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Build Conversation Into Your Presentations

On a recent plane trip, I sat next to the CEO of a cleantech company who told me he had managed to make his company's presentations much more enjoyable. His approach was simple: Instead of forcing his audience to sit through a lecture by a solo speaker, he invited one or two employees to engage in on-stage conversations with him during the presentation.

As I pointed out in my latest book on presentations, science explains why this works. Neuroscientists have found that our brains tend to tune out of discussions after approximately 10 minutes. Few speakers are so charismatic that they can hold an audience's attention, so it makes sense to break up a single presentation with an additional speaker. Doing so also demonstrates the company's commitment to teamwork and gives the audience more confidence in the depth of the company's expertise.

As we talked, the CEO explained that he had first tried to get employees to give their own presentations. Of course they did so if he asked; he's the boss. But they didn't jump at the chance. Some were nervous about following the boss with their own presentations—employees dare not mention this common concern because they don't want to leave the impression that they fear public speaking. Others expressed concern about the time commitment required to create a great presentation. So the CEO has invited employees to converse with him on stage, as in a panel discussion. These are not presentations, but conversations.

The results were astonishing. Once he invited conversation, people were eager to participate. More important, his audiences seemed to enjoy the banter and told him so after the presentations. Those audiences—often made up of key customers—were more engaged than ever.

Here are three tips on how to create a conversation within a presentation.

1. The lead presenter should act as the moderator, introducing the other speaker, highlighting the speaker's expertise, and facilitating the conversation by asking the second speaker a series of questions. This requires previous discussion between the two speakers. In order to create the most effective series of questions, the primary presenter must understand the exact points the second speaker wants to make.

2. The second speaker should know the questions' general themes ahead of time, but not the specific questions. This is key to making it look like a conversation. If the "conversation" is over-rehearsed, it will likely come off as scripted, phony, and robotic. Cisco's (CSCO) chief demonstration officer, Jim Grubb, often shares the stage with CEO John Chambers. The two talk ahead of time. Each knows what the other is likely to do or ask. Grubb says the banter and conversation help create a presentation that is engaging and entertaining. (Catch my earlier column on how Grubb and Chambers lay their groundwork.)

3. If slides are prepared ahead of time to complement the conversation, the second speaker (the person being asked questions) should control the slides. Keep in mind, though, that while a PowerPoint deck can play a supporting role, the audience's attention should be primarily focused on the interplay between the two speakers. In other words, this part of the presentation should go lighter on the slides and heavier on the spoken message.

The vast majority of corporate presentations follow the same structure: The CEO kicks it off, gives a long-winded presentation with too many slides, and introduces multiple speakers, who each give separate presentations. There's little, if any, interaction among team members. Be different by weaving in a conversation or two.

Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. More of Gallo's columns are available in his biweekly series.

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