THE BLOG
12/16/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Are Your Business Presentations Like Casseroles?

Growing up, my pre-teen kids never liked casseroles. "Things all run together," my daughter complained.

"But food runs together anyway once it gets into your stomach," I defended my dinners.

"Yeah, but while I'm thinking about it, I want each thing to be separate as it goes down!"

Audiences have the same preference -- a dislike for casserole presentations, where all the ideas and information are blended into a lumpy hodgepodge so that nothing is distinctive. Yet, that's often the results when business presenters stir in a little of this and little of that, with nothing memorable.

A Typical Client "Casserole" Presentation

Here's how that situation played out a few months ago at a client site: "So what's the NEW message to get across to your team this year?" The president and three VPs sitting around the conference room table deferred to each other. I waited for their answer.

Having already listened to the dry-run of their presentation for the upcoming annual meeting, I'd concluded that they had nothing new to say -- that it was going to be "business as usual" the following year. Surely they weren't spending the big bucks to bring in all their managers from the field for a two-day meeting to serve a "casserole update" on the past year's performance and the new year's initiatives.

The president finally answered me with a tentative, "We want to tell them that we met our goal to increase market share by eight percent. But we have lots of opportunity to grow market share next year by selling two product lines that we've neglected in the past."

"Is that really what we want to say?" the VP of Sales spoke up. "I thought this update was to report specifically how we'd performed in each of our product lines by region?"

"Hmmm. Then why do you have me giving all this information about how we improved customer service in Region 7 with these new procedures?" the VP of Operations asked. "Do we really want to go through those detailed procedures in this kick-off?"

A half-hour's discussion followed among the four about the real purpose of their opening management presentation. After they determined their real purpose, they of course realized that nothing in their currently planned presentation actually delivered the most important point and built a persuasive case to spur their regional sales team to action.

I wish this scene were an isolated case. It is not. It's quite typical.

Often before my own speaking engagements, I slip into the audience of the management meeting, sales conference, or industry meeting to hear a senior leader kick off the event. Typically, that executive's purpose is to "cast a vision," "lay out the strategic initiatives," or "emphasize the theme" for the event. But all too often, when he or she finishes an hour later, according to employees commenting in the hallway, their key message seems lost, fuzzy, or "contradictory."

The Solution

Joe Calloway, friend and author of Be the Best at What Matters Most, once delivered a keynote to a group of colleagues with this core message: "Pick a lane." He encouraged this group of entrepreneurs to stop trying to be all things to all people and focus on their core product line. Stories abound of large organizations that have had to learn that same lesson the hard way.

What's true of products and profit also proves true in presentations -- with equally disastrous results.

Whether you're developing a speech, preparing for a media interview, meeting with a client, pitching a proposal to your boss, counseling an underperforming employee, or persuading parents of your soccer team to foot the bill to upgrade the soccer field -- pick a point. Start there to simplify.

Pick one point that you want to get across. Support that point. Illustrate that point. Prove that point. Everything else flows from that point. Otherwise, you're serving a half-baked casserole.