As part of leadership teams at Google, I spend a chunk of my week watching presentations. They are usually pitches for funding a project, launching a new program, or a critical status update, where the team members come super prepared with a deck that is typically 10+ slides long, and often includes a lengthy appendix. Within minutes, we are peppering the presenters with questions. I keep my eye on the clock watching time slip by, thinking about the hard work that went into the deck and how we are never going to reach its end.
So, why do presentations stall early and often?
You have something you want from your audience (bosses, team leads, cross-functional team), usually approval or funding or both. You’ve spent time agonizing over your beautiful deck, angsting over the data, and messing with font sizes. You have 30 minutes to make your point and get what you need. And in the first five minutes of presenting to your boss and her cohort you get stuck on slide three. The audience peppers you with questions. They suggest ideas and approaches that you cover on later slides. They get off track for 20 minutes, and you need to rush and skip through your deck the best you can. What happened?
You are not alone
This is SO common. I’ve watched countless presentations, and this happens in 80%+ of them. I’m going to assume your idea is brilliant, and what you are presenting is logical. So let’s focus on why you are getting stuck and how you can avoid derailment.
The classic presentation I see goes something like this:
- Title slide
- Executive summary
- Existing terrible situation
- N slides of data
- N slides on proposal for the future, e.g. pro/con slides, # of proposals considered
- N asks in order to accomplish your brilliant proposal, e.g. engineer staffing, budget
- Sometimes executive summary #2 (for the meeting amnesiacs)
- N Appendix slides
Somewhere in all these slides, typically 10 – 30 slides into your deck, in my experience, is the point you want to make and the thing you want to get. But somehow people always interrupt you during the agenda or the executive summary with questions. Have you considered this? Did you evaluate [X]?
OF COURSE YOU DID. Because you are awesome. So how can you get to your goal faster?
Advice #1: Drop the first 3 slides. Start with a summary of the problem you are solving.
Yes! Start with the terrible situation, the awful scenario, the bottomless pit of despair we are sinking into. And now, you are the savior with data and a proposal!
My favorite decks have a structure more like this:
- I’m here to ask for X
- The data supports it
- There are risks we can mitigate
- Data is awesome & is telling me great stuff
- From the data, we see X is the best solution for Y
- There will be problems we can solve
- Thank you!
(I call this the “data is my boss, and I’m just doing its bidding” approach)
But I was taught proper decks have agendas and executive summaries!
Bah, humbug! Deck structure is a carryover from the concept of proper essay structure, but you’re not trying to get an A+ from us. You are trying to get something specific, and this deck structure is failing you. So drop it and try something else.
…OK FINE you can’t get over it. Then please please at least follow Advice #2.
Advice #2: Stop writing Executive Summaries.
Executive Summaries are like the good friend you brought along to a party to help ease the awkwardness of meeting new people, but it turns out your friend is obnoxious, drinks too much and distracting. Five minutes in, and you’re like “Why did I bring this friend? Wasn’t this supposed to make things easier? Why are we debating philosophy?” Except replace “friend” with “slide”, and you get my drift.
Point being – Exec summaries are great when you are prepping your deck and making sure your argument is linear and logical. But then you should delete the slide before presenting, as it is a series of spoilers anyway. Furthermore exec summaries exist based on a number of fallacies:
Myth #1: You need something to summarize your brilliance.
DEBUNKED: No, you don’t. That’s what the deck is for. A deck is a summary.
Myth #2: The people you are presenting to are too busy to look through a whole deck and understand its subtleties.
DEBUNKED: No, we’re not. We are paid to look through decks and make decisions.
Myth #3: It helps the audience to know where they are going.
DEBUNKED: Um, most decks are pretty formulaic so we already know where we’re going. Why don’t you dazzle us and JUST GET TO THE CONTENT FASTER?
At their worst, executive summaries present numerous opportunities to derail your audience and let them pontificate about some bullet or another. At best, they are useless on your way to the ‘real’ deck.
Not a believer? Yeah, I’ve had trouble convincing others too! Here’s a bit more advice you can use for any deck.
Advice #3: If you try to make a data-based argument before you show the data, you will get sidetracked.
The side effect of data being compelling is often the room is filled with very smart people who just can’t help themselves from interrupting you.
- THEY WILL ASK ABOUT THE DATA.
- THEY WILL QUESTION YOUR DATA.
- THEY WILL ASSUME THAT YOU MISSED SOME BASIC PRINCIPLE OF UTILIZING DATA TO JUSTIFY YOUR POINT.
For the love of all that is good in this world, don’t give them the easy lay-up and say something like: “Since 80% of X is based on Y, we should do Z”… BEFORE SHOWING THEM THE DATA.
This is the kind of misplaced statement that ends up in Exec Summaries, so either follow Advice #2 or beware.
My fave approach:
- Start your deck showing the data, and in a big bold headline at the top of slide write: 80% of X is based on Y.
- Then, have a next slide that shows how the data links to your proposed project Z.
- Next, you say what everyone is already thinking: “Since 80% of X is based on Y, we should do Z” thusly verifying that we’re all smart.
(And you might want an appendix slide that debunks N other random data solutions people will want to propose during the meeting, depends on your work environments culture around data.)
Advice #4: Don’t suggest a point, but then say you’ll cover it later.
You’re humming through your deck, and then you drop a seemingly brilliant tidbit like “But of course we need to look at the region-by-region breakdown later in the deck to see the full ROI of this approach. We’ll do that in a few slides.”
So you probably did that because you didn’t want someone to interrupt you and ask about the region-by-region approach. You wanted to get ahead of them so you looked like you covered all your bases, didn’t you?
But you unwittingly just put a big detour signs in their brain. You suggested that something interesting is in the regional breakdown that they need to see. Now their brains keep rerouting everything you say back to the ‘region’ question. With every slide from there on, you’ll probably get more questions about regions because you planted that seed and OUR BRAINS CANNOT MOVE ON.
Just go straight to the region-by-region breakdown. Get it done right there and then. Trust me.
Advice #5: Take control of the room.
I don’t care if you are presenting to your boss’s boss’s boss, you are in charge when you are presenting. If the room is going off track, you’re in charge. If you haven’t been able to say your main point yet and there are only 5 minutes left, skip straight to that slide and cover it. You can do absolutely anything because it’s your presentation, your time, and you are in charge.
Corollary: Say you know you are presenting to a difficult audience, one that wanders off point easily, or maybe there is one person who is particularly tough to rein in:
- Enlist other people in advance to help you stay on point. Ask them to help you redirect the conversation or shut down unproductive side conversations.
- Send the deck out in advance to individuals who tend to have a lot of questions. Pre-answer all of their questions and turn them into allies who ANSWER QUESTIONS FOR YOU during the meeting.
If you’ve ever wondered how truly masterful presenters get what they want, trust me…it’s not just their amazing presentation skills. They’re the BOSS of their presentation. BE THE BOSS!
Note: I curated my content to retain confidentiality of material presented. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.