StrategyJul 20, 2010

Seven Favorite Rules of Presenting

Brad Buhl

Sometimes the best advice comes from the worst experience. Especially when presenting to large audiences or C-level execs, each of which have their own particular way of letting you know when you might as well finish your speech…now. When piecing together a cohesive story in order to build your delivery, whether through a product webinar or conference speech, I have found the following seven rules to be a trustworthy guide. With a background in Sales, Product and Account Management, these have stood the test of time.

Rule # 1: The Thematic Rule

Quite simply, every slide must prove one central point. If your audience doesn’t walk away at least knowing what your ‘meta narrative’ or major point was, then you lost ‘em. After looking at every slide you talk to, ask yourself the question, “Does this defend or detract from my central point?”

Rule # 2: The ‘Beg the Question’ Rule

Everyone who has experience presenting knows not to read everything off the slide directly, but not many people are good at building slides that drive the story rather than telling the whole story. In other words, a good presenter creates mystery, and invites the audience to think for themselves, rather than telling them what to think. To use a tired allegory (my apologies in advance), ask yourself, “Am I catching fish for my audience, or teaching them how to fish?”

Rule # 3: The Rule of Three

Ever heard, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them?” The rule of three is a general guide to both repeatability and consistency – three sub-bullets for every category; three repetitions of each main point; three people but one being in the Trinity. Here’s why the rule of three works for repetition: if you repeat something once, the audience might hear it. If you repeat something twice, the audience should be able to quote it. If you repeat something three times, you risk the perception of being patronizing. So, say something once and repeat it twice if you want to make a point.

Rule # 4: The Rule of Surprise

Remember, half the people you know are below average. The rule of surprise keeps people awake, as humor, creativity and suspense drive engagement, no matter the subject. Just think about your favorite scene in your favorite movie. If there’s a grandiose line an actor drives home, it’s most likely on the verge of a climactic battle or delivered just after a really funny moment. Humor drops defenses so people listen, while building to a big point creates suspense. Just don’t overdo it in the drama department!

Rule # 5: The Climactic Rule

While we’re on the cinema kick, The Climactic Rule is taken from screenwriting guidelines. When you see a movie, the first 20% is generally building interest in the protagonist, then 60% builds to the climax about 80% of the way into the film. The last 20% concludes the story, and draws out conclusions from the journey. Taking the same method into a presentation (either from a timing or number of slides perspective) is a good general guide when you’re driving to a central point. Again, tell them what you’re going to tell them (20%), tell them (60%), then tell them what you told them (20%).

Rule # 6: The Rule of Proper Perspective

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a framework is worth a million. defines a framework as “a skeletal structure designed to support or enclose something.” Those familiar with Management Consulting are indeed familiar with different frameworks, whether for problem solving, prioritization, categorization, or a variety of other issues (but that’s for a later post). The Rule of Proper Perspective, and the associated framework one might use to drive perspective, enclose your presentation in a defensible skeletal structure. Just make sure your framework is appropriate for your presentation if and when you use one!

Rule # 7: The Weakest Link Rule

A proper rule to end on, you should know your presentation is only as good as its’ weakest slide, as well as your weakest phrase. In fact, in listening to various vendor demonstrations in software selection processes through the years, I can easily compile a Bingo card of overused words and phrases. “At the end of the day, we think the bottom line is a best of breed solution that will drive synergies.” Barf.

Again, these rules aren’t hard and fast, but guides for presentations driving a point or a story. Each come out of times when I’ve fallen flat on my face and resolved to not make the same mistake again, lest it turn into a failure.