience as a guitarist, business presentations and gigs have many parallels.

You have to prepare diligently, and have a good plan for the progress of the performance. You should know your material. You must be able to excite the audience and get them involved. You must be able to improvise and respond to requests. You should have a good guitar, but a good guitar on its own won’t carry the day. You will.

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