Presentation Skills

Formal presentations don’t happen every day, but the most important minutes of any week are those few minutes you spend introducing yourself to a future client, pitching an idea to the executive team, or reporting the outcome of a project. This is your chance to make an impression on people outside your own team, and everyone agrees, good presentation skills can make a career.

Professionals exhibit a serious, polished, and carefully prepared business image. Business speakers can be creative or humorous, but the first priority remains providing the information needed to accomplish a task.

Although oral communication can seem easier to produce than written communication, speaking in a clear and straightforward way is actually quite difficult. Most people do not speak as clearly as they think they do (Thompson, 87), and when asked to be more clear, they tend to simply give the same give the same instructions more slowly or louder. Clear oral language requires that a speaker monitor listeners' reactions and accommodate any difficulties they might have.

  • Observe signals of understanding. An audience that is comfortable with information will look relaxed, make eye contact with the speaker, and respond positively with a nodding of the head, a forward lean, or relevant questions. When the listener looks down or away, scowls or squints, the speaker should repair the content or language of the message for clarity.

  • Use a single, complete sentence for each piece of information. The average adult can only hold about sixteen words in short-term memory. Listeners who haven't found a place to connect the incoming data with something in long-term memory by the end of that long sentence, simply cannot process it. In order not to lose listeners lost in rambling talk, an effective speaker will break paragraph-sized ideas down into sentence-sized pieces, pausing after each to verify understanding.

  • Don't repeat a point to clarify it. The audience that didn't understand a point will not generally understand it any better the second time. When the listener indicates confusion, a speaker needs to use different words or examples when rephrasing the message. If that doesn't work, ask the listener what concepts he or she does understand, and then use an extension or analogy to build on them.

  • Slow down. Speakers can think more quickly than listeners can comfortably information. This means they can sound slow to themselves, even when speaking at a perfect rate for listeners. A speaker should consciously keep the rate low, using the "extra" mental time to think through a clear sentence before saying it, read audience feedback during the pauses, and anticipate the listener's questions, confusions, and frustrations.

  • Make notes. Prepare an outline of oral remarks and limit them to only three or four key points. Listeners simply can't remember more than that without printed handouts or notes. Written notes are even useful during informal conversations to keep a speaker from rambling or to remember carefully prepared the structure and language.

The visual aspects of an executive presence are an important element of professional communication (Conlin, 2002a; Benton, 1999; Roberts, 2005). Professional image includes businesslike body language, tasteful attire and grooming, and the distinctive artifacts of the business environment. (For more on the language and tone of an executive presence, select Business Style and Tone from the Communication & Presentation Skills tab at the right.)

Body language

There are a few key elements of body language that are crucial for a presenter: eye contact, facial expression, and posture. Gestures don't matter nearly as much, so don't worry about doing anything you wouldn't normally do in a conversation.

  • Make conversational eye-contact with everyone in the room. Look at everyone, but don't stare at anyone. Conversational eye contact also tends to begin and end along with sentences. Looking away before you've finished a thought will make you look nervous or insincere.

  • Smile! Even if the topic is unhappy, the presenter should maintain a pleasant facial expression. Even during a crisis, a positive look instills confidence!

  • Stand up straight, keep your hands out of your pockets, and quit playing with your hair. All those things your mother told you about acting properly in front of grownups are still true.

Attire and grooming

Proper business attire seems to be a continuing source of conflict, controversy, and confusion, although there is little question about what constitutes "business attire." (For a review of the basics, select First Impressions under the Communication & Presentation Skills tab.) The specifics expectations of an organization or event will vary, but the presenter will display the most elegant version of the attire, groom herself perfectly, and include some unique element that highlights her personality.

  • Dressing formally sends a signal of respect. It's a "power move" to show up dressed casually when everyone else is wearing a suit. It's okay to be a little over-dressed, but under-dressing shows an arrogant attitude.

  • Dressing formally makes you feel more confident. Many telemarketers and telecommuters swear that they do better work when they are professionally dressed, even though no one at all can ever see them. (See more on Projecting Confidence at the Communication & Presentation Skills tab).

  • Hygiene matters. Bad breath and body odor must go, of course, but the no-list also includes wrinkles, visible bobby pins, scuffed shoes, chipped fingernail polish. You can hide at your desk in the office, but for a presenter, everything matters.

  • Find a style. Even conservative, elegant clothing can say something about a personality, building rapport with the audience on a non-verbal basis. Something fun, like a seasonal tie or beautiful scarf, can also serve as a conversation starter.

Artifacts

Physical objects are an important part of communication, and they can become particularly important in the hierarchical environment of a business organization. Your audience probably won't see the car you drove to the event, but it might see the briefcase, portfolio, or backpack you set by your seat.

That backpack does not send the same professional signal as the other two! As a speaker, you should also avoid loose papers, large purses, or casual tote bags. Place your notes in an elegant, leather portfolio. Keep your demonstration items in a classy canvas bag or aluminum tote. Look the part of an executive, not an absent-minded professor.

Scripts and Notes

An accomplished business speaker will never refer to note cards or a manuscript, but will instead create the impression of an enthusiastic conversation partner who just happens to be speaking at length, perhaps referring now and then to notes held in an elegant leather portfolio.

  • Effective notes. Format speaking notes as an outline, using large type, lots of white space, and double or triple-spaced lines, and number the pages. Include cues for all planned media or technology. Highlight information you expect the audience to ask about, so that you can refer to it quickly, as well as any extra data, comments, or explanations that you have prepared on those points.

  • Scripted language. Although a fully scripted business presentation is rare, new sales team members might be asked to follow a scripted presentation, or executives might need to use exact language for legal reasons or to insure that live and printed versions of a speech are exactly the same. A script insures consistency, but reading will make a speaker to appear stilted, remote, or unprepared. Practice extensively to insure conversational phrasing and casual gestures. Glance at the text in the middle of a sentence, rather than looking down during pauses. Most importantly, keep the manuscript out of sight as much as possible, sliding rather than turning the pages.

The polished business speaker engages dynamically with her audience. In all but the largest auditoriums, a speaker invites interaction and prepares for the interruptions and questions that allow audience members to take responsibility for clarifying the information they hear. Business speakers go considerably beyond basic eye contact, although that remains a prerequisite. Other steps include:

  • Names and faces. Just as individuals develop rapport in conversation by each other's names, a speaker can include elements of the audience's identity in the performance. Customizing the visuals, for example, can create a unique presentation look that captures images or ideas that are meaningful to the listeners (Wilder, 1999). A photo of the client's plant or town in the title slide, an illustration of product use or concepts with photos of the customer's own employees, photos of members of the audience, or even realtime reaction shots as they listen to your ideas, can all create audience rapport. Even the simple use of personal pronouns, "as you know," rather than third person "everyone knows" or "business people have experienced" can create a sense of community that leads to a more comfortable discussion (Tymson, 2001).

  • Discussion breaks. The typical business presentation ends with the discussion session, but numerous small breaks to answer questions or discuss points can gradually build interest involvement. Simply asking rhetorical questions during the presentation can also involve the audience's mind in the content (Tymson, 2001).

  • Acknowledge resistance. Especially when there is not time for a long discussion, a speaker can voice the audience's objections for them. This must be honest in its characterization, but will provide a sense of interaction along with proving that the facilitator understands the audience member's position.

  • Call and response. The rhythmic repetition of key phrases allows an audience to "sing the chorus" and help a speaker make key point memorable while building audience cohesiveness and enthusiasm. In some groups, notably in Southern preaching and increasingly in political speeches, audiences will "call out" encouragement to a speaker who is eloquently expressing ideas they share.

  • Testimonials. When audience members can support key points or share their own stories, they can add to a speaker's message as they build a sense of ownership of the message. Speakers generally arrange testimonials ahead of time, but a professional will never squelch an audience member who wants to contribute.

  • Shared emotions. Acknowledging and sharing authentic fears and concerns moves any conversation from the level of casual cliches to intimacy. A facilitator must be careful not to violate the natural order of conversations by revealing information that is "too personal" for the relationship, but can take advantage of an audience's willingness to join in a meaningful exchange.

  • Humor. While tricky to use, gentle self-deprecating humor works well to establish rapport with an audience. A speaker must NEVER tell any kind of joke at the expense of another life form, no matter how decent or politically correct the story seems. The trace of negativity introduced with any unkindness will last for the rest of the presentation.

  • Responsive structure. A key feature of contemporary eloquence is a willingness to "stray" from a prepared, oratorical text and address ideas in a more conversational, seemingly random, mode. Electronic presentations, in particular, allow a flexibility and interaction that a written text cannot (Endicott, 1998; Zielinski, 1999). A speaker who uses branches, hidden slides, and buttons to eliminate or add points, answer questions, or reinforce ideas, can respond to an audience's interests, providing information or examples (Schatz, 1997). For more on these tools, select Presentation Technology from the Communication and Presentation Skills tab on the right.

Professionals do not come up with a topic and write a speech as students do; they typically speak about their own work. However, a professional presentation does require the same preparation steps that students learn in class. The presentation in front of a major client, executive team, or future team colleagues is not the time to cut any corners.

Audiences cannot retain a great deal of unrelated information in their heads, and a speaker must provide, clearly and quickly, an organizational framework so that listeners can understand and remember her ideas.

Introduce the Context

A speaker has just a couple of minutes to summarize the point of the presentation and explain why the audience needs the information. If audience members detect their time is likely to be wasted, they will soon begin making notes for their own presentation or planning some project they wish they could be back at the office working on.

  • Get to the point quickly. Avoid starting a business presentation with a long personal introduction, an unrelated joke or comment, or a complicated preview of the speech organization.

  • Establish an identity. Speakers are generally known to the audience or formally introduced, but the speaker will establish the context with a visual representation of identity: an introductory slide with the company name and logo, a logo mounted on the lectern or behind the speaker, a name badge on the jacket.

Present the Information Logically

Most professionals have access to far more information than they have time to talk about in a presentation, and the key to effective presentations involves selecting just the right amount of information and organizing it to meet the communication goals of the situation.

The exact organization will vary, but business audiences do expect clear, explicit claims or main points and relevant information to support each point. (For more on logical organization, select Message Construction from the Writing & Reasoning Skills tab at the right.)

Provide an Action Step

Every presentation should close with a clear action step. Whether the presentation is instructional or supervisory and the speaker has the authority to require specific action, or the speaker is attempting to persuade an audience that a particular course of action is desirable, there should be no doubt about what the speaker wants the audience to do.

The basic composition steps are the same, whether the message is a written document, a structured interview, a discussion meeting, or a presentation. (For the basic skills, see Message Construction under the Writing & Reasoning Skills tab at the right.)

  • Draft or outline the content. When making a presentation, the most important thing to remember is that audiences cannot remember very much. Keep the content to three or four main points, and make sure these are the points that your audience really needs to know.

  • Get some feedback. Get the potential audience's perspective and revise the content and organization accordingly. The organization of the presentation will depend on the occasion and goal; look at the specific expectations of various presentation types (below).

  • Edit the result for a businesslike style. Review the language expectations of a Businesslike Style and Tone, and remember that audiences can't remember very much. Use a conversational style, concrete words, and keep things simple.

  • Polish the result until it's ready to present to a real audience. For a presentation, this means getting rid of the "ums" and "likes", fixing any grammar errors, and learning the points well enough that you can look up and make eye contact.

The situation might not call for presentation software, but business presentations usually involve some kind of activity, visual aid, or handout. Take care to create materials that are completely professional in terms of writing, production, and graphics. (Select Presentation Software from the list at the right for technical and design hints.)

  • Plan to spend time. Don't leave the show elements until the last minute. You are translating that report, proposal, or instruction manual into an oral message to an audience of real people. This is not an easy thing to do, and doing it well can take multiple revisions and rehearsals.

  • Plan the visuals. This does not mean put the written words into a form the audience can see. Think about how to visualize your points as images, graphs, or diagrams. What will help your audience see the story you are trying to tell.

  • Plan the sounds. Your own vocal presentation is the largest audio channel. However, don't forget the music before the presentation, the construction or traffic sounds outside, the acoustics of the room, the microphone placement, and any video or audio support you might have for your presentation. The speaker gets credit-or blame-for it all.

  • Plan the motion. Presenters sometimes talk about choreography, recognizing that their movements around the room amount to a dance. Especially when multiple presenters are involved, you might need to plan carefully to accommodate lighting, furniture, audience size, and sight lines.

When an important proposal or client presentation is on the line, careful rehearsals are common. When media technology is involved, or a team must coordinate its work, multiple rehearsals are even more important to insure a polished, professional communication. When investing this much rehearsal time, simply practicing the words of the speech is not enough.

  • Rehearse means say the words out loud. Mental rehearsals don't count. Fluency and self-confidence come from moving your mouth and tongue, standing up in front of an audience (even if it's only a mirror or your dog), pushing the buttons on the remote, and hearing the sound of your own voice.

  • Do a "blocking" rehearsal to determine how you will walk around the room, who will advance the slides, and how you'll stand while interacting with the audience. This is especially important if you will be speaking as part of a team. Everyone needs to be clear about what you will be doing at all moments during the presentation.

  • Have a "tech check" to make sure that all your systems and slides work as you envisioned and the spotlights are not shining in your eyes. Try to rehearse in the same room where you will be speaking so you can identify any issues with broken equipment, software compatibility, or audience comfort.

  • Do a "dress" rehearsal -- or at least compare notes on your attire-to insure that everyone's style is coordinated. Make sure you all mean the same thing by "business casual" or "professional attire." Make sure all the parts of your planned outfits are cleaned, pressed, and ready to wear.

  • Don't forget to "proofread" any handouts, having associates look at them ahead of time to insure they are clear, complete, and correct.

  • Keep revising. Effective presentations integrate verbal, visual, and kinesthetic elements, but it's not until the rehearsals that a presenter will realize that a slide is needed, or a point is unclear, or some evidence could be better presented with a visual. Professionals will admit, "designing interactive presentations takes more time than designing a linear presentation" (Schatz, 1997), but with each rehearsal you'll change and improve based what is working and what isn't. Don't expect to create your PowerPoint slides in a lab and then practice the speech that "goes with the slides." It doesn't work that way (Farkas, 2005). Your rehearsal will lead to improvements in the slides, which will then need to be rehearsed, which will lead to more changes, and so on until.....

  • Know when to quit. Determine when your "drop dead" date is, especially for time-consuming elements like charts, handouts, or complicated demonstrations. If the content is not available to include at that time, you need to put Plan B in motion. You might decide to eliminate the point from your presentation. Instead of saying "we have sales increases of 32% in this product line," you'll have to say something like "we anticipate sales increases of at least 30%," or "we will be reporting actual sales figures in our next monthly teleconference." You might eliminate the information from your prepared media but include it in the spoken presentation as an "impromptu" addition of "late breaking news." This can be a great way to build both rapport and credibility, and sometimes speakers purposely stage such an inclusion for its dramatic effect.

  • Allow time to make adjustments between the practices. Three rehearsals one right after the other on the same day are not as productive as one rehearsal a day for three days. In your first run-through, you will probably realize that you aren't explaining something clearly, that a slide transition is out of order, or that you've left a key statistic out of your notes.

As with any other skill, your use of rehearsal time will become more effective with practice. As a beginner, you might need to go through a presentation nine or ten times before you become comfortable. Later, after you've given several similar reports, you'll find that you know pretty much what to do, but even the most experienced professional will plan to rehearse a presentation at least three times. The first rehearsal will identify content that still needs to be developed or clarified. The second is to practice the revised speech for the first time. The third rehearsal will then give you a chance to polish your delivery.

There are many different kinds of presentations in a typical business organization, ranging from short, informal summaries of information to co-workers, to formal demonstrations in clients' conference rooms, to carefully staged multi-media roll-outs at major industry or press events. Presentations vary dramatically in length, preparation, and production features, and different industries, organizations and departments will have their own expectations of how presentations ought to be done. Specific situations call for specific types of presentations. Audiences will expect a certain content, organization, and style.

Despite all this variety, there are three basic categories of presentations:

Imagine that you are a salesperson or entrepreneur looking for potential clients, a job hunter preparing for interviews, or a professional watching for promotional opportunities. You never know when or where you'll meet your audience. You won't know exactly what question he'll ask first. You do know that you need to be ready with a clear message that meets your own communication goals. The most important aspect of a good impromptu presentation is that it is actually very carefully prepared. Take all the steps you'd take for any other presentation if you expect to deliver a professional, effective pitch.

The Elevator Pitch

The elevator pitch happens in the unexpected moment when you get on an elevator and realize you are standing next to the CEO, your top sales target, or an angel investor. You'll have somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes-the time it takes to ride the elevator-to explain who you are and what you want. This is not the time to stammer, stumble, and forget what you want to say. Be prepared to make a confident first impression and give a short, compelling, and powerful pitch for what you want.

  • Decide on your objective. An entrepreneur might be looking for investors. A sales professional might be qualifying potential customers. A business student might be looking for industry contacts. Most professionals prepare at least a couple versions of the pitch for different audiences.

  • Tell a story. The pitch is too short for more than one or two compelling pieces of evidence. Instead, you'll help the audience visualize your objective with strong imagery, compelling narrative, and a hook that meets the listener's needs.

  • Edit for time, clarity, and enthusiasm. You should write out your first version, but then speak it out loud to make sure it sounds conversational-but also gets everything into the short amount of time.

  • Elements of a great pitch. Make sure you cover all these points for the best possible elevator pitch.

      Give your full name at the beginning, clearly enough to be understood.

      Identify yourself professionally by providing your company, project, organization, or major.

      State you goal. Be specific that you are looking for a job, selling a product, raising funds for an organization, or something else.

      Provide specific, supporting evidence. Name the classes you're taking, the features of the project, or the results of the market research.

      Use a concrete, specific vocabulary that gets each point covered quickly and completely.

      Provide some kind of unique, differentiating, or creative information about yourself. Make sure you stand out from others.

      Include an appropriate action step. The listener should know exactly how to contact you or what your next step will be.

      Keep the pitch short, usually 30-60 seconds, and never more than a couple of minutes.

  • Practice, practice, practice. This is such a short speech, you have no time for slipups, but you also don't want to spit out memorized, monotone, meaningless words in a single breath. The point is to be so comfortable with describing yourself and your situation that the right words just slip naturally out of your mouth.

  • Practice with video. Even if you don't intend to upload a video of your pitch, the process of videotaping will allow you to polish it, over and over, until you know you are projecting a professional image.

The Video Pitch

Many people record a pitch and send the link to prospective contacts. Upload the video to a personal or professional website or social media, or to a public site like YouTube. A QR code placed on a flyer, business card, or resume serves as an invitation to view the video.

A video resume is a slightly longer production, perhaps 4 or 5 minutes, and provides a summary of resume highlights along with a compelling introduction and clear action step. The point is not to cover all the details, but to display oral communication skills, enthusiasm, and professional polish.

If you are going to videotape an elevator pitch or resume, take the time to polish the delivery, sound, and production values. Absolutely anyone might eventually view a video, and you'll want to make sure every audience is impressed. Even if you are just videotaping for practice, the non-verbal signals you practice now will become natural and normal when you get into that elevator.

  • Make normal eye contact with the viewer. Don't stare at the camera or read from the screen.

  • Maintain a pleasant, authentic facial expression. Don't smirk, smile too much (or too little), or grimace.

  • Wear appropriate business attire, generally a coat and tie for gentlemen, a jacket and blouse for ladies.

  • Stand up straight with a stance that conveys confidence.

  • Use natural body language that conveys interest and respect.

  • Make sure there is a neutral, clear background.

  • Maintain an appropriate volume that is easy to hear.

  • Use good inflection to convey enthusiasm; avoid a monotone, a questioning tone, or negative tones.

  • Keep an appropriate pace; maintain interest without going too fast to hear your ideas.

  • Don't use any non-words such as "um", "like" or "ya know".

The Mixer Pitch

Most professionals will prepare several pitches that focus on key points for different audiences. The sales professional will focus on different aspects of her product, depending on whether she meets a purchasing agent, a CEO, or an IT professional. The job hunter will interact with several company representatives during a daylong visit. The professional will attend two or three mixer events a month, meeting people across a wide range of professions and industries.

You might have just a few minutes to present your ideas in a meeting or a couple of hours to present new production processes to a work team. The purpose might be persuasive or informative. The audience might be interested, bored, or even hostile. These planned presentations cause the most stress, but they are also the presentations that can be most carefully prepared.

Proposals and Recommendations

Proposals and recommendations cover a wide range of situations, with the common characteristic of persuasiveness. A sales professional might be proposing a product to a client; a business analyst might be providing recommendations based on his research; an employee might be recommending a new policy or procedure to the rest of the team. In every case, convincing the audience to act is the overriding purpose. (For more detailed information on developing Persuasive Arguments, slide your mouse over the Writing & Reasoning section to your right.)

  • Emphasize benefits. Regardless of the real reasons you might be proposing action, the proposal emphasizes the benefits to the audience. When responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP), be sure to include any benefits specifically requested. When there are benefits to others, such as a recycling project that might benefit the environment as well as save money for the company, show how those will also reap benefits, such as customer respect, to the audience.

  • Focus on action. Insure that any recommendations or proposed action are clear, concrete, and above all, doable. A complete proposal will generally include a timeline for action along with a breakdown of the costs. These might be discussed with the audience or detailed in the written support, but the audience should never be left wondering whether the proposal is practical.

  • Allow discussion time. Plan to spend no more than a third of your allotted time on the actual presentation. If you have a one-hour meeting time, expect to finish your prepared remarks within 20 minutes. If the executive gives you 10 minutes of her time, you have just 3 minutes to give your pitch. The rest of the time allows some discussion of your ideas. Often, the audience will have specific questions, but a productive discussion of context, priorities, implementation, or stakeholder interests will be equally important to your success.

  • Stay in control. By allowing the audience to ask questions, a presenter risks losing control of his or her presentation. Stay in control by planning the Q&A session carefully. Have a few discussion starters ready, such as open-ended questions. Or, offer the first question, calling it a "typical" one, and be sure to know the answer to it! Be sure to clarify questions, rephrasing complicated questions so that others understand exactly what is being answered and insuring that you are actually answering the question asked.

  • Provide written support. Most proposals and recommendation presentations support an informal or formal report. The written report might be delivered earlier to allow audience review, presented formally at the presentation meeting, or delivered later, sometimes with requested revisions or additions. The time available in a presentation doesn't allow detailed discussion of research methods, analytical calculations, or implementation steps, but these important elements appear in the report. A speaker will sometimes refer to these documents, but don't expect the audience to read them in lieu of covering the key points orally.

Motivational Talks

The team might have heard all the logical reasons but still lack the excitement, vision, or courage to take the first steps. This calls for a presentation designed to motivate. Often delivered with a highly enthusiastic, emotional, or personal style, these presentations frequently depend on personal narratives to help audience members envision themselves taking the proposed action.

  • Plot. Good storytelling always involves a main character with a problem or conflict, a point of intervention or insight, and a final stage of understanding or success. Typically, a business story demonstrates that a product or procedure will "solve" a problem for the viewer. The problem should be compelling and clearly related to the lack of the using the product or targeted behavior. There should be enough tension or drama to engage an audience, and the "story" will demonstrate the positive effect of purchasing the product or performing the procedure correctly. Avoid excessive subplots, unrelated dramatic elements, unclear information, and keep the story simple.

  • Characters. A business story generally focuses on a single, identifiable main character, who should be representative of the intended audience and realistically drawn. Omniscient narrators, perfect people, and multiple characters are difficult for an audience to identify with, and thus less effective in communicating the desired message.

  • Scene. Stories are most effective when they create a believable situation with real in real business settings. The actual characters might be fictitious, but the story should convey a sense of realism so that listeners can "see themselves" in the same situation.

Explanations and Reports

Every professional must report on his or her work, sometimes just to a supervisor, but more often to a group of peers involved in similar work or a common project. Team meetings or company-wide conferences are not appropriate venues for excuses and complaints, which require more private communication methods.

  • The status report generally includes a description of the project's goals, progress toward those goals, and a discussion of the upcoming action required to meet them.

  • A performance explanation allows an individual with managerial responsibility to explain choices and strategies, usually with a focus on achievements rather than failures.

Ceremonial moments

Any business gathering, from a weekly staff meeting to the annual stockholder meeting to a company retirement party, can include some ceremonial speaking.

  • A professional might formally introduce new employees, speakers, or guests, remembering to give a full name, title, and connection to the organization.

  • A supervisor might recognize individuals for their contributions to the team, remembering to say specifically what that contribution was.

  • A colleague might honor another at retirement or when leaving the company, remembering to focus on the positive aspects of personality and work performance.

Training, Instruction, and Information

Many training presentations are formal "classroom" style events, but workers often provide informal reviews of new procedures or job-related information for just a few co-workers. Regardless of the specific context and purpose of the presentation, it will conform to the structure of any business message with a contextualizing introduction, an organized body of information, and a clear explanation of the action the audience should take next.

Many instructional situations call for handouts so audience members can refer back to the information at a later time. When discussion time is available, handouts can also serve as conversation starters, perhaps including a provocative piece of data that requires some sustained conversation for full understanding or a few "leading" questions to jumpstart the conversation.

By far, the most common type of business presentation occurs within a meeting or discussion. Sometimes professionals claim not to be very good "speakers" even though they speak exceptionally well within a group setting. As with all of the settings above, speaking well depends on preparation of your own points, which might be information, recommendations, or issues for discussion. In addition, however, the speaker must understand when it is appropriate to enter the conversation, add a point, or request further discussion from the group.

The Structure of Discussion

To a new employee, discussions might seem like very long conversations, but their structure actually follows a systematic route, common to virtually all business contexts (Young, 2001), that allows participants to reach a higher level of understanding on a topic, and very often to come to some kind of decision or action plan.

A complete discussion (which might require several separate meetings) moves through five stages as participants create shared understanding. Useful contributions to the discussion focus on the tasks involved at each stage.

  • Define the problem. A discussion's first stage involves defining the topic and context of discussion, which typically sets up a question to resolve or a decision to make. Useful contributions help the group to clarify goals and expected outcomes, especially its expectations of the task and the group's level of authority in implementing any solutions it might recommend. Sometimes the group will clarify definitions to insure that everyone understands the topic along with any key terms or technical specifications.

  • Explore and analyze the question. Once the question and key terms are clear, the group will follow a problem-solving or analytical format that is familiar to all participants. (For more on analysis, hover over Reasoning & Writing Skills at the right and select Problem Solving.) Sometimes discussants spend some time determining how the discussion will proceed, choosing the analytical components, criteria for decision, and preferred information sources. Once everyone is clear on the discussion format, the group proceeds systematically through its process. A productive discussion takes ideas "in order" and explores each step, issue or component thoroughly, so a professional is careful to stay "on topic", limiting contributions to the specific stage of discussion. At the end of each segment, someone will summarize conclusions and often list them on a white board, flip chart, or computer screen.

  • Determine potential solutions. The third stage uses the results of the analysis to develop the potential answers or solutions to the group's initial question. Sometimes the analysis has led to a single answer, but more often discussion is required to evaluate multiple options. Regardless of their number or complexity, the group clarifies and differentiates all options before moving on.

  • Select a solution. In the classical model of reflective thinking, the discussion next turns to creating a list of criteria for an acceptable solution. When everyone in the group understands budget restrictions, legal requirements, or company policies that limit choices, a more productive discussion results. However, many groups have difficulty thinking about these issues until they begin to discuss possible solutions. Only with concrete ideas on the table can people start to understand what the relevant criteria might be. A good discussion carefully explores implicit presumptions and criteria and includes all stakeholder positions.

The selection process can vary from group to group. For very large discussions or in virtual groups, the use of decision software, formal voting procedures, or written position papers can facilitate the process. Regardless of the process, the effectiveness of the discussion depends on a careful comparison of the potential solutions against each of the solution criteria already established. Often, there is no clear choice between mutually exclusive options, so the discussion moves toward synthesis of several potential solutions or the combination of attractive features from several of them. Solutions might be prioritized subject to external demands, resource availability, or changing environmental conditions. Some solutions might appear to be advantageous within certain time frames, while others are selected given different potential circumstances. The selection stage can become complicated, with the discussion returning to previous stages of the discussion, clarifying definitions, obtaining information, setting criteria, or locating additional solutions in an effort to explore every possible aspect of the topic under discussion.

  • Implement a solution. The final step of a complete business discussion is the translation of its selection into an action step or implementation (Rothwell, 1998). This can involve relatively simple decisions of when and how to take action, or the group might initiate a detailed implementation plan. At this stage, the discussion will also formalize any unresolved issues of fact, interpretation, or value that might qualify its decision, or even conclude that a decision is premature.

Public Discussions

Although more common in political or civic organizations, businesses sometime organize discussions to inform an audience of the issues involved in a topic, often when the entire company faces a major issue or a situation involves the local or professional community.

  • Panel discussion. A small group of experts or well-informed persons discuss a problem for the benefit of an audience. While the participants speak "to" each other, a facilitator will often ask questions so that the discussants cover a range of topics of interest to the audience. Audience members are often allowed to ask questions of the panelists directly, as well.

  • Symposium. As with a panel discussion, several individuals converse for the benefit of an audience, but each speaker provides a short, uninterrupted presentation of his or her position on the topic. This might be followed by open discussion and/or audience questions.

  • Forum. The open questioning of panel or symposium members is referred to as a forum, as is a meeting in which members of an organization are allowed to address policy-makers.

  • Observed discussions. Even though observers are present, the group members direct their remarks to each other. They might take the presence of observers into account, of course, articulating ideas that they particularly wish to have reported, especially when the observers are media representatives. Alternatively, a discussant might wish to say something "off the record" with the understanding that the comment will not be included in the permanent records or public transmission of the discussion.

  • Conference. The term conference is applied to a wide variety of situations, but also designates two special types of discussion activities (Gulley, 1963). The first is a small, closed meeting between members of two larger groups for the purpose of resolving a mutual problem or reconciling differences. The second use of the term means a large event that includes multiple meetings, generally with discussions occurring simultaneously on a variety of topics.

  • Virtual discussions. Traditionally understood as an oral, face-to-face mode of communication (Gulley, 1963), contemporary business discussions can also take place in electronically mediated environments. For more on the special requirements of electronic meetings, select Teamwork under that Communication and Presentations Skills tab at the right.

Preparing for Discussion

Participants must prepare themselves with appropriate information, which might be objective data and analysis on the topic. In other cases, individuals provide personal histories or departmental perceptions toward a topic. Regardless of the specific topic of the presentation, a discussion participant has an obligation to participate fully, engaging in the ongoing conversation with additional information, insights, or experience.

  • Prepare for questions. Immediately after presenting information, a speaker can expect questions from other meeting attendees. These might involve clarifications of terminology or sources, or they can involve specific implications for the current discussion stage. Speakers will sometimes prepare handouts with answers to frequently asked questions or tables of data that will need to remain available for the ongoing discussion. Be sure to understand how your own content fits into the discussion, and use questions to highlight its relevance.

  • Take the conversation seriously. Even when the content of a meeting seems mundane, the interaction itself is an important aspect of company decision making. Don't mentally check out after presenting your own material.

  • Stay visible. Whether you speak or not, sitting near the front of the room or near the main speakers will increase your own presence. Maintain eye contact, as well, and don't focus on your own notes or device.

  • Stay involved in the conversation. Even after the meeting is over, the business discussion goes on. A person who speaks "privately" to a few others during a coffee break can have just as much influence as one who speaks in front of the whole group.

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