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Dave Hill – Presentation Skills Excellence

In 2010 I was invited to speak at a technical conference on hazard analysis relating to chemical plant explosions. The audience size was about 50 technical people. I was one of three speakers lined up to speak that morning and we had strict instructions to start and finish on time, and to provide technical content that would interest, inspire, and educate the audience.

This information describes how to structure a business presentation, make sure the content flows in a logical format, and that you finish within the allotted time. The starting point is making sure you have a clear understanding of what you are going to speak about. You should not proceed with the development of your presentation until you have written down a clear description of your specific objectives. Have you ever witnessed a presentation where after 5 or even 10 minutes you have no idea where the presenter is going with the information? This is typically a sign of someone who put together a presentation with no clear objective in mind.

The following structure can be used in many different presentation types, but you first need to write down the objective of your presentation clearly and concisely.

1. Grab attention (anecdote, quotation, rhetorical question, shock statement etc.)
2. Describe why the information is important for the audience – “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)
3. Review the points briefly
4. Rules for questions are described

1. Point
2. supporting information
3. transition to next point

1. Grab attention or reinforce WIIFM
2. Points review
3. Question time
4. Call to action

The conference presentation:
The specific objective of my presentation was to convince people to evaluate the effects of chemical plant explosion hazards on buildings, and to take action if safety issues are identified.

At the conference, my presentation started with someone reading my introduction. Since this was a serious technical presentation, I developed it with the intent to build my credibility on the subject.

Note: As I was being introduced, I stood out of view at the back of the room so the focus would be on the person delivering my introduction rather than on me. When the applause started, I moved energetically to the front of the room to shake my introducer’s hand. As the applause died down, I used my remote control to blank out the first slide on the screen before I started speaking (most remote controls have a button that blacks out the projector image). The reason you might black out the projector image is when you are delivering an anecdote (or other opening technique) and you want to make sure that the audience is focused on you rather that an image behind you (particularly when the slide image does not illuminate or relate to what you are talking about).

After my formal introduction, this is how I opened up my presentation:

1) Get their attention as soon as possible and gain interest in your presentation.
“Imagine it is April 23rd, 2004, at the Formosa Chemical Plant in Iliopoulos, Illinois, and you are a worker walking through the factory that day. An event is about to unfold that will change your life forever.”

Note: At this point, I pressed the button on the remote to activate the projector slide image and move to the next slide. I glanced at the screen (or subtly point my arm in that direction) to draw the audiences attention there. The slide showed a picture of the accident site following the explosion, and included a headline statement “Explosions ruin lives”. I then continued speaking.

Photo From CSB Website

“On this day, a horrific explosion will occur, a total of 4 people will be killed, and two will be seriously injured. For the rest of your life, you will ask yourself the question, “Could I have done something, or said something, to prevent this horrific accident?”

2) Identify the “What is in it for me?” (WIIFM). Why should they listen to you?
“Today, we are going to talk about the means to make sure that your workers are protected from explosions that can cause buildings to catastrophically fail.

“We should not lose sight of the fact that the Formosa chemical plant not only resulted in fatalities and injuries, it was never rebuilt and many people were left unemployed.

“As engineers, contractors, and chemical plant workers, you never want to have to deal with an accident like this. Explosions ruin lives.”

Note: If at this stage, your presentation has not gotten their undivided attention, you are potentially boring them.

3) Provide a brief overview of the points you will cover – this will helps the audience process the information that you will give them.
Note: At this point, I glanced at the screen and simultaneously used the remote to advance to the next slide with the bullet points. By glancing at the screen, I can verify that I am on the correct slide and it prompts the audience to look at the screen. I can also prompt the audience to look at the screen by subtly pointing my arm in that direction.

“The three options I am going to cover today are:
a. Do nothing
b. Train people to evacuate buildings
c. Evaluate and manage the explosion hazards”

4) Explain the rules for asking questions (Can they ask questions at any time or will there be a Q & A session towards the end of the presentation?)
“This subject typically evokes a lot of questions. Given the time limitation I have for this presentation, I ask you to hold your questions until the question and answer segment towards the end of the presentation.”

5) Now I move into the body of my presentation where I provide detailed pros & cons discussion of each of the three points, support the information with specific references, and use transition statements to move from point to point.
Note: It is important to have transition statements between presentation sections and points to help the audience follow along. The following is a brief excerpt of the three points along with transitions. In the actual presentation, I supported the points with additional PowerPoint slide photos and charts.

1. “Doing nothing is a cheap option, but it is not a good option. A review of the explosion accident history on the US Government Chemical Safety Board (CSB) website shows that significant explosions occur every year.”

Transition Statement: “Let me move onto the second option which at first glance seems simple and effective, but has huge limitations.”

2. “Training people to evacuate buildings is also an option, but its effectiveness is limited. One reason is that people such as chemical plant operators need to stay in the control room to shut down the chemical plant quickly and safely during a leak of a flammable. Another reason is that vapor cloud explosions can happen quickly, before people are even aware that there is a hazardous condition that could lead to an explosion.”

Transition Statement: “The first two options are not considered appropriate by peer groups. The third option is used extensively in our industry, and done properly, can enhance the safety of employees.”

3. “The final option I am covering in this presentation relates to performing extensive explosion and building structural analysis evaluations. This is a process that is fully described and supported in the Industry recommended practice API 752.”

Transition statement: “To put this into a real life perspective, let me bring you back to the Formosa chemical plant accident site.”

6) Following the body of the presentation I now aim to reenergize the attentiveness of the audience by revisiting the attention grabber and/or the WIIFM content at the beginning.

Note: At this point I glanced at the screen and simultaneously used the remote to advance to the next slide back to the accident scene.

Photo From CSB Website

“I work with someone who used to sit in his Formosa chemical plant office in the forefront of the picture. A few years before the explosion, he dusted off his resume and decided to go work for another company. It turned out to be a life saving decision. Luck should not be the basis we rely on to keep people safe.”

7) Review the three options briefly
“The three options we have discussed include doing nothing, training people to evacuate, and evaluating and managing the explosion hazards.”

Transition Statement: “Before I get to my final comments I will take a few questions. I will also be available after the conference if anyone has additional questions.”

8) Conduct the Q & A session
Note: Since there were about 50 people in the audience and it was a fairly large room, I summarized the question back to the questioner. I spoke loud enough for everyone to be able to understand what was asked. While answering the question, I made eye contact with other members of the audience to make sure everyone felt involved.

Transition Statement: “My allocated time is nearly up and I will leave you with some final thoughts on this important subject.”

9) Call to action
“The hazards at chemical plants do not change until we take action. The handout contains contact information for explosion and structural engineers who can guide you through the process of hazard evaluation and hazard management. Explosions ruin lives; your actions can save them.”