The role of an actuary calls on the skill of presenting advice with a variety of different approaches, says Samir Parikh
For an actuary giving advice, the support and commitment of others must generally be secured before progress can be made.
Achieving this will generally require more than the smooth delivery of a few PowerPoint slides. Whether the target audience is large or small, you must consider the success factors that are required to drive a favourable outcome. Prior to an important meeting, especially if you anticipate a sceptical or hostile audience, you may find yourself thinking: I have designed my presentation material, but what else will it take?
Early one morning in 2002, I started to give these factors deeper consideration as I looked out across the misty Beijing skyline from my hotel room. Representing what was then a young organisation, I was scheduled to deliver a keynote address to an audience of some 500 at an international conference. My content was robust, my presentation material attractively designed but still the question remained: how would I successfully engage my audience for 45 minutes and, more important, inspire them to act upon the recommendations that I presented?
The conclusions that followed have helped me succeed in a broad range of presentation situations, to both colleagues and senior client executives alike. They consider simple, easy-to-implement practices in four specific areas:
? setting the stage as a speaker;
? generating interest around the topic;
? crafting an audience engagement approach;
? handling questions and concerns.
To inspire and secure the commitment of others you will need to make a positive impact. One of the most underestimated aspects of any presentation is the speaker introduction, which should be well thought-out.
The response from your audience will be based on two factors: the strength of your content and the credibility of the person presenting it. Clearly highlight the experience that you will draw upon to illustrate your topic. Don't rush through the introduction, and be personable in tone to position yourself as an interesting speaker.
Most important, be context-specific. If you have a presentation at 1pm to discuss changes in regulation, and another at 3pm to present risk management strategies, you will need to modify your introductory words to emphasise your credentials relative to each topic. Even if presenting to colleagues who know you well, make sure that you explain what makes you qualified to present on this subject.
Having earned your position on the stage you need to generate interest. Outline the main points that you intend to cover but, more important, explain why they are relevant to your audience. Weaving these things into a compelling set of introductory words is an art, and the key is to understand who your audience are and to connect to their reality. You may have established credibility as a speaker, but, when it comes to the topic, everyone will be asking themselves the same question: What's in it for me?
If the content of this article were to be presented to graduate students, for example, it might be appropriate to emphasise how the content could help them to progress successfully in their careers. Towards a senior management audience, on the other hand, introductory words might focus on the importance of engaging stakeholders when getting a new business venture off the ground. Real-world examples and references command a high level of attention, particularly those that refer to the perils of poor practice. A universal trait of humans is that we don't like to get our fingers burned. Statements such as 'many projects suffer as a result of their failure to quantify risks' therefore help to draw attention. Do make sure, however, that your presentation provides solutions to any dilemmas that you introduce.
A two-way street
Prolonged periods of one-way communication are challenging both for a speaker and the listening audience. In any live presentation you will need to include some form of interaction, and it is advisable to plan your principal interaction points in advance. The optimal approach will vary according to the structure of your material and the size of the group that you are addressing.
The benefit of working with smaller audiences is that you can really have a dialogue with them. Facilitate short discussions, and create additional momentum by inviting them to share their own examples to further illustrate your points. Presenting to larger groups lends itself to other techniques, such as polling (asking for a show of hands from those supporting an opinion), or allowing the audience to collectively respond to simple 'yes' or 'no' questions.
Try to make your first interaction early in the session. This gives the signal that two-way communication is expected, and people will naturally pay more attention and be ready to respond. Keep in mind, however, that interaction takes time and your content and timing may need to be adjusted accordingly. Cultural overtones will also have an impact on your engagement approach as some cultures are more open to interaction than others.
Some presenters adopt the practice of deferring questions until a window at the end of their session. While this makes the presenter's job easier, it is a measure that should be avoided other than in exceptional situations, where the number of questions becomes unmanageable.
This is for an important reason: your aim is to secure the commitment of your audience, but, until a listener's questions have been sufficiently addressed, they are unlikely to commit.
While good question handling requires preparation, it's usually better to encourage people to speak up, put forward their questions (which may also be lodged in the minds of others) and address them. This will secure commitment and increase the momentum around your topic.
Some of the most common ways to handle questions are to:
? answer the question, being clear and concise in doing so;
? politely defer the question to a later point in your presentation, where it can be answered in a clearer context;
? take the question off-line, particularly if the answer is unlikely to be of interest to the wider audience;
? take an action item to look into an answer, if appropriate to do so;
? use your audience - ask others in the room to propose answers and facilitate a constructive discussion.
Challenging audiences, on the other hand, may put forward concerns and objections. The skill with which these are handled conveys a key part of a speaker's credibility.
? Be prepared. When planning a presentation always anticipate the most likely concerns that may come up, consider your approach for handling them, and prepare any additional support material that may be required.
It is quite common to prepare presentation slides that will only be used to support the response to particular questions and will otherwise not be shown. A professional presenter thinks ahead and avoids handling what could have been anticipated on the fly.
? Be ready for the unexpected. Always address concerns with a high level of professionalism, even if the concern seems unreasonable or cannot be resolved. Others in the audience observing the dialogue will respect you for this.
At the conclusion of my presentation in Beijing, I was content with my speaking performance but was most impressed by the crowd of people who approached me saying that they were inspired and looked forward to implementing some of my ideas. Try using some of the simple techniques shared in this article and see how they can contribute to your own performance next time you present to inspire.
Samir Parikh is chief executive of SPConsulting AB. His new book, The Consultant's Handbook: A Practical Guide to Delivering High-Value and Differentiated Services in a Competitive Marketplace, is published by John Wiley