What’s the right tone for Business Presentations?

by Michael Rickwood

TED has provided us all with a welcome relief from Death by PowerPoint. Shorter, more personal, more visual and more memorable, we now have thousands of talks to choose from providing us with a learning platform as awesome as Wikipedia. Business has benefited from it in miraculous ways. Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, once coined a great phrase: the ‘Ted-ification of business presentations’. 

Thanks in part to TED, but also to a certain extent to the original presentations of Steve Jobs, we all benefit from simpler, clearer, more original, more relevant and dare I say it more entertaining business presentations. However, with familiarity comes contempt and the new normal brings challenges. There are two key points we need to remember when presenting in business: boundaries and context

There are thousands of dud TED Talks out there but even great ones have elements that can’t be replicated in a business setting. When I first started working in business 15 years ago here in Paris, most people practiced the approach of keeping their private life and their working life separate, sometimes so much so that most people took little interest in their day-to-day slog and reserved their passions for the evenings and weekends. Today the landscape is changing and I believe for the better as people bring their creativity into their white-collar work. But a delicate balance needs to be struck. What TED has encouraged is connection between speaker and audience, and this connection requires vulnerability, something that is celebrated at TED events. However, when presenting in business contexts, while encouraging transparency, inspiration, humour and warmth, you should avoid crossing the boundary into your personal affairs. 

I remember running a workshop at a major pharma company 6 years ago. I invited the participants to share some of their personal stories in the workshop as a speaking exercise. While some stayed within appropriate personal limits, others did not, and it slowly transformed into an exercise which was not appropriate for the context. After realizing the error I wound the session down gently. It’s true in TED that people share deeply personal things; in business however we need to be very selective. I notice this happening also on Clubhouse. This is often a place where business professionals congregate to exchange ideas, network and/or sell their consulting or coaching services in rooms devoted to business topics. But all too often the participants get too personal within those rooms, sometimes selling their skills or expertise on the back of deep traumatic pain, wearing it like a medal. Business presentations need to be effective, clear and have emotional appeal but business presentations and sales pitches really need boundaries

Another issue is not observing formality, particularly with language: the use of slang, profanity and over-familiar terms for example. You should also avoid content which isn’t appropriate for the context. Many different cultures and organizations will frown upon this. Telling a joke that doesn’t fit for a cheap laugh, or talking about your hangover, is not professional. What examples and analogies are you using? Are they appropriate? 

The context should also guide your slide design choices. If you are selling your services to Chanel or L’Oréal, I wouldn’t put cartoon characters on your slides. If you are presenting at the World Bank on the topic of developing wind farms in the Seychelles, should you be showing an image from Love Island to frame the context? 

I think a lot of what I write here is common sense, practiced by many business professionals, but post-TED does present new challenges for business. By all means use TED for inspiration and to see examples of powerful presentations, but when applying that to your business presentations, remember your boundaries, and take care to adapt to the context.

When there is so much noise in our content-rich world, it’s all the more important to strike the right tone.