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How to sharpen your presentation skills

ReviewsHow to sharpen your presentation skills

Whether you are asked to speak at one of the seminars your Chambers is running, at an industry event relevant to your practice or at a training session your clerks have organised at the offices of one of your most important instructing solicitors, if you’re going to win work from your efforts, you need to make an instant impact.

By Douglas McPherson, Director, Size 10½ Boots and author of The Visible Lawyer and Package, Position, Profit

The only problem is, presenting well, requires a very different set of skills to advocacy.

In our experience, the most common reason why barristers fail to make the most of their speaking slots is there is a nervousness around experimenting with different and, dare I say, more modern ways to present themselves and their material.  As a result the talks delivered tend to be fairly generic and a bit predictable so fail to achieve the 2 main objectives of presenting:

  1. To engage the audience
  2. To leave the audience thinking “that’s someone I want to work with”

And before we go any further, let me underline there is no coincidence that ‘showing just how deep into the detail of the particular point of law you can delve into’ isn’t on that list.  That is never the point of presenting.

The good news is as with all things related to marketing and business development, there is a process that can be learned.  Better still, as far too many barristers still refuse to acknowledge there is a need let alone a way to improve their presentations, if you take this advice you will instantly stand out from the crowd.  And if you stand out, you will find new contacts, new conversations and new opportunities almost immediately.

The first thing you need to do is change your mind-set.

As I said the aim is to leave a positive impression.  This means success hinges on your ability to engage your audience, not on your ability to provide technical information.  Although it will undoubtedly take a while to pull your content together, the truth is your audience will forget most of the information you share (irrespective of how well it’s delivered) but they won’t forget you.

To make sure their memory is a positive one, here are a few things you can work on:

1 Start strong

First impressions count for everything; people will form a view in the first 30 seconds and rarely budge from that position so make sure that if you are going to over-rehearse, over-plan or over-invest in any part of your presentation, it has to be the opening.

2 Be enthusiastic

People are much more likely to believe what you say if you look like you believe what you are saying.  Similarly people are much more likely to listen if you appear to be interested in the subject rather than just getting through it because you’ve been told to.

3 Vary your delivery 

Think back to presentations you’ve sat through.  I am sure you will remember the speakers who droned on in a relentless monotone?  And how did that make you feel?  Exactly! Work on varying your intonation and try to use a few pauses for dramatic effect because it’ll keep your audience’s attention.

4 Look like your audience. 

‘People buy from people they like’ is a popular cliché but did you know there’s more?  The whole phrase is ‘people buy from people they like and people who are like them’.  Make sure the way you present yourself matches your audience.  If you’re talking to corporate solicitors in the City, be super smart.  If you’re talking to a media or creative audience, dress informally.  And if you’re in any doubt as to the culture of the firm you’re talking to, ask your clerks so you get it right.

5 Think about your posture. 

Stand tall and put your shoulders back.  It will give you a natural authority and instantly make you more credible to your audience.

6 Remember your NVC. 

Non-verbal communication is a key component of presenting.  Smile, maintain eye-contact and try to use your hands (in a controlled way) for amplification.

While these are tips that will improve the way you present, the true secret of engaging an audience lies as much with what you present as how you present.

The trap many falls into is rushing into production without working out what they want to cover.  Before you even consider opening PowerPoint, make sure you know what you want to achieve and what you want to happen after your talk.  Knowing this will make it much easier for you to make sure what you want to happen does happen.

When it comes to preparation, there are 3 steps:

  1. Planning
  2. Delivery
  3. Follow Up
  4. Preparation

I have no doubt that throughout your career you have been spoon fed preparation clichés about preparing to fail and preparation preventing an unspeakable standard of performance.  However, the truth is, the more time you invest in the preparation of your slides, the better the results you achieve will be.

When it comes to planning the structure of your talk have a good think about:

What you want people to do after your talk

Your talk is never “just a profile builder”; you want to make your audience to do something specific afterwards so there’s a better chance their next brief comes your way.

Once you know what you want them to do (and that could be to arrange further training, to invite you for a coffee to discuss a particular point of law or to sign up for special report exploring the topic’s you presented in more detail) you must add – and apologies for the marketing-ism – a clear call-to-action so that they take that step.

If you only take one point from this article, take this one.  A call-to-action will help you take things forward naturally and that alone will improve the results your talks generate.

The make-up of your audience

Before you can plan what you want to say you need to know who will be attending, how many will be attending, and what approach (i.e. formal or informal and interactive or academic) they will expect.  This insight affects everything from the content you include through to the way you structure and present that content.

How well your audience will understand your topic

Do you pitch your talk for beginners or as a high level discussion as to the possible future development/application of your topic?  Again this will inform your content the way you deliver it.

Your venue

Make sure you know about the projection facilities, whether you’ll need to bring your own laptop on the day or send slides in advance, how the room will be laid out and, most importantly what support you’ll have on the day.  Having all of this sorted before you arrive will help put you more at ease.

How much of an introduction do you need to give yourself?

Do you really have to share a detailed professional biography at the start of your talk?  These intros can be dull so should be avoided if possible (especially if your audience already knows you and Chambers).  If you are speaking to a new audience and need to introduce yourself, keep your CV short and relevant.

Now you have all of this information to hand, you can start preparing your structure and your slides.

When it comes to structuring your talk, less is always more.  First, work out the 3 key messages you want people to take away from your talk (and keep to 3 as peoples’ ability to retain information from talks is very poor).  You start by telling the audience what those 3 points are, go through the 3 points then conclude by reminding them what the 3 points were.

If this approach makes you nervous, remember you can always provide more detail after you speak by email, in a hard-copy hand-out or – best of all – in closing offer more information for anyone who brings you their business card.

With regards to your slides, remember these are designed to hold your audience’s attention, not to batter them into ocular submission so:

  • Never cover a slide in text. Instead use a handful of words and a memorable image that will make the audience stop and think “what’s that got to do with anything?”  It will better hold their attention.
  • Bin the bullet points and use words in boxes; they’re easier on the eye and easier to remember.
  • Wherever you can, use images, schematics, charts and diagrams in place of loads of words.
  • Always keep your sentences short and make your font big.

This may all seem a bit daunting (particularly if you are used to traditional text heavy slides) but remember your slides are only a backdrop; they aren’t a substitute for you.  If all you are doing is reading your slides, you don’t need to be there!  Also, if all of the information is up on the wall behind you, that’s where your audience’s attention will be fixed.  That will prevent you from connecting with them and maximising the likelihood your efforts will turn into new work.

  1. Delivery

If you’re anything like me, you’ll already be exhausted by the time you’ve done your prep and produced your slides and notes.  However, if your delivery isn’t strong, the time you’ve invested will be in vain.

While rehearsing is something else to fit into your busy schedule, it is vital.  Rehearsal removes any glitches and the umms and aahs and will improve how confidently you present on the day and the more confident you appear, the more credible your audience will consider you to be.

Rehearsal will also make you much more familiar with your content which means you’ll be able to adhere to another golden rule – never hold your notes.  Your primary objective is to engage your audience and holding notes hampers that for 2 reasons:

  • If you are a little nervous, you will shake your documents and this will unsettle your audience or even suggest to them you are not 100% sure of what you are saying.
  • Looking at your notes will stop you from making eye-contact with your audience; you need that eye contact if you’re going to build any sort of connection.

On the subject of barriers, the other one to lose is the lectern.  Standing at a lectern separates you from your audience and again makes it harder for you to engage people.  Have the confidence to step forward and speak to your audience rather than at them.

With regards to your physical delivery we have already looked at things like enthusiasm, intonation and posture earlier in the article.  However, as holding your audience’s attention is absolutely pivotal to your success, here are a few other things you can try:

  • Experiment with adding other media like video
  • Have breaks and break-outs
  • Involve the audience via questions and exercises
  • Tell stories.

Stories add a lot to a presentation.  They aren’t just more interesting and more contextual; they also allow you show your personality.  This is crucial because a personal connection will make people more likely to want to continue your conversation after your talk.

And, because when you tell stories you are just retelling something you know well, you can recall the detail without having to look at the screen behind you.  Again this makes it much easier for you to strengthen your connection with your audience.

And lastly, always keep your hand-outs back until after your talk, never give them out before.  If you provide hand-outs before you speak people will naturally start reading through them rather than listen to you.  Keeping them back until after the talk also gives you the first natural opportunity to …

  1. … Follow up

If you have kept your material back you have your first follow up in the bag:

“I have a PDF that provides more detail on all the points we’ve covered today.  If you’d like a copy please give me a copy of your card before you leave and I’ll email it over.”

I am willing to bet the majority of those in attendance will leave you a card.

Once you have the card make sure you send the material (not following through on a promise will be remembered) and always send it from your account; it’s you that met them not your clerks so if you outsource such a simple task, it’ll be received negatively.

Then Linkedin with your new contacts.  Even if your diary precludes you from any other form of follow up, the updates and articles you share via LinkedIn will help you stay visible.

If you have set your own objectives during the planning stage, you will know what you want to happen after your talk.  You will have included a call-to-action to make sure that next step happens whether that next step is more training, exclusive written content or some face-to-face time with you.   I do understand the follow up is going to be the most ‘salesy’ (and, therefore, most uncomfortable) part of the process so here are a few tips to make it a little easier:

  • Suggest small, easy ‘baby steps’ rather than forcing big commitments; provide as many options as possible and make all your suggestions or instructions clear.
  • Make sure what you suggest isn’t just the same run of the mill, tick box offer that everyone makes but is something that’ll actually deliver value to your new contacts.
  • Make sure all new names are added to Chambers’ marketing database so they continue to receive a wider range of communications (without you having to do anything).

And always remember that for a solicitor instructing counsel is largely about timing.

It is massively unlikely your talk will coincide exactly with their need for your services.  Your follow up has to be based upon ongoing contact so you stay on a potential instructing solicitors’ radar and then, when the time is right, they think of you, not a competitor.  One presentation in isolation won’t do that.  A successful presentation is only the first step in a campaign which is why the follow up has to be considered an essential part of your preparation, not an optional add-on.

Douglas McPherson,

Director, Size 10½ Boots and author of The Visible Lawyer and Package, Position, Profit

29 Bridgford Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham, NG2 6AU

5 Chancery Lane, London, EC4A 1BL
t: 077865 40191
e: [email protected]





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