8 ways to… improve your presentation skills

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Management accountants can no longer tuck themselves away in the back office, knowing that they will never be asked to step into the limelight. The ability to make a good presentation is now a key skill in the financial manager’s armoury

1 Plan and rehearse your presentation

Few people are able to make a brilliant presentation off the cuff, so careful preparation is vital. In most cases, simplicity works best, so resist the temptation to be too clever by half. Focus on how to get your message over to the audience clearly and concisely.

“Knowing your topic is the single most important point,” says Dave Coker, a finance lecturer at the London School of Business & Finance. He warns against delivering material produced by others and stresses the need for rehearsal. “Every presentation I give is rehearsed, sometimes as many as 100 times if it’s a new topic. Time your presentation and keep a timer running to ensure that you’re keeping on schedule,” he adds.

2 Tailor your words to the audience

“Because of a lack of presenting skills, training or talent, most finance professionals treat all presentations in the same way, with the result being a one-dimensional style, a lack of relevance and an indifferent reaction,” claims Rob Brown, author of How to Build Your Reputation (Ecademy Press, 2007). “But, when they consider the different audiences, objectives and ways to deliver the message, their chances of hitting the mark increase dramatically.” 

With so many different potential audiences, it’s important to tailor your message, says Phil Sheridan, senior managing director at recruitment consultancy Robert Half UK. “Imagine you’re introducing information on your company’s UK Gaap-IFRS convergence to your IT team: in this case, it’s best to keep your speech free of jargon and acronyms. Instead of explaining the financial implications, focus on how you think it will make a difference to IT systems and processes.”

3 Choose your presentation tools carefully

It’s best to decide which presentation tools to use right at the outset, advises Giles McIntyre, senior manager at recruitment consultancy Hays Accountancy & Finance. But it’s also important to ensure that the venue can cope with what you’ve chosen.

“Have a plan B,” he says. “For example, if you have a PowerPoint presentation, ensure that you print it out and arrive at the location early to check that all is in working order.”

Make your slides easy to read, Coker stresses. “I’m pretty disciplined: I use bullet points only and no more than six per slide. Density is a turn-off, so your points should be structured as single, simple sentences that you can talk about for protracted periods. The worst thing is to stand up reading slides – boring!”

4 Project positivity using body language

“You don’t need to dance around the room to be a good presenter,” according to John McLachlan, a former FD in industry who is now MD of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy. “You actually project more authority and come across as more credible if you stand still and move only to accentuate specific points with hand or arm gestures,” he says. “People often see entertaining presenters and think that they need to copy them in order to be good. This isn’t true. You need to be you.”

Richard Newman, director of UK Body Talk, a presentation skills training company, points out that great actors such as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench build their stage presence by controlling their posture.

“Most people stand off-centre, with their weight on one foot, so they look like a pushover,” he says. “Make sure that you project yourself as a strong presence, regardless of your audience, as your message deserves to get noticed.”

5 Keep your first-night nerves in check

Most presenters are likely to feel some butterflies in their stomach, even if they’re seasoned performers. Newman points out that nervousness creates tension in your body, which hinders you from projecting your natural charisma.

“The easiest way to overcome this is to clench any tense areas of your body for a few seconds and then relax them,” he advises. “This is great before an important meeting in helping you to stay calm and in control.”

Another way to control nerves is to pause before saying anything. It was a trick perfected by the Hollywood star John Wayne. “He was asked how he delivered powerful lines,” Newman says. “Wayne said: ‘Simple. I just count to two… Then I say it. That way everyone is thinking: what’s he gonna say?’”

6 Make a strong start

You need to grab your audience at the beginning or they will soon switch off. “Some good things to do are to thank the previous presenter for a great talk, thank the organisers for the invitation to speak, if that’s appropriate, or make a reference to the nice food or venue,” McLachlan suggests, but he warns against some common openers.

“Self-effacing jokes such as ‘this won’t take long and then you can get to the drinks’ will merely take away your credibility,” he says. “Similarly, making fun of others doesn’t make you look good to your audience, even if the people you’re talking about can take it. The audience may not know that and this will present you as someone who needs to put others down to feel good.”

7 Tell the audience a story

Financial managers are so au fait with the numbers that they often assume that others have the same enthusiasm, but people outside the profession are unlikely to be engaged, particularly by the more technical aspects, says Sue Binks, a senior consultant at the Roffey Park leadership institute.

“Storytelling can be a useful technique in dealing with this,” she says. “This may mean talking about real scenarios or fictional ones, but the idea is to talk about how real people use the data, or what happens if they don’t spot the underlying message. Build your knowledge and understanding of how your business operates and then use this information to show the context behind the figures. Highlight specific examples, such as business wins. This will not only demonstrate your knowledge, but also engage the audience, helping them to understand how their contributions fit into the wider picture.”

8 Take care when fielding questions

Usually, questions from members of the audience will focus on what they feel are the most important issues. It’s helpful to consider before your presentation what people are likely to ask and prepare some outline responses.

Coker advises taking a tough line with irrelevant queries. “You don’t want to turn off most of your audience, so don’t be afraid to terminate off-topic questions,” he says.

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