Do the research in advance, and you can stack the odds in your favour, writes Ian Whitworth.

A friend of mine built an incredibly successful business from selling domestic appliances. Let’s call him Jim. He did it with decades of madcap, come-on-down, low budget TV advertising, low on touchy-feely branding and very high on outlandish product demonstrations.
Jim starred in every ad himself, thus saving a fortune on actors – savings that could be passed on in the form of Crazy Low Prices.
Through sheer consistency, he grew it into the colossus of its category, with several hundred stores. Plus he gets asked for autographs on planes. In person, Jim is a charming and hilarious man, saving the wacky antics for his TV persona.
One day he took a call from an ad agency, prospecting for new business.
“We love your brand,” they said. “Great product, great strategy, it’s all good. Well, except for the talent you’re using on the TV commercials. Frankly, between you and me, that guy is pretty embarrassing, and he’s really holding your brand back. Can we come in and present some impactful new ideas that’ll really take your brand to the next level?”
“That would be excellent,” Jim said.
On the day, the agency guys turn up excited. All cliche boxes are ticked. Slick, Don Draper-style account men. Creative director in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and suit jacket. And easels! With storyboards done in that old-school illustrated style like your primary school songbook. Many, many hours and dollars of preparation.
Jim walks out into reception and greets them cheerily. Oh my God, IT’S THE GUY! The corny TV character they’ve come to assassinate with their leading-edge creative strategies, and he’s REAL. The blood drains from their faces as they contemplate the monumental scale of their blunder. And the tinfoil taste of fear and adrenalin, familiar to anyone who’s been sent into their own personal presentation Gallipoli.
Like a laboratory frog, the dead presentation twitched on the boardroom table for 15 long minutes before they upped easels and ran.
“We’ll… uh… just go now, we’ve probably taken up enough of your…”
“Not at all, what other ideas do you have? I’m all ears.”
It was pretty much the most enjoyable meeting of Jim’s career.
Can you imagine the conversation in the cab on the way back from that little gem? The arguments over whose fault it was. The calculations of how many speculative creative hours had been poured into a venture doomed from the very outset.
And that, folks, is the oldest mistake in the presentation book: devoting all your time and energy to your content, and forgetting to research who’s in your audience. It’s like building a multi-storey building without foundations. Successful presenters want to know in advance:

  • Who’s in the audience?
  • What’s their level of expertise and interest in your subject?
  • Who’s been on before you?
  • What direct personal benefits will your presentation bring them?
  • How long is their attention span?

All of these have a tremendous effect on the reception you’ll receive.
If you just haul out your standard template show, people can tell. It’s an unproductive and charmless thing to do, whether it’s in the boardroom or the ballroom.
It amazes me how many event companies will do an elaborate creative pitch without asking about the personal tastes of the client. It’s like taking someone out to dinner for the first time, ordering all their food, and expecting to pick their favourite for each course. “You look like you love… fish! Am I right?”
A creative producer friend – let’s call him Jon Smith, for that is his name – was pitching on a major conference opening show, and rang the CEO’s assistant to get the inside word on his interests. Initially she was stumped, but with some digging she remembered that he was mad for Gilbert and Sullivan. So Jon pitched a piratey Gilbert and Sullivan opener, a concept that would make the average client ask you if you were on acid. He won the pitch by a thousand fathoms, me hearties.
Presentations are never easy, so you owe it to yourself to stack the odds in your favour. When you do the research in advance, you go in feeling much more secure, and your audience will respect that you had the good manners to make it special for them.

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy,
A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email –