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Powerful Presentations for Japan

Daniel Dolan
Professor in the Graduate School of Accountancy, Waseda University

Did you see the final English language presentations for Japan’s Olympics 2020 bid? They had great impact on the IOC officials and other audience members, and probably contributed to Japan’s success. But it is often said that Japanese cannot give effective presentations—in their native language and especially in English. We know now that this is not true. Let 2013 be the year that people of all ages in this country gain confidence in their ability to develop powerful presentation skills.

What makes a presentation powerful? A powerful presentation requires strategic communication in the form of conversation. Strategic because a powerful presentation is built on strategy or careful planning. Conversation because a powerful presentation is interesting ideas shared directly with an audience in a conversational style. Here are three keys for giving powerful presentations.

1. Serve your audience

We all have experienced presentations during which the speaker reads a prepared script. When the presentation finally finishes, there is a general sense of relief rather than a sense of discovery. There are at least two problems with such presentations: they are readings and not conversations, and the content usually is not aligned well with the interests of the audience. The speaker has something he or she wants to say, and so they say it. The audience simply becomes a convenient and captive tool for the speaker.

Instead, the speaker should always ask three fundamental questions before giving a presentation: (1) What does my audience want or need to know?, (2) What does my audience not want or need to know?, and (3) How can I best share with my audience what they most want or need to know? A powerful presentation serves your audience. It is a present or gift to your audience—a present of information or experience or wisdom (notice that a root word of presentation is present). To serve your audience requires a giving attitude, not a selfish one. And remember, every audience has unique needs, so the answers to the three questions will always be different. Be flexible. Match your interests with the interests of the audience. Serve your audience.

2. Identify and arrange main points

As you think about what your unique presentation audience probably wants or needs to know, you should begin to identify a few main points to focus on. I suggest three to five main points. Less than three main points probably is not enough to share valuable information with your audience, but more than five probably will be too much information for your audience to process. If your presentation is informative—if your central goal is to share information—the facts you select should be supported with strong evidence and sources. But if your presentation is persuasive—if your central goal is to change the thinking, feelings, or actions of the audience—you probably will want to focus on a combination of facts and shared ideals such as honor, peace, or community. Next you need to arrange your selected main points into some kind of order. You might use a time order or storytelling order (“first A, then B, then C”), or you might order your main points from least to most important. Feel free to experiment with the arrangement of your main points until the order feels natural and logical.

3. Connect with your audience

Once you decide on the three to five main points you will use, and the order of those main points, you need to effectively share your ideas with your audience. You need to connect. This is the phase of a presentation that most people fear because they feel “onstage” and they worry about making a “mistake.” The key to successfully connect with your audience is to change your idea of a presentation from a “speech” or “lecture” to a conversation. Think about this idea. When you have a conversation with one or more people, in any language, what do you naturally do? You select something interesting to say, and during the conversation you listen carefully to the other people—you pay attention to them—until it is your turn to speak again. This is the image of a powerful presentation. Have a conversation with your audience. Share your interesting ideas with them and pay attention to them. Look directly into the eyes of your audience members just like you do during any conversation. If you read a script or focus too much on notes or your PC, it is difficult to have that conversation. So know what you want to say, practice using your slides if you have any, and then free yourself from your notes so that you can have a natural conversation with your audience. Your audience does not want you to read to them. They want a conversation with you. They want to share your ideas and experiences and stories.

That’s it! An effective presentation is strategic communication in the form of conversation. The three keys to giving a powerful presentation are (1) serve your readers, (2) identify and arrange main points, and (3) connect with your audience. Anybody can give a powerful presentation by understanding and practicing these three keys. But perhaps you have some questions…


In my job I need to give presentations in English, but my English is so poor…

Stop! I hear this too often. If you give a presentation in English, focus on your ideas and on having a conversation with your audience. Nobody cares if your pronunciation is not wonderful or if you make a grammar error. The audience wants your information, experiences and wisdom, not beautiful English.

How many slides should I use?

It depends on your strategy. If you do choose to use slides, keep each slide very simple. Restrict text to a minimum, and use easy to understand language. In the Olympics 2020 persuasive presentation by the Japanese team, the slides shown were mostly photos. The strategy of the team was to connect with the hearts and minds of the IOC officials, to assure them that Tokyo will be safe, that Olympics ideals will be honored, and that Japan is ready to work together with the IOC. Remember the Japanese team video with the heartbeat sound and image? That was more powerful than any text on slides could ever be because a heartbeat is common to all humans, and at the same time it communicated clearly that Japan is strong again and committed to steady and consistent success.
Do you have any final advice about what Japanese can do to improve our presentation skills?
Focus on interesting ideas that your audience will value rather than on your English ability. Sure you should practice, ideally with a native English speaker. But I believe that anybody can give a powerful presentation even with very basic language skills. Build your confidence based on the three keys you have learned. With that new confidence, share your ideas by connecting directly with your audience in a conversational style. Finally, have fun! A powerful presentation is exciting for both the audience and the presenter. You should enjoy the experience of sharing.

Daniel Dolan
Professor in the Graduate School of Accountancy, Waseda University

Daniel Dolan is Professor in the Graduate School of Accountancy, Waseda University, where he teaches professional presentations, negotiation, and other business communication courses. He also provides training to companies and government organizations.
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