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You Can Improve Your Presentations
By Andrew Gilman   Printer Friendly Version

A Recent Editorial Cartoon portrayed a corporate executive speaking to an audience. Off stage an adviser was whispering the punchline: "Uh-Oh. He's giving the blue-collar speech to the white-collar audience."

If there is a punchline for this article on how corporate lawyers can communicate more effectively within their organizations, it is the importance of understanding your audience for each specific presentation, as well as the need to organize and deliver clear, concise messages in language your audiences can understand.

Within a corporation, few managers can judge your skills as an attorney. Judgments about your value come via opportunities such as presentations before the board of directors, or before your executive colleagues. Like a trial attorney who needs to sway a judge or jury, your presentation style, including appearance, tone of voice and speech pattern can make the difference between a positive and negative impression- between winning an argument, policy dispute and/or sensitizing nonlawyers to your legal concerns.

Following are several tips attorneys should consider:

Do an audience analysis. Knowing your audience is the first and most crucial step in giving a presentation. For external groups, find out information like the audience members' age, sex, background and interest in the subject.

Preparation for an internal presentation should profile each important audience member, based upon job function, power and personal agendas ("turf", if you will) and personality. Much like a lawyer who gains a reputation as a fierce cross-examiner, some executives relish the game of grilling their colleagues. If you're aware of this person's style, you won't be thrown off by the tone of questioning or rake it too personally.

The audience profile will also factor in corporate politics. In some cases, it means crafting specific messages for specific corporate areas, such as a sales conference where messages can be created for advertising, marketing, public relations, and distribution executives. Consider whether a series of pre-meetings with audience members will allow the actual presentation to go a bit more smoothly.

K.I.S.S.-Keep it Short and Simple. A CEO of Fortune 500 company is reported to have a timer in full view of presenters at his meetings. No matter what the subject, each presenter has only so much time to communicate his message and field questions.

Sounds a bit like the Gong Show. But the trend is for presenters to immediately set up the situation of opportunity, and then deliver the bottom-line message. After you have provided the bottom-line message you should go through the reasons for your recommendation or decision. And at the end, state your bottom-line message again.

Make sure you can translate your detailed technical knowledge into words that will be understood by everyone. If you must use legal terms, explain them.

Use body language, eye contact, signal words and voice inflection to score points. Strong eye contact conveys an impression of confidence. Poor eye contact may suggest anything from simple nervousness to embarrassment of something you're not disclosing.

In general, hold eye contact with a single person for at least a full thought, phrase or sentence. Before a large audience, divide the audience into quadrants and select one person in each area to keep returning to. In a one-on-one session, or when you're responding to a "power person," look at him or her and don't worry about the others very much.

Signal words are phrases that alert the audience to pay attention to what follows. Examples include: "What's important here is…, "or "The real significance is…"Signal words wake up those who may be looking for the key elements of your presentation.

Use Q&A effectively. Q&A for a presenter requires careful preparation. Once prepared, you can use the Charles de Gaulle approach for press conferences. "Gentlemen, I am now ready for your questions to my answers."

Well before the presentation write down and think through every question that might come up. Look for especially difficult, tricky or belligerent ones. Your list should include questions you have found difficult to answer in the past, matters you would prefer not to have brought up, including questions that for legal, proprietary or personal reasons you would prefer not to discuss.

Lawyers in corporate practice occasionally stumble and react the way a trial counsel's clients do under cross-examination. They take the questioning too personally. Remember the questioner is after your information, not you. A Q&A is not cross-examination. Rather, it's an opportunity for you to clarify concerns, restate points and perhaps bring up information saved just for the Q&A. That's why after you have answered a question, it is important to bridge back to positive information that you wish to convey.

At the end of the Q&A period summarize your main points. To get maximum impact from your summary, set it off with a signal phrase like, "Let me summarize what I've said…" or "In conclusion…"

The rules for making an effective internal presentation embody a great deal of common sense. In fact, attorneys who can relate complicated legal concepts in plain English, and also be aware of the competing interests of fellow executives, can increase their visibility and positive reputation within an organization.

One final rule: Practice, Practice, Practice. Effective presentations require rehearsal, preferably in front of a video camera with playback. Let your colleagues and associates role-play the Q&A with you. At least use an audio tape recorder and listen to your voice. One or tow run-throughs will yield great dividends in the final presentation.

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