Sharpen Your Presentation Skills as a Consultant

Sep 7, 2012

by Carol Milano ASME.org

To pitch a potential client or give a progress report on a project, every successful consultant needs good presentation skills.

If you’re ever nervous when you’re telling a group of people about your work, so is almost everyone else. Here are some guidelines for easing your natural anxiety and delivering your message effectively when facing any audience.

What to Present

“Whether you’re talking to one person or more than one, you’re just communicating,” says communications consultant Bill Smartt, president of SmarttTalk in New York City. Start by figuring out the message you want someone to take away. That might be the specific problem you’re going to solve. Then present three other points that support your main theme.

Simply delivering a bunch of facts is boring, says Smartt. Instead, tell a story. Have a conversation with your audience. “Talk to them, instead of staring into space. Use stories that show your personal perspective on what you’re discussing, and tie into your topic. That’s what people remember.”

To pitch new business, ask yourself what’s most important to this client. “Consultants usually know all the specifics, but the client doesn’t need to know every detail. A business cares about how much your work will cost, whether it will solve the problem, and be completed on time,” Smartt advises. “Let that drive your presentation!”

Try to anticipate likely questions. Invite colleagues to suggest possibilities, and rehearse answers to all of them. You may be surprised occasionally, but you’ll usually be ready with well-informed, confident replies.

For your final presentation after a project, consider what your client actually cares about. “It’s not just that you did a good job, but that you did it efficiently,” Smartt notes. Although consulting relationships don’t always go smoothly, emphasize the positive. For instance, you could say, “We had some challenges and we’ve learned a lot by resolving them.”

How to Prepare

The secret of a good presentation is invisible. It’s rehearsal. People devote 90% of their preparation time to content. Yet studies show that only 10% of audience response is based on a presentation’s content. “They’re more affected by your facial expressions, gestures, posture and movements, as well as by the tone, pitch and volume of your voice,” explains Smartt.

Spend at least 40% of preparation time on your feet, rehearsing out loud. “You’ll feel ridiculous, but it’s crucial. Whenever someone speaks in front of a group and it looks effortless, that means they invested lots of time practicing,” Smartt says. “Steve Jobs would spend months working on a presentation, over and over, until it looked casual and natural. You become more confident when you go through your talk many times.”

Find a rehearsal space larger than your cubicle or office. If possible, use the room where you’ll actually make your presentation, to become familiar with its features and setting. The more you can rehearse all the actual circumstances, the better. Round up some friends or colleagues to be your audience for a few minutes, but ask them not to make suggestions. “Even with the best intentions, you can get awful feedback in all kinds of ways that may not be helpful,” Smartt cautions. Because so much happens internally when you face a group, it’s important to become aware of your physiological responses. “How are you breathing? Where do you feel tension? Are you making eye contact with several people in your audience?”

Videotape yourself. You can’t tell how long your presentation is until you tape it. Keep it brief, Smartt stresses. Aim for 15 minutes. Pay attention to whether you’re loud enough, or speaking in a monotone. Do you use filler words? Do you lean to one side, or pace? “Can you get a wireless router to test your Power Point, if you plan to use one? Then you can avoid leaning over your laptop to advance your slides,” Smartt suggests.

If interpersonal communication isn’t your strength, Smartt observes, “You still have to develop it to build your career.” Try to speak at conferences to get the word out about what you do. Join Toastmasters, an excellent way to improve your presentation skills. “You can’t beat a weekly or bi-weekly check-in with others watching you,” says Smartt. Take an Improvisation class. “You’re in front of a group, and you have to think on your feet. That’s great practice for forming words and sentences, especially if your typical responses are more analytical.”

For any presentation, focus on the two critical factors. Rehearse. Remember that you’re conversing with your audience, not delivering a monologue. “Don’t be just another bad speaker,” urges Smartt. “If you practice and plan ahead, you’ll stand out as being a good presenter.”

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

Don’t be just another bad speaker. If you practice and plan ahead, you’ll stand out as being a good presenter.Bill Smartt, president, SmarttTalk

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