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Giving Good Meeting

Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 6,942 times

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When people say, “It’s all about what’s in your book,” they’re not lying. If you have a great book, you will get hired. But once you’re in the job, there is one variable that can either whisk you to prominence or leave you languishing in CouponLand.

That variable is presentation skills. As you move from junior to intermediate and beyond, being able to sell great work becomes every bit as important as being able to do great work.

I used to work with a guy who should have been the world’s greatest presenter. He was funny, confident and extroverted. And indeed, he would be in great form when meetings started. But things very quickly went downhill from there. If his ideas weren’t immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the client (and, really, how often does THAT happen?), this guy would be in trouble. He would stammer, his eyes would bulge, and his face would go pale and moist. Then, the stammering stopped. His mouth just opened and closed silently, like a Big Mouth Billy Bass with its audio chip removed. Someone else from the agency would have to jump in to rescue my colleague, leaving him thoroughly humiliated.

Stage fright wasn’t this guy’s problem. Actually, his problem was the exact opposite. He had so much faith in his natural confidence, he saw no need to prepare for his presentations. And, in the words of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

So let us now debunk the myth that great presentations are the province solely of people who are naturally funny. What these people offer is certainly agreeable, but it’s not what your clients have come to hear. If all you can do is clearly articulate how your ads will solve the client’s business problem, you will have your audience’s full attention and respect. And you will also have the sale.

So how do you prepare that clear articulation? Well, if it’s true that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then it’s equally true that virtually all clients hail from Planet Earth, where gravity keeps their feet bound very firmly to the ground. And if we creatives wish to present successfully, we must briefly leave our home on Planet Whimsy, with its very pleasant atmosphere of nitrous oxide, helium and bong fumes.

We must be brave enough to meet clients on their own ground, to breathe their stale boardroom air, to speak their curious language. The rewards can be great. If you prepare your presentations in accordance with the way clients actually think, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to present with confidence and sell on the first round.

A few years ago, I heard that a certain client was disappointed with my presentations because they were on foamcore instead of PowerPoint, and would I please make sure that all concepts were put on PowerPoint in the future? Unbelievable, I grumbled as I struggled with the PowerPoint template. To me, it was a magisterial summation of everything that was wrong with clients, that the form of a presentation should attract more attention than its content.

But I was wrong. Using PowerPoint, I started succeeding with this client, and not just because my stuff was on slides. PowerPoint forced me to make my presentations more logical, more step-by-step and, thus, way more client-friendly. Working in PowerPoint suggests a certain approach or framework in presentations – that is, introducing and explaining work gradually with a series of bullet points. It just so happens that this approach meshes very nicely with the need that clients have for logical checkpoints.

Very few clients rely on gut instinct. Business school trains them to measure anything that can be measured (or “quantified,” as they like to say). This doesn’t mean that you should now start working in PowerPoint. Indeed, some clients might find it off-putting. But the fact remains that building a solid business case for your work will sell it much better than waving your hands around and talking in creative shorthand.

Remember, too, that the person who will ultimately buy or reject your campaign is often not in the room when you’re presenting. If that’s the case, you probably won’t be the one who takes that person through the work later. And if you’re forced to rely on someone else’s presentation to sell your work, you will want your sales pitch to be as coherent, logical and straightforward as possible.

Another useful tip (also from a client) is to put on a sheet of paper the core creative idea behind each of your campaigns. (Letter size is fine; 11” x 17” is better.) Express the core creative idea very briefly in objective, rational terms. For example, the core creative idea behind MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign might be stated thus: “Contrast everyday purchases with the things that money cannot buy to illustrate MasterCard’s broad utility and empathy for its cardholders’ priorities.” This is a very chilly way to explain a very warm campaign, but to clients, it reads like a love letter. For many clients, the creative milieu is foreign and not especially comfortable. Giving them some logic to cling to is like tossing big foam cushions to shipwreck survivors. When they finally drift into shore, they will thank you.

Now to the matter of stage fright. This is important, because while good work often sells itself, great work needs help. And if your hands are trembling and your voice is shaking, you will be telling the client that you, too, feel the work is far too risky to buy.

One way to calm your nerves is to incorporate props or visual aids into your presentation. It’s a nice bit of theatre that clients appreciate, and if you’re holding up a title card or a feather duster or a Virginia ham, it gives you a moment to collect your thoughts while your clients’ attention is diverted.

But the far more efficacious way to get comfortable with presenting is to practice it as often as you can. Initially, the task will be hateful, like practicing scales, but I promise you the time invested will pay off in the boardroom.

Think about the logic flow of your presentation. If you need to, write out what you’re going to say word for word. But do not take that verbatim script into your presentation; the temptation to just read it will be too great. On the day, you want to be speaking naturally and looking your clients in the eye. So distill that script into points you can refer to if you lose your way. But the goal is to never have to look down at that sheet. It’s just insurance, because by the time the big day comes, you will have practiced your presentation so many times, you have it memorized. Practice it with friends. With relatives. With colleagues. And when no one wants to hear it any more, find a room, close the door, and practice it alone. If you have your spiel down cold, you will find yourself quite unruffled when your name is finally called.

There is no particular magic in presentation-skills courses. Sure, they’re helpful, but they cost thousands of dollars, and they’re over in a couple of days. A more realistic solution for most people is to join Toastmasters. It’s an international organization of community-based groups devoted to improving people’s comfort with public speaking. And, like Alcoholics Anonymous, they have at least one chapter in every mid-size city. Visit them at toastmasters.org. When you arrive at the site, you will see cheesy stock shots of business people pumping their fists in the air. Do not be alarmed. For something like seventy bucks a year, these people will help you move from paralysis to placidity when you’re required to get up and talk. And if you’re serious about succeeding as a creative, sooner or later, it’s something you must do.

We often think of clients as our adversaries, but it’s just not true. When we go in there to present, our clients WANT us to succeed. They want to be sold. The least we can do is to send them away happy.


Freelance writer Suzanne Pope was most recently Group Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto. Her work has been seen in Communication Arts and Archive, and she is the winner of a One Show silver pencil.






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