Most students, as they prepare to enter the professional world, will have to deliver a high-stakes presentation to their future employers, internship organizations, or special committees that provide opportunities for awards or scholarships. Some students may be asked to present their ideas to entrepreneurial companies that are seeking new ideas.
The problem, however, is that students are often not equipped to handle these tasks because traditional public speaking courses do not provide ample guidance for specialized high-stakes presentations. Instead, they offer basic advice regarding information or persuasive speeches for general settings and situations. Although this speech instruction can be helpful, faculty need to intervene and offer more detailed instructions for the high-stakes presentations that students will encounter in the workplace.
The LASER Blueprint Methodology
For high-stakes presentations, I recommend the LASER Blueprint methodology as a professional guide to help students master these presentations in real world settings. The methodology is adopted from my academic text, How to Leverage Your High-Stakes Presentation in the Age of Speed (Petrausch 2020). This article lays out a template for an instructor to follow when helping students navigate high-stakes presentations in professional settings.
The LASER Blueprint methodology provides a framework for high-stakes presentations that will help fast-track student presentations with new tools and approaches that make sense for the digital age. It can be used for person-to-person, online, or Zoom presentations.
Let’s review the methodology and the ways it provides guidance for students.
Every high-stakes presentation needs leverage as the driving force that will help with crucial influencers who can advance or stop important proposals from going ahead. To achieve leverage, the student needs a strong objective, a plan of action, and context research to move the persuasion process along.
Another way to foster leverage in a presentation is by communicating to the audience the presenter’s commitment to the project. It cannot be boring or bland. The presenters must show in vivid and robust language that they mean what they say. Ethos provides credibility and authenticity to a high-stakes presenter and is a way to set the tone for winning hearts and minds. Another technique for gaining leverage with a talk is to capture the key ideas and visuals in a storyboard, much like the way a scriptwriter and director of a movie shape their ideas before putting them on film or in digital format. The storyboard will also provide the strong visual impact that many audiences crave in the age of speed.
Adapting to the audience and gaining insight into their needs are two of the best ways students can garner support for their high-stakes presentation. They must find out what their audience cares about and, most important, what the hidden agenda is—the elephant in the room. What are their fears and recent setbacks that could be addressed in the presentation? What issues evoke strong emotions that could enhance or derail the talk?
A key element of adapting to the audience is to become their advocate (one who serves their interests and needs). Ideally, the audience should trust that the students will act on their behalf. Furthermore, students must provide the audience with reasons or powerful solutions to fortify their new connection. By having empathy for the audience and learning to walk in their shoes, students can, more than anything else, deliver a resonant message and adapt quickly to the audience’s needs. High-stakes audiences most likely will be interested in current events that affect them. As such, students should be up-to-date on what events are most relevant to the target audience. Finally, understanding the disposition of the group—whether they are analytic thinkers, relater-feelers, or leaders and managers—can help students shape and adapt the correct strategy for an audience.
Sharing ideas and achieving buy-in are crucial for high-stakes presentations. Students should establish strong connections with their audiences and move them closer to the consensus and commitment that will enable the acceptance of big ideas or proposals. Because people learn information in different ways, the sharing of information must appeal to the eyes for visual learners, resonate with the ears for an auditory audience, and provide hands-on activities for those with a kinesthetic mindset. Naturally, a high-stakes presentation that connects to all three learning styles will be more successful with influential decision-makers. To enhance the sharing of ideas with an audience, students should develop a relationship strategy for building trust, a tactical strategy for highlighting evidence that their proposals or ideas will work, and a communication strategy that will keep their presentations highly visible and interactive.
One of the most powerful ways to influence audiences with a high-stakes presentation is to educate them with powerful stories. Stories affect people in four ways. The first way is physical. Audiences tend to sit up and listen when a story is relative to their bottom lines. The second way is mental in that our brains respond to the speaker’s words to match the flow of information. The third way is emotional. Behavioral scientists note that the emotional brain is where trust, loyalty, and hope are activated and where unconscious emotional decisions are formed. The fourth way is through the human spirit. Stories affect us as individuals if they touch our hearts and even reach into our souls. It is important to remember that our society has always been story-ready, from our ancestors to the new digital generation. Business executives are beginning to realize that storytelling boosts the value of a high-stakes presentation, especially in important business settings.
High-stakes presenters make a significant impression on the audience when they reveal an innovative approach or powerful solution the audience is not expecting. That becomes a game changer. To become enthusiastic about ideas in the presentation, an organization needs the novelty offered by the presenter. The best way to arrive at novel solutions, approaches, and ideas is to tap into the creative mindset using brainstorming tools, drawing on the diversity of talent in the organization, role-playing, and asking the right questions at the right time in the right place and context.
To help students navigate high-stakes presentations, the faculty instructor can recommend eight steps to prepare:
Step 1. Find out the needs to be addressed, challenges to be met, or problems to be solved.
Step 2. Brainstorm ten to fifteen ideas that can be included in the presentation.
Step 3. Define audience needs and evaluate audience decision-makers.
Step 4. Select four or five theme buckets for the high-stakes presentation.
Step 5. Pick the stories, analogies, persuasive arguments, novel approaches, and buy-in strategies.
Step 6. Pick the technology, such as PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, or Google Slides, that best suits your high-stakes presentation.
Step 7. Complete a first draft with at least three main points, four to five theme buckets, and opening and closing arguments.
Step 8. Prepare for Q&A from audience participants.
In sum, by using the LASER Blueprint methodology in the classroom, faculty can help students become successful in professional settings that require high-stakes presentations.
Dr. Robert J. Petrausch is an associate professor in the department of media and strategic communication and head of the public relations concentration at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York. He holds a doctorate in education from the department of organization and leadership at Columbia University in New York. He has advanced degrees from Boston University (Communications); Fordham University (Political Science/Public Affairs) and New School for Social Research (Liberal Studies).
He is active in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and served as president of the Westchester-Fairfield Chapter of PRSA. He is a member of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and serves as Vice President of the United Nations Association (UNA) of CT. He also served on the national board of UNA representing New England. He participated UNA Leadership Summits in New York and Washington. DC.
Petrausch, Robert, J. 2020. Leveraging Your High-Stakes Presentation in the Age of Speed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishing.