Today’s accounting and finance professionals are taking on more strategic roles in their organizations and interacting more frequently with other departments. As a result, strong presentation skills are more critical than ever to make compelling points, package information and explain technical information to non-financial stakeholders.
If you want to build influence in your company, sooner or later you’ll need good public speaking skills to present your ideas to your bosses, colleagues or clients. So we'll give you five practical tips for boosting your presentation skills. Then, because it's likely you work with Excel more than PowerPoint or Keynote, a bonus: Five ways to build better presentation slides.
How to improve your presentation skills
1. Face your fears. If you have anxiety about public speaking, the best way to overcome it is to, well, speak in public. Begin by making short presentations to your closest colleagues or friends. When you feel ready, volunteer to give a quick talk or make an announcement at a professional association or civic organization you belong to. Consider joining Toastmasters International, a public speaking organization, to get even more practice. Share tips for presentations with members you meet there. Attend networking events to practice your communication skills.
2. Do your homework. You’ll have much more confidence during your business presentation if you’re well prepared. To get ready for your talk, learn as much as you can about your audience. This will help you determine how you’ll present your information to get your points across. Use concrete facts and quantifiable information from white papers, surveys or case studies from reputable sources to support your points. If you’re trying to win new business, let your audience know how you’ve helped companies or clients reach their goals.
Make better communication your goal and read Promising Accountants Share Goal-Setting Secrets to Success.
3. Practice, practice, practice. Practice your presentation until you know it inside and out. Rehearse in front of a mirror. Run through it with a colleague or friend. Ask for honest feedback about both your content and delivery, and make any necessary adjustments. Then practice some more.
Work to sharpen your communication with others on your team or with those you supervise, which sets a good example for your entire office.
4. Stand and deliver. Remember one of the basics of giving presentations: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them again. And then tell them what you told them.” Keep your audience in mind at all times. Speak conversationally and don’t use jargon. Show enthusiasm for what you’re presenting. Your audience will respond to your passion. Season your talk with some quick asides, jokes, metaphors and anecdotes when appropriate.
5. Anticipate questions. Your presentation isn't necessarily over once you wrap up your prepared remarks. Colleagues or clients may have questions, concerns or points of resistance about information you presented. Anticipate these by being an expert on your topic. No matter how well your presentation went, it could end on a low note if someone asks a question you can’t answer. Again, proper preparation is the key.
How to make the most of your slides
6. Begin with a clear outline. We’ve all seen presentations that go nowhere fast. That often happens because the presenters don't have a handle on where they really want to go with the presentation. Grab a pen and paper before you open your presentation software. Start creating your presentation by writing an outline, with specific focus on your goals and what you want to accomplish by the time you’re done. This will help you stick to the script when it’s time to put the deck together.
7. Consider fonts, color, visuals. Have you ever seen a presentation where the size of the type — or font —is so small you can hardly read it? Your audience needs to focus on the message you’re delivering. Don’t make them work more than they have to. Use at least a 24-point font, with a 20-point font for captions on pictures, graphs and diagrams, and titles that are between 36 and 44. Also, sans-serif fonts are better than serif.
This is serif font.
This is sans-serif font.
When it comes to colors, make sure your text and background colors contrast well. Use a light color against a dark background or vice versa. And for visuals, a well-chosen image is a nice break from text that can grab your audience’s attention and help reinforce your message. No, page or screenshot from Excel doesn’t really count. You can take your own high-quality photos or find professional stock images on sites like iStock or Shutterstock.
8. Let your titles guide the way. Each slide’s title should provide context and explain the slide’s content, including the conclusion. For example, “A Third of Managers Regret Not Taking Enough Vacation Time” is better than just “Vacation Time.” A more descriptive title keeps your audience focused on the message. Someone skimming your slides should get the gist of your presentation without reading anything else.
9. Keep your slides succinct. Keep in mind that your slides should support your presentation, not be your presentation. Don't use too many words or numbers. Yes, you work with numbers, but don’t go number-happy.
A slide with too much information is challenging to read. You’re essentially asking your audience to read and listen at the same time. Again, don’t make your audience work. If your presentation needs to be shared as a handout or forwarded to others, consider making two versions: a slimmed-down version to talk through and a sharable version with more explanatory text.
10. Provide a next step. Don’t just end your presentation by saying thank you. Give a call to action. Close your presentation by including a slide that mentions what you’d like the audience to do with the information you shared with them.
Whether you use your presentation skills at face-to-face meetings with your staff, during conference calls with clients, at interviews to win over a candidate or employer, at networking events or at training sessions — consider them tools to accomplish your goals. With effective presentation skills, you can learn to speak with confidence, build influence and gain a powerful edge in business.
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Finally, just for fun, here's a video that shows you what not to do to make your financial reports meaningful and compelling presentations.
Editor's note: This post was published in 2014 and has been updated recently to reflect new information.