Remember in school how you were told to outline what you were going to write before starting an essay or a report? There was a good reason for that. A builder would not just start putting up walls and windows without a plan, and neither should you.
Structure clarifies. An unambiguous structure clarifies your own thinking, and makes your message more understandable and more convincing.
Let’s start with what structure does for the audience, and then see what it does for you.
Makes it easier for the audience to follow
Structure does your audience a favor by making it easy for them to follow your logic. It can be hard work to follow a presentation, and most people prefer not to have to think too hard. By providing structure, you are “adding value” by doing their thinking for them. They’re free to disagree, of course, but if you’ve prepared well that is much less likely. If they have to dig the meaning out of a mass of unrelated words, they may not make the effort.
Remember two things: first, they don’t know as much about the topic as you do. What seems perfectly obvious to you now was probably not that clear at one time. In essence, advice you have forgotten what it was like not to know what you know now.
Second, presentations are oral. Unlike paper, your listeners don’t have the luxury of being able to re-read something that was on a previous page to connect the dots with what you are saying at the moment; they have to try to keep up. At 130 words per minute, a ten minute presentation will contain 1300 words, which is a lot of information if it were on paper.
Exposes the clarity (or lack of it) in your thinking
You can be very confident that you know your product, you know the customer situation, and, as a seasoned sales professional, you can think on your feet and put it all together when you need it. This may be the case most of the time, but you’re not Superman. As Barbara Minto says in her book, The Pyramid Principle: “No one can know precisely what he thinks until he has been forced to symbolize it—either by saying it out loud or by writing it down—and even then the first statement of the idea is likely to be less precise than he can eventually make it.”
Without structure, it is easy to put down a lot of information and unconnected thoughts and feel like you have accomplished something. For example, suppose you’re packing for a camping trip. You can throw a bunch of stuff you think you will need into the back of your car, and when it’s full you will probably feel like you have everything you will possibly need. But you will never know until you get there—and when you need something, it will be too late. In my own experience with these situations, you never forget the big things; you just forget the little things (like a lighter or a bottle opener) and they become big things when you don’t have them.
It’s the same with a presentation. It always sounds good in your head, until you try to express it. Until you force yourself to put your ideas into some logical order, you can’t be sure how well prepared you are. In my own experience, I am always overconfident at the beginning.
Structure also acts as your quality control filter. When you select a clear structure and then begin filling in the detail, you will begin to spot weaknesses in your thinking, gaps in your knowledge, potential objections, etc.
Shortest distance between two points—helps to keep it brief
The discipline of structure is also going to help you to be concise. It gives you the right openings in which you can insert just the right evidence and detail that supports your points. One key principle of brevity is to separate the “nice to knows” from the “need to knows”, and structure can help with this.
Makes you look good
Don’t forget that to your customer, you are your company. You may have billions of dollars of assets and thousands of people behind you, but the customer only sees you. If they are going to entrust some key aspect of their operations with you, they are at least unconsciously gauging your company’s competence by how you come across. Structure makes you look smart and boosts your credibility by making you look organized and prepared.
Finally, for those who pride themselves on being able to “wing it”, structure actually increases your flexibility. Have you ever prepared for a one hour presentation only to find out that someone is running late and now you only have fifteen minutes? I’ve seen people respond to this situation either by talking real fast, or by going ahead with their prepared remarks and cutting their presentation short, neither which is very effective.
The alternative way is to know clearly what your main points are, and make sure that you cover those, while leaving out some of the supporting evidence or minor points. You can always refer to your leave-behind material for the detail you omit.
In other words, structure can make your presentation scalable—you unfold as much or as little detail as the occasion calls for.