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People are the common denominators of progress no improvement is possible with unimproved people.

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society

Why are presentation skills so important to the progress of organizations and to the careers of individuals who give them? The following examples answer this question especially well.

Rudolph Giuliani became the face of despair and the symbol of determination after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In fact, he spoke so well that he became known as America's mayor. In his book, Leadership, Giuliani's presents strategies for making and delivering a dynamic presentation. Five of those points follow.

"Develop and communicate strong beliefs"

Mayor Giuliani communicated his beliefs about reducing crime, welfare reform, improving education and police protection every chance he got. As a result, everyone knew what he stood for and what he stood against.

"Don't save your best argument for last"

Giuliani states that the first five minutes are the optimal opportunity to get the audience's attention. He advises us to not save the "best argument for last, when maybe only a third of them are listening."

"Use facts to build your case"

There are many instances when presenters need to use facts and objective criteria to make their case. During his tenure as mayor, Giuliani wanted New Yorkers to know that progress was being made and that more progress would be forthcoming. Among the facts that he used to demonstrate that progress was being made were that crime fell by 57 percent, shootings fell by 75 percent, the murder rate fell by two-thirds, funding for the New York school system increased by $4 billion, and the economy created more than 485,000 new private-sector jobs.

By reading Giuliani's book Leadership, you will see that the mayor used facts, statistics, and objective criteria every chance he got to build his case for what New York needed and for what New York had accomplished. Building a strong case and building a strong presentation are both based on facts.

"Be able to explain and simplify"

Mayor Giuliani is a master at explaining and simplifying. He combined this skill with his ability to develop and communicate strong beliefs in economic prosperity for the City of New York and in the welfare of its citizens.

"Challenge the audience and challenge yourself"

Mayor Giuliani believes that the purpose of the annual State of the City address "wasn't simply to report whether the city was in good or bad shape [but] to produce a blueprint for what I hoped to achieve[—]the idea behind the speeches was to set a direction for the city." His goal was to challenge the people who worked for the city, the citizens of New York, and, most of all, himself.

The second example that illustrates how important presentation skills are is seen in Lee Iacocca. Through his superb presentation skills, Iacocca saved the Chrysler Corporation. Iacocca became the pitchman on television for Chrysler, telling all who would listen: "If you can find a better car than Chrysler, buy it." He made presentation after presentation to the dealership network convincing them to stay with a Chrysler. Likewise, he negotiated wage concessions with the unions and negotiated loan guarantees with the United States Congress to keep Chrysler afloat. The loan guarantees were repaid seven years ahead of schedule. Iacocca was being paid only one dollar a year in salary with stock options as an incentive. He used his presentation skills to turn around a failing company. In the process, he turned himself into a multi-millionaire.

In his book, You've Got to Be Believed to Be Heard, Bert Decker compares Lee Iacocca and Lawrence Rawl. Lawrence Rawl was the president and CEO of the Exxon Corporation during the Exxon Valdez environmental disaster. In 1989, that ship ran aground and spilled more than 11 million gallons of Alaskan oil in the straits of Prince William Sound. In countless media interviews, Rawl steadfastly refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, either for the people of Prince William Sound or for Exxon's business. The oil spill blackened more than 1,300 miles of pristine Alaskan shoreline.

When asked about the cost of the clean up, Rawl said that the impact on Exxon's bottom line would be minimal. By the fall of 1992, the company had spent $2.1 billion on cleanup efforts. The $5 billion it had to pay out in punitive damages was the largest ever awarded in a pollution case! After the Exxon Valdez spill, thousands of Exxon customers mailed their Exxon credit cards back to Rawl. Ten years after the Exxon Valdez, consumers still had a negative view of Exxon based on how poorly the crisis was handled at the highest level in the company.

In his book, Decker asks a most interesting question: "What do we think would have happened if Lee Iacocca were president of Exxon and Lawrence Rawl were president of Chrysler during the time of their respective crises." Decker's question makes an exceptional point. These men probably had similar IQs. However, their EQ (emotional intelligence), which includes their ability to communicate and present during a crisis, were as different as night and day.

This example illustrates that how we present ourselves and our messages can have a powerful impact on how well we are perceived and how well we perform. Whether speaking to one person, to two or three in a meeting, to hundreds in an auditorium, or to tens of thousands through mass media, presentation skills matter. The ability to present clearly, credibly, and confidently is important to us individually, and to our organizations and communities.

The strategies presented herein were developed by carefully reading the literature on effective presentation skills, by interviewing top presenters in North America, and by interviewing some of the top speech coaches. It was further developed in the classroom, by teaching these strategies and skills to people from all walks of life. Through instruction and testing, people in our classes improved dramatically, progressing from average to good and from good to great.

We will look at the critical differences between accomplished presenters and their less successful counterparts. We explore the importance of gaining an audience's trust and establishing credibility as a presenter in the first few minutes of any presentation. We then examine the power of the "slight edge technique" and illustrate incremental improvements that will make it easier to develop these most important skills. We also look at why most people fail to develop this critically important skill set, leaving their more presentation-savvy counterparts' careers to soar while theirs do not. Lastly, we provide a means for you to survey your current presentation skills and determine your developmental needs.

Determining What Matters Most About a Presenter

Most courses that teach High Impact Presentation Skills ask the participants to do an exercise in which they list the qualities of the best and worst presenters they have ever seen. This is a good exercise and one that we have used ourselves. Recently, however, we learned how to ask a much more powerful question that goes to the foundation of successful presentations. That question involves looking at some of the presenters who have had the most impact on us and determining what accounted for that impact.

Just as astronomers look closely at the light from distant stars to try to figure out historically how the universe was formed, well-versed presenters look to the past, in particular at their favorite and/or most influential elementary school, junior high, high school, or university teacher in order to determine why those teachers were so influential.

For example, when one of our seminar participants thought back, he realized that one name stood out from all of the rest: Mrs. Goltz. His description of Mrs. Goltz follows.

I have spoken to as many of my old high school friends as I could find. One of the most amazing things about these reunions is that after everyone catches up on what has happened to all of their friends, frequently the conversation turns to one particular teacher—our junior-year English teacher—Mrs. Goltz. She taught with a passion and intensity that is hard to describe in words. And it wasn't just about English literature. It was much deeper than that. In addition to reading some of the best English literature, her classes were a voyage of discovery.

Somehow we all ended up with literary nicknames in Mrs. Goltz's class. Sometimes she chose the name; sometimes other classmates gave us the name. I became so taken with Steinbeck that one of my classmates started calling me Steinbeck. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, I became interested in social justice, and Mrs. Goltz gave me a biography of Gandhi to read. Another student, who eventually became a psychologist, was called Freud. If you have seen the movie Dead Poet's Society, that's the type of influence Mrs. Goltz had on her students and that is the type of culture we had in our classroom.

In the exercise that follows, we ask you to think of such a teacher from your past. Yes, we know it is out of the ordinary to jump right into an exercise while still in the Introduction, and we expect that many of you will be tempted to skip it. However, it would be a mistake to do so. This exercise will help you to determine the teachers whom you found most influential and, more importantly, why you found them so effective and memorable. You will find that the teachers you list were memorable or influential for a specific reason. That reason was important at that time in your life and that reason may still be important now. That reason may be a message from the past—a vital suggestion as to how you should change or enhance your current presentation style.


For all the exercises presented in this resource, please use a separate notebook.


Think about your favorite, most memorable, and most influential teacher from elementary school, junior high or middle school, high school, and college or university. What were the characteristics that made that teacher so outstanding? Why do you remember that teacher more clearly, more fondly, and more intensely than all of the others? Write down your recollections for each of the following headings. You do not have to fill in all of the categories, only the ones that stir intense and fond memories.

  • Recollections of my most memorable/influential elementary school teacher(s).

  • Recollections of my most memorable/influential junior high or middle school teacher(s).

  • Recollections of my most memorable/influential high school teacher(s).

  • Recollections of my most memorable/influential college/university professors/teachers.


Which aspects of your favorite or most influential teachers do you most wish to emulate, and how will you do it?

Through analyzing our students' examples, our own observations of expert presenters, and from reviewing the literature, we found that five factors were consistently used to describe these presenters. The five factors were:

  1. Credible

  2. Competent

  3. Compatible

  4. Caring

  5. Dynamic

One way to help remember this is to think of 4 Cs and a D, or 4 CDs.

1 Credible

Keynote presentations are at the pinnacle that is the very top of the presentation business. Very few get there, and even fewer survive. They are paid large sums of money for usually very short presentations. Those top-notch presenters know that they have a very short period of time to establish their ABC's, which stands for Authenticity, Believability, and Credibility.

Warren Evans, Certified Speaking Professional

Likewise, Edward R. Murrow said:

To be persuasive, we must be believable.

To be believable, we must be credible.

To be credible, we must be truthful.

Among the factors that contribute to credibility as a presenter are honesty, authenticity, and accurately telling the audience what you will cover and sticking to it.

Being honest as a presenter means that we have to present the most accurate, up-to-date material possible. If a question is asked, and we don't know the answer, we should say we don't know the answer, and will do our best to find out.

We must be authentic in that we must practice what we preach. In talking to meeting and event planners about their war/horror stories, one factor that audiences will absolutely not forgive is an inauthentic presenter. High on the list of inauthentic presenters are the egotistical know-it-alls, who not only think they know everything, but who also let audiences know how lucky they are that these speakers have taken the time to speak to a group of lesser beings. A second, but equally unforgivable, authenticity sin is when a presenter gets caught not practicing what is being presented, such as the stress management expert who becomes inordinately stressed because something isn't working in the session, the detail management expert who does not end the session on time, the technical expert whose information is blatantly out of date or just plain wrong, or the high-tech presentation expert whose equipment won't work.

We must be absolutely clear as to what we will and will not cover. In training and workshop situations, most presenters rightfully ask for the participants' expectations. The presenter can very effectively use this information to align his or her presentation with the audience's expectations. It also affords the presenter the opportunity to negotiate what can and cannot be effectively covered.

It is equally important to encourage people to pass if their expectations have already been covered. If you, as the presenter, are respectful of the participants' time, you increase the likelihood that they will be respectful of your and each other's time.

2 Competent

As a presenter you have two minutes to demonstrate that you are competent. If you don't demonstrate it within the first two minutes, you can still do so, but it will require much more time and effort. Seasoned presenters establish their competence in numerous ways:

  • Based on their experience.

  • Based on their research.

  • Based on synthesizing the research of others.

  • Based on their dedicated study and in-depth understanding of their material.

One technique is to use the participants' expectations of what they want to learn in the session to explain some of the most interesting research on the topic or process. During the phase of establishing expectations this can be quite effective when the research is well thought out, adding instant credibility.

The act of presenting the material and then supplying a copy of the material in the form of your newsletter is a way to enhance your credibility. Another way to establish credibility is by handing out a copy of an annotated bibliography that lists books, films, or other resources. Likewise, if you have written or collaborated on an article or a book, this is the time to have it on hand.


Part 1: Skillful presenters establish their competency as early as possible in the presentation. The material that is presented must be incredibly clear, powerful, and purposeful. In your notebook, please list any techniques and/or tools that you have seen adept presenters use that established their competency early in their presentation.

Part 2: List one or two tools or techniques that you will use to establish your competency at the earliest point possible in your next presentation.

3 Compatible

I think when you are "up on stage" you are not delivering a message. Rather, you are establishing a contact between soul and soul. The listeners want to know who you are, and what you are like, before they will hear, really hear, anything you have to say.

They want to know what you have in common with them, and what you have that is unique to you, from which they may learn. Both strands are important. "Who are you?" is the foremost question that every listener brings to your presentation.

Therefore, if you think in your head that there is some role you should play, some other presenter that you should "be like," some style of another that you should emulate, then you are ducking the foremost question on their mind. The key style of your presentation should be that you are just yourself.

—Richard Bolles

One of the most efficient ways to learn is to learn from the experience of others. This process is called modeling. We watch how "the model" does something and we incorporate that behavior into our own repertoire. Psychological research on modeling demonstrates that we feel more comfortable with and are more likely to model behavior of people who we feel are more similar to us. Therefore, you need to establish your compatibility with your audience within the first two minutes.

Presenters should do everything within their power to be, or at least appear to be, compatible with the audience members. This is especially true if we are from different ethnic and/or professional cultures. Our intuition, when it is on, can help us form a bond of compatibility with our audience.

Presenter Harold Taylor establishes his compatibility with his audiences by explaining that he had to develop time-management skills because his business was failing, his marriage was failing, and he had bleeding ulcers. Harold's droll and dry sense of humor makes it easy for anyone to identify with him. Contrast this with a well-known presenter whose introduction makes him or her sound like a superman or a superwoman: the person who overcame everything and, in addition to raising six children, has adopted 28 others, is on the board of every charity, and is an Olympic athlete. Unlike the superman or superwoman presenter, people in the audience can identify with Harold.

4 Caring

I think the very first thing that a presenter should do is that he or she doesn't think about teaching or presenting, but about learning and connecting. They should focus on the individuals in their audience rather than focusing on themselves. They do not seek to tell, they think to influence. They do not seek to communicate, they seek to connect. They don't believe it is something you do to an audience, but something you do with an audience. They understand that their purpose is not to speak, but to serve.

—Nido Qubein, Certified Speaking Professional

Nido is talking about the old maxim that, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Although presenters may be able to fool their audiences in the short run, they can never fool their audiences in the long run. It is also true that excellent presenters, who did care at one point in their career, can become so enamored and burdened by their success, that the caring has been worn out of them. One way to find out how caring you appear to your audience is to ask several people who have seen you present to rate you from one to 10 on how caring you appear to be. You can also ask someone who has seen you present in the past if you come across as more or less caring in a current presentation. Lastly, you can also ask this question in a more formal way by including it on a presentation evaluation form.

5 Dynamic

In an economy of more -- more ads, more emails, more meetings -- the only scarce commodity is attention. If you want to get people's attention, whether during a formal presentation, a casual conversation, or a chance meeting on an airplane, you have to offer a compelling performance.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Fast Company

Audiences want to see a presenter at his or her best. That means, were you to momentarily think of yourself as a log, they want to see you when you are burning most brightly, and when your energy lights up your whole being. That always comes from one thing, and one thing only: and that is, from speaking on a subject that you care passionately about. A presenter willing to speak on "any subject"—say, one that a committee assigns to them—whether or not they feel passionate about it, is a presenter who is willing to appear at their worst. "Best" comes from energy, and energy comes from passion that lights up your whole being. There is no way around that fundamental truth.

—Richard Bolles

Masterful presenters bring hope, motivation, and energy to audience members. The people they are presenting to can feel the energy level in the room increase. The audience also finds it difficult not to pay attention.

Part of being dynamic is being forward-looking. It is extremely unlikely, no matter how good a presenter you may be, that you will deliver a real barn burner by asking the participants in your audience to maintain the status quo. Highly effective presenters, on the other hand, give their audiences both the hope and the means to move themselves and their organizations up the performance escalator to the next level.

Now that we have established that the superb presenters are credible, competent, compatible, caring, and dynamic, we have to find out how they got to be that way. One of the secrets to becoming an expert presenter is the "Slight Edge Technique."

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