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Presentation Prowess

ANY BUSINESS presentation requires careful thought and a plan for success. The decision maker may be an individual manager or a group, such as an executive committee. In either case, the fundamentals are the same. For a proposal to succeed, it must have broad grassroots support, substantive content, good design, and a credible presenter.

Grassroots Support

Before making any formal presentation or submission, the individual who is recommending the program, whether it is for training or new equipment or other security needs, should do some preselling. Managers should make a conscious effort to involve people who will be affected by the program as well as the decision makers.

It’s also advisable to discuss the proposal with anyone who may oppose it. This discussion, which need not get into specifics, may defuse opposition that is based on fear of change or ungrounded concerns. It may also yield useful suggestions on how to improve the program.


A primary question in any presentation to management is how in-depth the proposal should be. The answer is that it should be detailed enough to give decision makers the information they will need to assess the program’s worth and the merits of funding it.

Details that will not help to make the case for the program should be omitted both because they are not of use and because laying those specifics out at this early stage will unnecessarily restrict the manager’s flexibility in developing the program. The manager must, of course, have developed the plan in sufficient detail to answer any questions about its operation that the decision makers may raise. Otherwise, the presenter will lose credibility.

The manager should state early and clearly what the proposal is and why it is needed. The only exception to this rule is when the proposal is so radical that stating the what and why up front will result in immediate rejection of the idea. In that situation, the manager will need to build up to the recommendation through discussion. Normally, though, that approach takes too much of the audience’s time, so managers should get right to the point.

Then, the manager should define the problem or opportunity that led to the proposal. Remember, management frequently looks at problems or opportunities in terms of numbers. How much does it cost? How much more could be produced? How much time could be saved?

One trick is to remember the “M resources” that will get the attention of senior managers: What money, materials, methods, minutes, machinery, maintenance, management, markets, manpower, or manuscripts are involved? How will this proposal make better use of these resources? The next step is to explain the background on the problem or opportunity. This would include an outline of how the underlying problem or opportunity developed. Here, the manager should clearly lay out whether the problem has always been present or whether some change occurred that created it or exacerbated it.

The manager must emphasize the need for a solution. What will happen if the program is not implemented? This downside discussion must be realistic and should be tied to specific dollar and time costs whenever possible.

After discussing the negative things that could happen, the manager should specify the benefits of adopting the proposal. The presentation must include what specific savings or improvements will occur as a result of implementing a proposed training program, for example.

Note that, at this point, the proposal details have still not been divulged. Presenting the benefits is part of developing momentum. The intent is to get the decision maker to be receptive enough to listen to the details.

Next, the manager should define the nature and scope of the proposal. If it is a proposal for developing a training program, it should include the training being proposed and where it will be implemented, as well as what equipment and facilities will be required. Is it training for one department or is it for all staff?

Clarity is the keyword in the implementation plan. The presenter should use analogy, example, simple graphics, and terms and formats comfortable to the audience. These formats might include charts, photographs, and tables.

The implementation plan should, however, include only the key points. Details can be included in an appendix for a written proposal, or in handouts or visuals to be used only if needed during an oral proposal. This arrangement allows the manager making the presentation to engage in an easy-to understand overview, yet drop to a deeper level if necessary.

The next step is to provide support for the proposal. This is the time for the manager to discuss any personal experience with similar programs or cite examples of where it has been tried before. Citing articles, books, or other reference sources that support the ideas can also be helpful.

At this point, the manager should explain and justify the cost of the proposal. In some organizations, the kind of cost may be as important as the amount of the cost. For example, a government agency may have a budget for acquiring equipment but not for hiring people. In this type of situation, a manager would need to specify costs by category.

Overall, it is important to do as much as possible to focus on the value created. This puts the expected costs into perspective.

While the manager’s goal is to gain approval for the project, the presentation should be balanced and realistic, including a presentation of potential problems and how they will be addressed. It is far better for the manager to raise these issues than it is to wait and end up on the defensive when the decision maker raises them.

While the objective of the presentation is to get approval, a manager should never overstate what the program can accomplish or understate what it will cost. That means being conservative in any estimates of the benefits and liberal in estimating costs.

For example, if a manager believes that a proposed training program will save the company $10,000 a year based on certain reasonable assumptions, it might be a good idea to consider what the more pessimistic assumptions would generate. This might lead the manager to promise savings of only $7,500 in the presentation.

At the close of the presentation, the manager should ask for a decision and try to establish a deadline. In sales, this is called closing the deal. Incredible as it may seem, salespeople sometimes lose the sale simply because they don’t ask the customer to buy. The same can happen to a manager trying to initiate a new program.

It will help to recap the main points, ask for questions, or offer clarifications and follow-up data. The manager should also point out whether or not the proposal can be modified or accepted in part, and he or she should be open to criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

It is critical to include an appendix. It should include any supporting material that might be of interest to the decision maker, but which is so detailed that it would impede the flow of ideas. Examples of this kind of material could include charts, surveys, computations, input data, flow charts, articles, and lists of personnel.

This kind of information must be on hand or available for review following an oral presentation. It can be helpful to give this documentation to the decision maker for later review or as a reminder.


The level of formality will vary among proposals, and the presenter should be aware of the corporate culture and practices that are followed generally for similar proposals that other business units make to these same decision makers.

Form will also be influenced by the size of the program or the extent of the change being proposed. The decision makers’ general familiarity with the issues at hand will also influence how to approach and develop the proposal.

Begin designing the proposal by classifying the audience that will be evaluating the recommendations. A useful way to think about the audience is to consider whether this person or group could be classified as expert, technical, executive, lay, or a combination of types, and then design the proposal around that specific classification.

For example, the expert loves facts, will challenge any assumptions, and needs to be convinced on a theoretical level. The technician wants to know the mechanics and process of the proposal. The executive will look at the proposal from a cost/benefit or value perspective.

The layperson will be interested in the big picture and will want information at a basic, rather than a technical, level. The combined or unknown audience can best be addressed by compartmentalizing the proposal. This way, information of interest to each person can be extracted without requiring complete review and understanding of the whole package.

Appearances are also important. One seldom finds jewelry in a rusted coffee can, though it can happen. One seldom expects, then, to find great ideas within sloppy presentations with coffee stains, misspelled words, or missing pages. Thus, an exquisitely produced, superbly printed, and graphically memorable proposal will set the stage for decision makers to approach the material with the right attitude.


Another key step is to establish credibility. Credibility is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder. It always pays to scope out the audience and play to their preferences as the proposal is designed. Sometimes a manager can gain more credibility by reminding the decision maker of certain key attributes—an MBA from Wharton or a consistently high job performance for five years, for example.

If the team that will execute the program has a track record, the manager should highlight it. For example, the manager can mention that the team’s last three proposals were implemented as promised and have generated the projected savings or have otherwise met objectives. Sometimes showing that a similar program has worked elsewhere in similar circumstances will establish that it might be worth trying.

Whatever process a manager chooses to use, the key point is to establish credibility for the presenter and the idea so that the decision makers will be receptive to the proposal.

The Decision

If a proposal is rejected, the manager should try to learn from the experience. It’s a good idea to ask for constructive feedback from executives or a trusted person who saw the presentation. The manager should also generally try to understand the management perspective that led to the rejection of the proposal.

Conversely, if the proposal is accepted, the manager must be sure to follow through. It is also a good idea to let decision makers know when the project achieves its objectives. That will help the manager to build long-term credibility and support for the next proposal down the line.

Robert H. Vaughn is president of Arvon Management Services, a human resource development firm located in Mentor, Ohio.

This article is excerpted from his book The Professional Trainer, published by Berrett-Kohler Publishers in San Francisco. To purchase the book, contact Berrett-Kohler at 800/929-2929