How to stop making boring business presentations

It takes quite a lot to make me lose the will to live.

Top of my list, though, has to be those situations where you feel you’re being held captive by someone who is boring you to death.

When I was younger, pole position was occupied by double maths on a sunny afternoon. As my teacher droned on, I’d look at the clock on the wall and fail to believe that time could pass so slowly. I swear that sometimes the second hand used to tick backwards.

These days, the situation that most saps my vital energy has to be the boring business presentation.

We’ve all been in them. Someone stands at the front of a room. They have a PowerPoint presentation with dozens of tedious slides. And slowly, inexorably, that person reads the slides out, peppering their talk with dreary anecdotes which the audience feel obliged to laugh at but really, really don’t find amusing.

Boredom is bad for business. One of my heroes, advertising legend David Ogilvy, knew this full well. “You can’t bore people into buying your product,” he insisted.

Not that Ogilvy was a man who relished giving business talks. As he once said, after many years in the game, “I still die a thousand deaths before every presentation.”

Yes, you can engage that audience!

In that respect, I’m just like him. Ask me to give a presentation and I’ll worry and fret beforehand. But the moment I start to deliver it, I suddenly come alive. It’s because I know I can really engage my audience. I know I’ve done it many times before, so I just reassure myself I can do it again.

Part of the reason I know I can do it is the fact that I once trained as a teacher.

When I give a presentation, I never forget that it’s an opportunity for people to learn. If you want people to learn, then you need to remember that different individuals have different learning styles. Some learn best by listening. Others by doing. Some are visual learners. Others grasp ideas best through words. You get the idea.

So the trick is to throw a mixture of techniques into your presentation. The talk I’ve delivered most begins with a story about a copywriter called Louis Victor Eytinge. It’s a great one involving a body in the desert, a drug addled criminal and the clever things he did to write his way out of prison.

If you don’t rush it and you build up the drama, it’s a story that gets an audience absolutely spellbound. Nearly everyone loves a good story, especially one with an uplifting ending.

Hands-on learning

Once that tale is over, I move on to an example of Eytinge’s work. It’s a bit of direct response copywriting in which he tries to raise funds to build a new church.

I could read it out myself but I prefer to get an audience member to do it. I also ask them to try putting on an American accent. That gets a few laughs and keeps everyone on-side. It also makes everybody pay lots of attention – people really focus if they think they might be the next person you choose to come up to the front of the room.

Once my volunteer has read out the letter, I analyse it for the audience. Again, I could just talk at them. Instead, I get five people to come to the front of the room and hold up bits of A3 paper. On each is written one of the five stages Eytinge’s letter progresses through. It’s the old copywriting structure of Attention – Interest – Desire – Caution – Action, neatly memorised as ‘AIDCA’.

From that point, the talk can go in different directions. I might get the audience to analyse other examples of copywriting for me. I might even get them to work in groups to create something using the AIDCA structure. It depends on the purpose of the presentation.

Ditch the PowerPoint

Whatever happens, I’ll make sure I both cater to different learning styles and keep the audience on their toes. And most importantly of all, I don’t use a single PowerPoint slide. I could give the talk on a desert island if I wanted without having to worry about a power cut or the broadband dropping out.

When you give a talk that caters for different learning styles, it can be magical.

Once I gave a talk to 175 business people. It was a hit and when I sat down, the person next to me said: “I want you to come to Budapest to give that same talk to my global heads of marketing.” So I did, and was not only paid for it but also had my flights and five-star hotel room covered by the company.

Of course, not every presentation needs to set the room on fire. Yet, with a little thought about how other people learn, you can deliver talks that enthuse, inspire and motivate your audience.

So next time you give a talk, put the PowerPoint to one side and remember that your presentation will reflect on your business.

People will thing more highly of it if they don’t think it’s boring!

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