Approach Every Presentation as if It Were your First

By Heather Baldwin

A few years ago, Chris Kavanagh, now a CustomerCentric Selling affiliate (, was asked by a client to give a presentation. The client had invited 50 of his prospects to attend a day of informative presentations on various topics and Kavanagh readily accepted the invitation to be one of the speakers. He knew the client, he knew the audience would be comprised of investor relations specialists and he had spoken on an appropriate topic for them just a few months previously. It was a recipe for a presentation triumph, right?

Wrong. “The presentation was a complete disaster,” says Kavanagh, looking back. Minutes into the speech, Kavanagh says audience members were looking at each other in confusion, starting conversations between one another and interrupting the presentation to ask Kavanagh to clarify what he meant. The real irony, he says, is that his presentation was about how individuals in investor relations often fail to effectively communicate their message to the public – and here he was failing to communicate to his audience. “They just weren’t getting it,” he says.

So what went wrong? In short, Kavanagh had become too comfortable as a presenter. Having worked with his client for a long time and having given many successful presentations, he made a series of assumptions from the moment he got the call from his client. He assumed he knew what the client wanted in a presentation to their prospects; he assumed his audience had a level of communications expertise that they simply did not have; and he assumed the topic he chose to speak about was relevant and appropriate for the audience. And then even as he realized during the presentation that he was losing his audience, he assumed he could “wing it” and pull everything back together. Every assumption turned out to be wrong.

The message here is that while presenters do get better with more practice, there’s also the potential to become lax in preparations. When you’ve given five presentations to audiences in a certain industry, you might think your next group will have the same issues and concerns as the previous groups. When a prospect asks you to present a solution to a challenge that sounds a lot like one you just solved at another company, you may make assumptions about the new prospect’s problems and wind up with a presentation that’s way off the mark. When you start making assumptions about your audience and their expectations, you start making mistakes.

The fix, of course, is to approach each presentation as if it were the first, beginning with a clear head and no assumptions. Kavanagh says if he could go back and do his presentation all over again, he would start by speaking with his client at length about his expectations. What topic would be appropriate for the audience? What aspects of that topic are ones he’d like Kavanagh to cover? Are there any elements of the topic he’d like Kavanagh to research and share with him beforehand? What value should the audience derive from the speech? And then he would ask to speak with a couple of people who would be in the audience to determine their level of knowledge and what they were looking for in a presentation.

Needless to say, Kavanagh has taken this approach every time since his disastrous presentation. And he says he has never had another presenting experience like the one that day.

To reach Kavanagh directly, visit