The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Seriously sad, really. Our speaker had some excellent points to convey, but due to silly basic errors he killed his organization’s message. I believe there is no excuse for this anymore. Today we have access to so much information and insight, so many role models, so much video instruction, and so much training, you really have to wonder why some organizations do such a poor job.

The impressive thing was that our speaker was delivering the talk in English, which is not his native language. Actually, the level of English fluency was impressive. The speed was good, the pronunciation was fine, the speaking voice was clear. He came with a grand resume, part of the elite of the land—a well-educated, senior guy. This was game, set, and match … a triumph of positive messaging and salesmanship. It was a fizzer.

I approached him after it was all over. Being the eternal Aussie optimist from the land of vast horizons, blue skies, and wonderful sunshine, I thought our speaker would benefit from a bit of friendly, positive feedback on how he could help his organization do better. He wasn’t buying it and asked me for one example. Clearly, he believed his talk went down a treat with the crowd—a group, by the way, full of long-term Japanophiles and boosters for things Japanese. In audience terms, he was preaching to the choir; but his messaging went astray.

I asked for the first slide to be brought back up. It was a confusing coat of many, many colors, seriously dense with data, totally impervious to easy understanding. In other words, it was a florid mess. They were all like this. Data was simply killing the key messages. When I suggested that perhaps too much was being put on the screen at once, he said I was looking at the cleaned-up version. He had taken the organization’s standard slide deck and pared it back. “Pared it back?” I thought incredulously. Well, it was still ridiculous.

The other issue was the delivery. Our speaker chose to stand in front of the display and read to us what was on the screen. He had his back to us for most of the presentation. Fortunately, he was handsome, urbane, charming, international, and articulate. He had all the natural advantages needed to carry the room to his way of thinking. Unfortunately, he failed completely.

What could our erstwhile hero have done differently? Instead of the slide deck being the centerpiece of the presentation, his messages should have played that role. We should all carefully cull our ideas and distill the most powerful and important. We should present only one idea per slide, restrict the color palette to two colors for contrast, and try to keep it Zen-like. If our audience cannot grasp the key point of any slide in two seconds, then it needs more paring back.

Graphs are great visual prompts, and the temptation is to use them as unassailable evidence. This usually means trying to pack the graph with as much information as possible, showing long periods of comparison and multiple data points for edification. Instead, think of them like desktop wallpaper. They form a visual background. From one slide we should be able to go to another that shows a turning point in isolation. Or we can have a pop up with a key number. In this way, we can cut through all the clutter and draw out the critical proof we want our audience to accept. Trying to pack it all on one screen is a formula for persuasion suicide.

We need to learn some very basic logistics about presenting. Regardless of how the organizers have set up the space, move things around if possible to give yourself the best shot at presenting as a professional. Try to stand on the audience’s left, to the side of the screen. We read from left to right, so we want them to look at our face first and then read the screen. We want to face our audience. If anyone drops the lights so your screen is easier to see, stop everything and ask for the lights to be brought back up. We need the lights in order to see our audience’s faces. We can then gauge if they are with us or are resisting our messages. They can also see us, and we can use our gestures, facial expressions, and body language to back up our words.

In the case of this event, changing the slides and the delivery would have made the speaker’s messages clearer and more attractive. None of the things I have suggested are difficult. Why then are we still assailed with unprofessional presentations from smart people?

It is quite interesting that our clients come from just about every industry you can imagine, but we notice there are some common requests for improving team performance.

The four most popular areas are leadership, communications, sales, and presentations. Although we started in New York in 1912, in Japan we deliver 90% of our training in Japanese. Also, having launched here in Tokyo 53 years ago, we have been able to master how to bring global best practices, together with the required degree of localization, to Japan. You’re the boss. Are you fully satisfied with your current results? If not, and you would like to see higher skill and performance levels in your organization (through training delivered in Japanese or English), drop us a brief note at
We should all carefully cull our ideas and distill the most powerful and important.