What Muhammad Ali and Steve Jobs Can Teach Us About Presenting

Date: April 15, 2015

What can Muhammad Ali and Steve Jobs teach us about presenting? Muhammad Ali once said “I run on the road before dancing under the lights.” In other words, it’s all about the practice and the work you put in before the big show. 

In the business world, Steve Jobs is a legendary icon known for his ability to cut through the noise and deliver on-point presentations that resonated with audiences. His mastery was refined over many years, but even Steve Jobs had to practice. For Jobs, it was all about simplicity.   He said, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

So why am I quoting a boxer and a businessman? 2015 is in full swing and presentation opportunities are coming rapid fire. As I plan for these and the many more to come this year, I’ve had numerous opportunities to reflect on presentations I attended last year and what went right and what did not.  One consistent problem is that many presentations I participated in lacked an exciting and passionate theme that resonated with the audience, and at the same time presented a clear and concise message. Maybe you have struggled with this same challenge. If so, I hope these ideas will help move your presentations to the next level.

Presentations are often a regurgitation of facts, anecdotes and timelines lacking any type of organization, whereas key themes and straight-forward topics that would resonate with attendees and provide a high-level blue print for the future are not included. Combine that with limited follow-up by the presenters to help reinforce key points, and the take-away is often fuzzy and leaves the audience feeling unsure about the message it was supposed to receive.

As I look for ways to not get stuck in this quandary myself, I re-watched videos of Steve Jobs and his legendary presentations via YouTube. These videos as well as an article from The Week that I‘ve bookmarked and repeatedly reference about the 18 Secrets to Give a Presentation Like Steve Jobs serve as a reminder about how to engage your audience when presenting.

Any great presentation, whether it was given by a well-known orator like Jobs, or one related to my business, have certain characteristics that ensure attendees understand the key themes that are being communicated, actively participate in the dialogue of the meeting, and leave feeling passionate and excited about the problems being solved.

The 18 Secrets to Give a Presentation Like Steve Jobs provides a very easy-to-follow blueprint for presentation execution that allows presenters to achieve the results they are looking for when presenting. The article discusses five key guidelines that have to be considered when preparing for a presentation. They might seem obvious, but think about how many times you’ve attended presentations where even the most basic rules were ignored. Did you remember much other than what went wrong? Five rules to keep this from happening are:

  • Keep it Simple: Regardless of the subject, it is often helpful to break the presentation down into three distinct sections.
  • Rehearse – Rehearse – Rehearse: You need to know your presentation. A presentation that lacks focus, presenters who spend too much time looking at notes, reading slides, or employing long pauses while they compose ideas and thoughts tend to deliver presentations that fall flat.  Proper rehearsal includes more than just going over the words you will be saying. Rehearsal should include the entire presentation from content, to demeanor, and even multimedia aspects of the presentation.
  • Don’t Memorize, Use Notes Cautiously – Memorizing a presentation word for word will leave you with a presentation that lacks passion, flexibility and severely limits your ability to connect with the audience.  Learn your material, maintain a relaxed and conversational tone, but convey strong feelings and excitement to encourage attendees to participate and ensure they are actively listening to the messages you are delivering.
  • Dress and Deliver for Success – Appropriate attire and humor all depend on the type of audience and the presentation topics. Doing the proper research ahead of time and learning about your audience will help identify not only appropriate attire, but also if humor should be a part of the presentation. One key point to remember is that you can never be overdressed but you can surely be underdressed.
  • Pace Yourself: As a general rule, individuals typically spend about 1 minute per slide.  If several minutes are spent on one slide, more often than not that slide and its information should be broken up. Some charts or graphics, however, may take several minutes to properly present. Once the information or key points of a slide are communicated, you should move on to the next slide.  When organizing your presentation, more time should be spent focusing on the amount of time for each section as opposed to the amount of time for each slide.

In addition to the five key points above, one critical aspect that all presenters, regardless of skill level, seniority or environment must master is engaging the audience and controlling the presentation. If the presenter cannot maintain a demeanor of confidence, expertise, comfort and rapport with the audience, the presentation is destined for failure. Effectively delivering a presentation depends on a few key guidelines:

  • Do not hide behind your computer or PowerPoint slides
  • Always make eye contact with the audience
  • Never turn your back to the audience
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare

Preparation is the key to any dynamic, informative and successful presentation. Throughout my career I’ve presented to a wide range of audiences and I have always tried to keep the key points above in mind during preparation. Is every presentation a knock out? No, but I consistently ask for feedback from colleagues for ways to improve and I study and learn from great presenters in other industries in the hopes that the next one will be.

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