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Tom KennedyHow To Breathe Life Into Your
Presentations While Achieving
Your Communications Goals

By Tom Kennedy

From the Harvard Business Review to the recent World Business Forum events, with speakers like Giuliani, Gerstner, Welch, Collins, Mulcahy, and Clinton, we're told that communication is the key. But few talk about how to develop good communication skills. We hear that it's not the text on slides (the de facto standard of business presentations). It is, rather, the emotion, the "tools," the body language; it's reaching people on multiple levels. It's true. It is! But how do you do that? And if you're a PowerPoint user, how do you get out of that rut and speak from the heart and the mind? How do you develop the leadership skills to make them care and feel and want to follow?

My intent here is to give you some concrete, incremental steps that you can take, on your own, to achieve your communications goal(s). But first, let's discuss your goal.

What does your goal look like?
Start with this: Who is the best speaker you've ever seen? Think about that. Have a person in mind. Then answer these questions:

  • Did they use text on slides?

  • What made them interesting to you?

  • Why were they compelling?

  • What "tools" (storytelling, quotes, true visual aids) did they use? The tools they use are universal; how can you adapt some of them into your speaking style?

  • How can you ensure that you're taking best advantage of your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses? We all have strengths and weaknesses.

  • Do you know yours? Not what you perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses, but what others perceive them to be. Have an objective and trusted advisor. Rely on them often. Reevaluate often. The best speakers do.

Start with the conclusion, go from there
It's a simple process-conclusion first, then main themes, then introduction:

  • What do you want them to remember (in a couple of sentences)?

  • What are your two or three (okay, maybe four if you must) main themes? Keep the message focused and keep it effective.

  • What's the introduction? How do you bring them into the message based on the interests, concerns, objectives, beliefs, etc. of this audience?

You've just developed a very effective presentation outline. For some (the very best presenters), you're essentially ready. For others, much more preparation is needed.

Four reminders on building the presentation

  1. Whether you're comfortable with just bullet-point notes or you need to script your whole message, the next, extremely important step is to decide what "tools" (stories, quotes, examples, antidotes, visual aids) you'll use. These are especially useful-even essential-in the introduction and conclusion. The introduction and conclusion are the big picture; if they are vivid, they will be memorable.

  2. Put yourself in your audience's shoes (especially if it's adversarial or if you have some bad news). Why should they care? What does it mean to them? Tell them. Use the word "you" and be very careful of the word "I." The presentation is not about you, it's about them.

  3. The sooner you start framing your talk, the more "incubation" time you'll have. And you'll find that the best parts (the tools) of your presentation will come to you during that incubation time.

  4. Remember, again, that the introduction and conclusion are what your audience will remember. The body of the talk, the details, are there simply to explain your reasoning and bolster your message. So if you have to edit the talk, always edit the body, not the introduction or conclusion. A good presentation is not about perfection, it's about success.


Preparation and practice
The only hard part here is to carve out the time to plan your talk well in advance (the more important the talk, the farther in advance), and then practice it. The best talks from the best speakers don't happen by accident; they are prepared-and then practiced.

  • Practice the introduction and conclusion. Know exactly how you'll start and,

  • Know exactly how long you'll take. Never run over, never. Never rush to finish. Never let them see the slides (if you must use them) that you don't have time for.

Only for the truly courageous
Use videotape, the world's worst form of punishment! It shows you what your audience will see. Watch yourself in real time, in fast forward (for repetitive distractions), audio only (for vocal quality), and picture only (for body language).

Give up the slides!
Okay, you're not ready for that. Try this: do the above and then prepare your slides. Decide if each slide is really a necessary visual aid. You'll probably end up editing both the number of slides and the amount of text; you may end up with none at all. Take the leap, you can do it! If you have graphs or charts, show them to that trusted advisor and ask what they see. Don't tell them what you meant. Listen to them.

Evaluate each slide individually, and remember: If it's not a visual aid, it's your competition! What I call "Death by PowerPoint."


These techniques are powerful. When they permeate company culture, truly magical things happen. All presentations become more focused, effective, memorable, benefit-oriented, and (it's not a bad word) emotional. And some become absolutely stellar.

Break a leg. There's no business without show business.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR...Tom Kennedy is President of The Kennedy Group, a communications skill development company. He is also an Associated Press award-winning broadcaster and strategic communications instructor at Emerson College. Tom has more than 20 years of on-air media experience and 12 years' strategic-communications consulting experience with officers and senior executives of international companies including IBM, Roche, MIT, Fleet, Bosch, and others. He specializes in training his clients to develop and deliver focused, effective, and memorable messages, internally, externally, and in the media.