I was called in at short notice recently to help a very senior client with an introductory presentation he was making for an important dinner – later that day. Despite the last minute nature of the assignment I was delighted my client had seen fit to invest in this level of preparation. He had recently arrived as CEO and this was his first opportunity to make a real impact with many of the people who really mattered within his world. When I called him the next day to see how it went he was clearly delighted but added: “Mind you, it was quite scary to begin with – the room was much bigger than I had imagined!”
I can only think that he had a wry smile on his face as he said this, because our session the previous day had begun like this. He had clearly put a lot of work into his speech so after a few brief pleasantries, he stood at the end of the big boardroom table and started to deliver it. “Hang on a minute,” I soon interrupted rather sharply, “how are you going to get them to stop talking and pay attention to you?” He indicated a glass and a spoon. “OK, where are you going to get those from? Where are you then going to put them? Will your guests be standing or sitting? Do they perhaps need to be asked to sit? (which will take time, so probably needs to be done first) What is the shape and layout of the tables? (Many people may be facing away from you). Will there be light on you? Will you have/do you need a microphone? (If in any doubt, you do, though with a short speech you might manage without). How far will you need to project your voice? What are the range and angles for your eye contact? Are there any obstacles such as pillars?”
My client had given little, if any thought to such factors but soon realised they all had the potential to add to or detract from what he planned to say. I didn’t press the point so late in the day, but it is because of factors such as these that I regard a site visit as crucial to success. Together with a lot of planning advantages, a site visit enables you to visualise what the situation will be and to replicate that in rehearsal, which will also do much to control any nerves.
Having planned for the environment we were then able to focus on the content and we did many of the usual things such as introduce a personal note or two linked with the venue, disentangle some double negatives, make references to some people in the room more fulsome and overt, and coming to a rousing finish. We also took the opportunity to remove anything that was superfluous. I frequently talk about ‘Killing your darlings’ – the filmmakers’ approach to ruthless editing and it is every bit as important in a situation like this as it is in the boardroom. After all, what your audience really want to do is tuck into their dinner!
So, as with all good presentation practice, you need to think about your audience first - before developing your message - but remember that the environment can often create the framework for the impact that you are seeking to achieve.