2 Indispensable Qualities for a Successful Presentation

successful presentationA few years ago I spelled out my 11 Deadly Presentation Sins — the key factors that can make or break any presentation. But 11 of anything is more than a handful, so I’m often asked to narrow it down to my top three.

That always felt like an impossible task. But I’m happy to report that after years of thinking, I’ve found that a successful presentation can actually be boiled down to just two essential ingredients.

What Would You Choose?

My dilemma has been that all of these points are important:

  • Having a clear structure is foundational, of course.
  • But it all starts with understanding the audience.
  • Storytelling is vital.
  • As is an emotional connection.
  • Energy is critical to sustaining audience attention.
  • And the first impression sets the tone for the entire presentation.
  • But the last impression can be just as important, if not moreso.

So that’s seven priorities. And it leaves out compelling visuals, body language, audience interaction and proper preparation, among other things.

But as I’ve stewed on this over the years I’ve realized that all of these qualities — and more — are captured in just two fundamental concepts:  authority and affinity.

A Lesson From Acting: Authority and Affinity

Like much of my approach to communication, this idea came to me from my other career as an actor. Whenever I’ve auditioned for a spokesperson role, the casting people and the director say they’re looking for a combination of warmth and authority. That is, someone who comes across as friendly and relatable but also clearly knowledgable and trustworthy.

It’s a delicate balance that’s not always easy to pull off — especially when it comes to serious or weighty subject matter. Try projecting warmth while talking about the effects of deadly carcinogens or the long-term benefits of dollar cost averaging.

In this model I’ve replaced warmth with affinity, which goes beyond mere friendliness and likability — it entails a true connection between audience and speaker. Here’s how it plays out.

1. Authority Inspires Confidence

Authority is derived from fundamental qualities like status, reputation, knowledge, and experience. Those are attributes that can’t be taught in a workshop.

But there are a range of skills and techniques that can be taught that have a direct impact on projecting authority:

  • Clarity of purpose. Every presentation has to be focused on a singular goal. What do you want your audience to think, feel and do differently?
  • Logical structure. If people can’t understand where you’re going, they’ll never follow.
  • Strong open. There’s no time to “ease into” your topic — you have to come out strong from the very start. Practice your intro the most and in those final moments before going on, get yourself focused.
  • Physical command. Make the most of body language: stand up straight, plant your feet firmly, move deliberately, gesture strategically.
  • Energy. Focus yourself mentally, emotionally and physically to create a strong “stage presence.”
  • Vocal strength. Volume, pitch, articulation, pacing — and the courage to occasionally slow down and stop — project confidence.
  • Fluidity. It’s not enough to be an expert — fluent in your subject matter — you have to also demonstrate fluidity in the way you present it. And that only comes with practice.
  • Tech mastery. Your visuals, audio, and other technology should support your message, not compete with it (or undermine it in the case of avoidable snafus).
  • Cool disposition. Stay calm and unflustered in the face of the unexpected, whether it’s a mistake in your delivery, a question out of left field or any other disruption.
  • Strong close. Go out with a bang instead of a whimper. Sustain your momentum all the way to the end and be explicit about what you want the audience to do.

Taken together, these qualities create trust — the audience can count on you to know what you’re talking about and “deliver the goods.”

2. Affinity Draws People In

Affinity is all about attracting people to you and your ideas. I always say, people are much more likely to believe you if they believe in you.

As with authority, certain fundamental traits help contribute to affinity — we all know people who have that “x factor” — the kind of personality that lights up a room and draws people in.

But even if you’re not that “magnetic” type, there are concrete steps you can take to produce affinity. These include:

  • Audience research. The first priority in developing any presentation is getting to know the audience. Who are they, what do they want, what is their mood? The better you know them, the more likely they’ll be thinking, “This person gets me.”
  • Empathy. This is all about translating your audience knowledge into genuine concern for, and sensitivity to, their needs — understanding where they’re coming from.
  • Warmth. Smile where appropriate, adjust your tone of voice, close the physical distance, and open up your facial expression. (And when smiling is inappropriate, the simple act of raising your eyebrows can go a long way in conveying warmth).
  • Humanity. Give people a glimpse of your true self, let your personality shine through, show some humility, and don’t be afraid to be a bit self-deprecating.
  • Emotion. Open up, be vulnerable (occasionally), show passion for your ideas, and express your joy, disappointment or frustration. Emotion has been shown to be far more persuasive than facts and data alone.
  • Storytelling. The stories we tell — whether it’s a story that’s important to us or a personal story — offer insights into who we are and what we value. Use stories liberally.
  • Interaction. Make your audience part of the conversation. Invite input, create a dialogue, take questions — and ask them questions.
  • Listening. Tune into what your audience is telling you — the explicit messages they convey verbally, and the implicit ones they send through facial expressions and body language.
  • Openness. Don’t be dismissive of people’s ideas and experiences. When the unexpected happens, be flexible and “roll with the punches.”
  • Authenticity. You should be essentially the same person “off stage” (or away from the lectern) as you are on stage. Not exactly the same, of course. Your speaking persona should be the best, most energetic version of you, but it should still be you. Think of it as the difference between adjusting the volume versus changing the channel.
  • Likability. Don’t be a jerk! People generally want to do business with and be around people they like.

All of these qualities together create a connection with the audience that make them more persuadable and more likely to take whatever action you’re urging them to take.

Are There Exceptions to These Rules?

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. There are some speakers who take an “in your face” approach to their audience and may not be particularly warm or likable. But the authority they bring is enough to keep people interested — willing to “take their medicine,” essentially.

And even these speakers rely on certain aspects of affinity like audience understanding, emotion (even if negative), storytelling and authenticity. Still, that’s not a practical model for most of us.

On the other end of the scale, pure affinity with no authority rings hollow. But even a “motivational” speaker generates authority in the way they construct and deliver their ideas.

For More on Delivering a Successful Presentation

If you want to hear more, next month I’ll be conducting a webinar on advanced presentation skills for the Public Relations Society of America. It’s free to members and open to all. Register here.


[Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash]

2 thoughts on “2 Indispensable Qualities for a Successful Presentation

  1. I love this! The metaphor of adjusting the volume versus changing the channel is great, as is having both alliteration and rhyme between “authority” and “affinity”.

    I can sympathise with the difficulty of cutting down from 11 sins, too. After all, I use the 5-part FiRST framework for speaking, and all those elements are in turn broken down into at least 3 parts each!

    Re raising your eyebrows, that reminds me of Mark Bowden’s TEDx talk. Have you seen it? Very funny and informative.

    1. Thank you, Craig! Yes, I do like how the words ring as well! I will check out that talk, too!

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