Career Advice

Advice to Graduates: Develop Your Presentation Skills

19 Jun 2018  

It is graduation week here at Northwestern. On Friday, several hundred Kellogg MBA students will walk across the stage and receive their degrees. There will be speeches and hugs and celebrations— it’s a fun time of the year.

Soon enough, the graduates will get to work. Some will start in a week or two, while others will travel the globe for several months. By September, most graduates will be building their career and personal brand.

Last year, I provided some financial advice to graduates. I’m not a finance professor, of course, but I’ve developed some strong opinions about matters financial. You can read that advice here.

This year my advice is a bit different. If you are a new graduate, I would like to suggest that you make it a priority to become a good presenter.

My logic is simple: if you can create and deliver strong presentations, you will have an impact on the business and build your personal brand.


To have an impact, you have to sell your ideas and get people on board. You can’t launch a new product if senior management isn’t supportive. You also need the finance group, the market research team and the sales team to sign on. Likewise, you can’t reorganize the sales incentive plan without cross-functional support.

In virtually every organization, people make decisions at meetings. Texts are not a great vehicle for decision-making; you can only write a few words. Emails are fine for communicating information, but they rarely lead to decisions. It all comes down to a meeting. A group gathers to review a recommendation. This is a presentation.

If you present well, your ideas will take hold. If you lay out things clearly, people will support you. If you don’t present well, your ideas may fall flat. People will struggle to follow the recommendation and will be reluctant to commit.


Your presentations will define your brand. If you present well, people will think you are smart and gifted. If you present poorly, they will form a very different opinion.

Remember that in many organizations, you will really only see senior management when you are presenting. It is your moment to shine. Riding the elevator with a senior executive won’t do much for your brand one way or the other. Sitting in a meeting won’t do much either. When you present, however, you have an opportunity to make a lasting impression.

As Winston Churchill wrote, “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.”

Three Ideas

Here are three ways to present well.

First, seek out opportunities. If you present frequently, you will become more comfortable. You will gain experience.

Second, pay attention. When you are in a meeting, look at how the person is presenting. What are they doing? Is it effective? One of the best ways to get off to a good start is to simply copy gifted presenters at your company.

Third, track down my new book (this is the promotional part of the post!). In September, I’ll be releasing a new book on developing a powerful business presentation. It is a practical, fun book full of solid advice. A lot of it is common sense, but I’ve found that when it comes to presenting, common sense isn’t so common. I’ll be announcing more about the book later in the summer. Follow me on my blog ( Linked In or Twitter (@timothycalkins) to get all the updates.

If you develop your presentation skills, you can capitalize on all the analytical techniques you’ve learned, have a notable business impact and build a successful career.

Good luck and keep in touch.


3 Responses

  1. Eddie Shin says:

    Prof Calkins – I think you are really onto something around the skill of presenting and am looking fwd to your book as many companies have a current death-by-powerpoint work style/culture and individuals who can master effective presenting can really stand out. One book on this exact topic and I haven’t yet finished but is really fascinating thus far is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. He even gets into the design elements of slides which because we absorb first through visual sense is insightful to me.

  2. Rod Taylor says:

    Here is some more unsolicited advice for graduates:

    -Be enthusiastic!-There’s an old saying in coaching: “you can’t teach quick.” To that I would add the corollary of “you can’t teach enthusiasm.” People want to work with folks who act like they love their jobs and clients. I once offered a paid internship to a wait staffer at my favorite pizza parlor-because she was the best waitress I’d ever had. She couldn’t get a job in marketing. We trained her about our business and it almost goes without saying, she was a terrific hire.

    -Learn your craft-Go to conventions, read all the trades, submit articles, volunteer to present at seminars. I had a column for four years in the largest publication in my discipline that analyzed great marketing campaigns from the past. Nobody in my agency bothered to read it. Creativity is applied memory. How do you create the future if you don’t understand the past? I sold the same promotion campaign to two different Fortune 500 companies. It was a direct lift of an ad campaign I taped to my bedroom wall in 1960-when I was ten years old.

    -Make things work-Everybody wants to be the ‘Big Idea’ person in a company, but most of your co-workers will be quick to tell you why your idea won’t work. Be the person who figures out how to make it work. Don’t turn down the doughnut because it has a hole in it. Figure out how to sell doughnut holes. Virtually every major campaign I created came out of an idea that most of my peers (and managers) said wouldn’t work. Einstein’s definition of insanity is ‘doing what you’ve always done and expecting different results.’

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