Here, Paul Carroll from Toastmasters International explains the ways in which you can ensure you get straight to the point during those all important business presentations, and knowing when to expand

It is very easy to talk too much when giving a presentation. The expert presenter will know lots of facts, figures and anecdotes. But as a business presentation is being given for a purpose so you must get to the point as soon as possible. This takes some discipline, since we’re fond of padding with details which seem important to us. It is also true that on some occasions we need to provide greater depth of information.

Here are some tips on getting to the point and knowing when to expand…

Getting the balance right

Know your audience. If you’re dealing with a long-time client, you should already know what you need to know about them and their level of knowledge of your topic. If it’s a new client, you’ll have to learn. However, if you’re addressing a large group the means might not seem obvious. Get to the venue as early as possible and mingle. Talk to the organisers and hat up those who arrive early. If you know people already you can get information (or confirmation) from them about what they’re expecting to get out of your presentation.

Use straightforward active language. When people are trying to avoid taking responsibility you’ll hear the passive voice. “Mistakes were made” rather than “I was wrong”. But when you need action you must use active language. If you say “This should be done” there’s a question about the doer. “You need to do this” is unambiguous.

Make a conscious choice to use a metaphor. Metaphors explain the abstract in terms of the concrete and the new in terms of the familiar. l once attended a talk on the spread of disease, the rapid evolution of germs and how they work.  My question was why some germs are devastating but harder to catch while others are mild but easier to catch.  The speaker was a biologist, I’m not. When she said “Nature is a ruthless economist” it made the point clear to me immediately. Germs are tiny and have limited energy and so must evolve and develop one capacity or another in order to reproduce. Since I was working in finance, the metaphor of nature being an economist seeking to make efficient decisions made sense to me.

Know what message you want to get across so you can cut extraneous detail

When you present to your customers you need to give them enough information to help them understand your message. Too much at once risks overwhelming or confusing them rather than what you want to do: to inform, to get interest and to persuade. A key element in your task in getting to the point is deciding which details to leave out

In a speaking workshop l asked an accountant to give me an example of a personal accounting achievement. He said he saved his own building $40,000.00 on a $250,000.00 renovation job. But before he told me about this, he spoke at length about the characters of various builders, how some tenants wanted one kind of garden entrance and some wanted another, how these groups had fought over wallpaper patterns!

I asked him to rewrite this example and, as he came to each tangent, to ask himself “How important is this background-detail? Is this detail about the garden entrance necessary for the audience to understand how I saved 16% on this contract?” The details had all felt important to him but most of them didn’t add to our understanding of where he made his savings. Having cut most of the particulars, when the accountant presented his example again, the point was clear to an audience of non-accountants. This had been the goal he set himself.  

When does a detail cease to be extraneous? When someone asks you to expand on a point

The opening of a presentation will have an outline so that the audience knows where you’re heading. Even in the body of the talk leaving out extraneous detail is important for clarity. That’s a judgement call for the presenter. Ask yourself: is this fact necessary for understanding what follows?

But when someone asks you a question, the question as it’s put to you should indicate which details are necessary for your answer. This allows you to tailor your response whilst achieving maximum impact with your answer. Knowing your audience means anticipating some lines of questioning.

For instance, let’s assume you’re a food producer selling a seasonal line to retailers. In giving your presentation, one of the things you might say is “All our ingredients are ethically sourced”. Your audience of retailers should already have an idea of what that means, so you won’t need to go into depth. But someone may want clarification or confirmation and ask “Could you expand on that point?”

This question doesn’t indicate which details your customer wants to hear but you can clarify it. Do you mean ‘How do we choose suppliers’? or ‘How do we guarantee that the goods meet certain standards?’

If the answer is the latter…

“We get certification from Fair Trade International that the producers of ingredients farmed in the developing world received fair payment. We get certification from the Soil Association that the ingredients are organically grown and processed. We get certification from the Marine Stewardship Council that all our fish, like smoked salmon, is ‘line caught’.”

In the main body of your talk you probably couldn’t go into detail on every product you sell but since someone asked about ethical sourcing you had the details to back up your point. No further details are required unless you get follow up questions.

In summary, the required skill set is:

  1. Knowing your material
  2. Knowing your audiences
  3. Paying attention to what’s being asked in questions and clarifying when necessary
  4. Deciding which details are appropriate

By keeping your presentation clear and to the point, you have the room to expand on points when you are asked – rather than swamping your presentation with unnecessary detail.