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Presentational skills, or a lack thereof

17 August 2015 

I do a fair bit of training in this area, often built into course on other topics, but when a client recently asked me about running a course, I suggested that all that she needed to do was to learn from all of the mistakes that you commonly see made, blogs John Bowen.

I regularly attend presentations, so I know there are some pretty basic rules. 

Things like not putting too much on slides, making them easy to read in poor light, never reading the slides out to the audience, never turning around to read the slides and so on, practising your timings so that you don’t overrun, body language, and eye contact with the audience.

But all of these things relate to the tools and presentational style more than anything and anyone worth their salt can teach you about doing this stuff better.


But when it comes down to the content of your presentation things can get much murkier. And although there is plenty of advice about sound bites, getting your message over, repetition and reinforcement of messages, none of that helps if you don’t think your story through. The most important point, and a crucial presentational skill, is to understand your audience and relate your message to it.


Last week I attended a business lunch and, as usual, we had a half-hour talk from a local business that was touting for business. I have no problem at all with that because I have done it myself often enough and may well do so again at some point. The message was about how a failure to keep an eye on profit was a killer for the small business and it is a moot point for, along with cash-flow failures, it is probably responsible for many failures in the SME sector.


One of the problems with these presentations is that although the meat of the content may have come from people who know their subject, the presentation is often left to someone from the marketing or PR end who doesn’t have the same grasp of the facts. And that was very apparent here. The bright young person started off well enough with the premise that there are two factors in profit – cost and price.


The speaker started with the former and gave us a few sound bites on keeping an eye on cost, understanding what the drivers for cost in our business are, and some purchasing 101 stuff like consolidating demand to get better discounts. All text-book stuff so far, but then came the suggestion that we should go after all of our suppliers and negotiate price cuts because we would not get anything if we didn’t ask.


That is also basic purchasing theory, but it is quite hard for an SME when many of those that they are dealing with are bigger fish and, true to form, someone in the audience raised that point.


Here, the plot started to unravel because the bright young thing suggested that, yes, it might be difficult to get a bigger discount from a national supplier, but you could always get one from a smaller supplier because they would be more likely to be desperate for your business.


The silence that greeted this was taken to mean assent and so our bright young thing ploughed on with the second aspect of profit – that of pricing – and unleashed the masterstroke: We should, it was suggested, put up our prices.

Perhaps I should point out here that there were around 65 people in the audience and they represented small businesses from one-man bands to those with maybe 20 employees, and about three-quarters of them operate in the B2B sector.


Put our prices up? Excuse me, but did you not just tell us that we could screw the likes of ourselves into giving each other price cuts?


I did feel sorry for the young speaker because I don’t like to see anyone have a really bad day, but there are times when there just isn’t much that you can do to stop a person from shooting themselves in both feet. You just hope that they learn a lesson.


You may have a great message and you may want to get it out there, but do think about who you are talking to, and how that message is going to be heard.


Communication is a two-way thing and you need to avoid alienating your listeners. It doesn’t matter how good every other aspect of the presentation is – and the speaker did do all of that pretty well – if the message is wrong you are wasting your time. Worse still, you are wasting the time of the people in your audience.


John Bowen is an FM consultant