Word watching

Advances in technology and the increasing slickness of visual aids conspire to distract those making presentations from the content itself. It is the text that really matters.

So much attention has been paid to the art of the perfect presentation that one could be forgiven for thinking that it has almost become a science.

There are videos, books and courses on how to sit, stand, deliver, interpret personal chemistry and use your voice, microphone or mouse to win that business.

There is, however, one aspect of the presentation that some believe is in danger of being overlooked amid the plethora of visual aids: the words. They can sound or look clumsy, trip you up and let you down, and even alienate you from your audience.

Despite all the effort and rehearsals put into the business presentation, inappropriately pitched language can lose the day, whether in the presentation itself or in the accompanying literature. No amount of positive body language or fancy images and graphs can save the situation if no one understands the message you are trying to put across.

The problem with writing, as all professional writers know, is that everyone thinks they can do it. This is a job left to the last minute, delegated to the personal assistant and tinkered with by the rest of the department, each determined to provide their own input. The message is invariably muddled.

Ignore words at your peril, as John Simmons of Interbrand Newell & Sorrell warns in his book The Trouble With Words: “Beware of them, don’t let them run riot while you pretend you have nothing to do with them. They can inflict small unthinking acts of cruelty on your neighbours.”

He quotes playwright and TV writer Dennis Potter: “The trouble with words is you never know whose mouths they’ve been in.” Circus partner Paul Twivy, who chaired the Design Writing jury at this year’s D&AD Awards, is a veteran presenter of 17 years’ experience. He believes presenters still have much to learn, and that the same mistakes are repeated time and time again in front of the hapless audience.

Too often, he maintains, the text is seen as the handmaiden of powerful visuals: “I have both given and received presentations, and people make the mistakes of forming long-winded sets of words and forgetting to use the colour and energy in words. They just don’t approach wordsmithing with the same creativity as the rest of the pitch.”

Twivy’s main gripe is that by the time the pitch has been put together, the team are just too exhausted to “shape the presentation” as he describes it. “The whole thing should be art directed. I am talking about basic things such as readability, the length of the paragraphs, the rhythm and variety of the words used. It is all important.”

Apart from the actual placing of words on the page, Twivy maintains that there should be fewer, more vivid words in a presention, and a variety of styles to reflect the presenters’ different personalities. “People try to harmonise the presentation rather than let each individual show his or her own personality in the choice of words. The client is buying the varied chemistry of the team and the individual skills they bring to the project.”

Expressing the USP

Crown Business Presentations takes the writing element of its business seriously enough to employ its own in-house writing team. The company has four staff writers and employs the services of others when necessary. Head of creative writing Alex Clarke believes that the written input of a presentation is something that is neglected. “It touches every part of the presentation – it is the writing that articulates the Unique Selling Point of the client, but it is essential that it is tailored in a language that the audience will understand.”

Khalid Aziz, founder of the management development consultancy The Aziz Corporation, is the author of Presenting to Win and is a keen observer of changes in the style and standards of business presentations. “I have seen the birth of Powerpoint and the demise of slides, and watched as the technology has got slicker, but improvements in writing skills have not matched up,” he says.

He believes that business presenters get caught up in the culture of print-based writing, where length is deemed to be of value. His advice is not to construct the presentation as a written report of “print speak”; it will only come across as turgid and boring. “We seem to have an aversion to short, sharp words. We tend to use long French-based words when we should use short Anglo-Saxon words.” Perhaps that is why so many projects commence rather than start.

The audience as individuals

Aziz also recommends simple tips to make the language used in a presentation that much more inclusive to the audience. “The idea is not to talk to them as a great lump but to use ‘you’ in the singular. That way you can talk to each member of the audience, and make them feel much more connected. Never use ‘you all’ – it destroys intimacy.”

The pet hate of Caribener event organiser Lois Jacobs is corporate jargon. “There is no need for it in a business presentation. The message will be so much better in everyday language. TV broadcasters have it just about right. The tone has to be accessible for the viewing public at home – and we are no different in business life.”

As well as making the language accessible, Jacobs is all for ensuring the presenter delivers the words in a comprehensible way. “You need to practise the delivery out loud – just to make sure you can pronounce what you have written.”

The non-English-speaking audience

As the business community becomes more global, it is always important to consider the audience who don’t speak English as a first language. So out go the quintessentially British jokes and references, and in comes straightforward, simple English.

But, as corporate identity consultant Chris Ludlow of Ludlow Schmidt has found to his cost, accessing the non-English-speaking audience can cause the type of graphic design horrors that make the purist want to give up and retrain as a bus driver.

Ludlow presents regularly to German audiences and feels obliged to expand upon the normal summary bullet points on a slide, in order to ensure clarity in what is being communicated. “We try to use more words for them to read, which means we have to reduce the print size to get it all on the slide, which of course is then more difficult to read – especially for the older audience,” he laments.

Not all business presenters have the luxury of eye-to-eye contact with the audience when delivering their well-honed words. Technology has unleashed the electronic presentation on us, with all its inherent problems and limitations. The realities of international business will sometimes make an e-mail a necessary part of the pitch, whether presenters like it or not.

More often than not, they don’t, as Sarah Howe, director of communications agency August One, will testify. “In ten per cent of our new business pitches, we send the prospective client something in electronic form, but we always back it up with a conference call immediately afterwards.”

But Howe admits that when she and her team do e-mail clients, it is time to pull out all the creative stops in writing the document. “We put far more into the writing and creativity of the message. You have to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and think about how the message will look and read when they receive it. What sense will it make to the client? There is no room for ambiguity.”

Clients want hard copy

Although PresCo’s expertise is in the field of electronic communications, its business presenters do not always opt for the electronic option when pitching. PresCo head of marketing Guy Timewell explains: “Despite the wonderful advances in electronic pitching, some of our clients want to see the concepts, say, for a website, in a more traditional way. It is sometimes easier to talk through mood boards than through a screen-based presentation. And we may also write the supporting documentation in hard copy to keep it touchy-feely.”

Get your message across

But whatever media you use to pitch to the client, the message from the experts is clear: the text should not be the Cinderella to the visual aid. Careful thought, simplification and attention to the target audience can strengthen your pitch. If you can keep out the jargon, strip out the acronyms, and make words short, colourful and unambiguous, you will get your message across successfully.

The words used should always be to the fore in the fight to win business. As Simmons of Interbrand Newell & Sorrell writes: “The best advice I can give is to listen. When you use English, either say the words out loud or say them inside your head. This simple practice will kill off most examples of bad writing.”

We all look forward to it.

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