MAKING A COMPELLING BUSINESS CASE
by Don Wagner1
September 5, 2005
Consider this list of business accomplishments:
(1) You introduce a major policy change at your company that improves operations,
or effectively addresses a major problem.
(2) You lead your firm in a key strategic decision.
(3) You win over an important client.
(4) You secure financing for an important project.
All of these accomplishments can significantly enhance your company’s success and
your own career, but they normally can only be achieved by making a persuasive case to
key decision-makers. To persuade those sophisticated decision-makers (who might be
senior managers, a board of directors, clients, or investors), you must ground your case
with sound analysis and well-reasoned recommendations. You must also be able to
communicate your points effectively by written report, by presentation, or by both. You
should therefore make the most of your opportunities here at the university to hone these
This document provides suggestions on how to write or present an effective business
case. It has three main sections – “Priorities”, “Process” and “Product”. The “Priorities”
section describes the mindset with which you should approach a case. The “Process”
section then lays out the steps of doing a case. The “Product” section describes what
should go into a written or verbal report, and how to structure it. There are then four
appendices – “Tips Specific to Written Reports,” “Doing Numerical Analysis with
Assumptions,” “Avoiding Plagiarism,” and “Tips Specific to Presentations.”
Success starts with the right attitude.
1) Aim high. Too often we see students who appear to be satisfied with “adequate”,
either because their main concern is merely to get through without embarrassing
themselves, or because they do not want to put in the effort required to excel.
“Adequate” may suffice in a non-competitive environment like high school, but you
are now making the transition to a highly competitive world, where success requires a
commitment to excellence.
2) Be clear.
a) Make clear and firm recommendations. Aim to make it impossible that the
audience could fail to know what your key recommendations are. To do this, you
need to actually have specific recommendations (don’t sit on the fence), and you
need to stress those recommendations. You should also stress the main reasons
for your recommendations. Your audience should know what you believe should
be done, and why.
I am grateful to Roberta MacDonald and Sean Hennessey for their helpful suggestions on this document.
b) Support your arguments thoroughly. No-one in your audience is going to change
their mind without hearing some compelling reasons to do so. Ask yourself what
persuaded you. If your opinion is justified, you should be able to articulate why
that opinion is justified. (The process of articulating your reasons often improves
your own thinking on an issue.) Also, bear in mind that audience members may
differ on which reasons they find compelling. As a result, you should try to
provide enough reasons that even the most skeptical audience members will be
3) Don’t be boring. You want to grab and hold the audience’s attention. You can’t be
persuasive if the audience doesn’t pay attention to what you say. You do not
necessarily have to be highly entertaining, but you do need to hold the audience’s
Step #1 – Read the case thoroughly
Start by reading the case – preferably at least twice – so that you are very familiar with
the facts of the case.
Step #2 – Identify the main issues
Cases vary on how obvious the main issues are. Some cases tell you the issue(s) quite
specifically (usually in the first paragraph of the case or in the last section of the case).
Sometimes the case itself might not specifically state the main issues, but the professor
might give you questions to answer. Those questions may identify the issues or at least
provide strong hints. And sometimes students are left to figure out the main issues on
Look for additional issues besides the most obvious ones. Below are some themes to
consider when trying to identify other issues:
(a) The long-term strategy of the firm. What gives the firm its competitive
advantage? Alternatively, what sort of competitive advantage should the firm
pursue? What should the firm do to strengthen its competitive advantage or to
(b) Short-term or medium-term tactics of the firm. What actions could the firm
undertake to improve its performance in a particular functional area?
(c) Potential improvements on current methods. How might the firm improve its
methods of decision-making, its policies, its financial position, its marketing
practices or its organizational structure?
(d) Foresight. Do you foresee any problems that the firm could encounter in the
In the cases where you are told which issue to address (e.g. where you assume the role of
a consultant hired to address a specific issue), consider briefly identifying other issues
beyond your mandate. By addressing some of these additional issues you can
demonstrate business leadership. Whatever you do, however, do not shortchange your
analysis on the key issues you are asked to address.
Step #3 – Analyze the issues and develop recommendations
Once you have identified the issues, you should analyze them and develop
To structure your analysis, consider what analytical tools might be useful for your
analysis – particularly the tools taught in the course you are taking. Examples of
analytical tools include:
(a) SWOT. In a SWOT analysis, you identify and evaluate the firm’s Strengths,
Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats with respect to the issue at hand.
(b) Four Ps of marketing. If the case analysis involves a marketing plan, address all
4 Ps of marketing (product, price, promotion and place).
(c) Porter’s five forces. In a strategy case involving an industry analysis, use one of
the models (such as Porter’s Five Forces) to help structure your analysis.
Over the course of your degree, you will learn about many analytical tools. The tools
help structure your thinking, and reduce the likelihood that you overlook key elements in
Do not shy away from numerical analysis, even if it is not your forte. Many cases
provide numerical data, and you usually have to use some of that data to conduct an
effective analysis. Just as in real life, the data provided in the cases are excessive and
incomplete at the same time. The data are excessive in the sense that only some of the
data will be useful to your analysis, forcing you to discern which data to use. But the
data are also incomplete in the sense that the case will not provide some information that
you might wish you had. The absence of certain information forces you to make
assumptions. See Appendix B for an example of how to use the case’s information along
with reasonable assumptions.
To demonstrate strategic business insight, one of the best things you can do is to identify
the company’s key competitive advantage(s). That is, how can the company create value
in a way that no-one else can. (In some cases, a company might not yet have a
competitive advantage; in this case you need to identify the competitive advantage that
the company should work towards.) There are several advantages to clearly describing
the firm’s competitive advantage:
(a) Your main recommendations should be consistent with the firm’s competitive
(b) You can sell your recommendations most effectively if you can strongly connect
them to the firm’s competitive advantage.
Step #4 – Draft your report (and/or prepare your presentation)
The next step is to draft your report. The “Product” section below provides advice on
how to organize your report.
If your analysis is thorough, you may have more material than fits within the report’s
page limit or the presentation’s time limit. If this happens, you will need to shorten the
report by making it as concise as possible and prioritizing the issues (you might have to
leave some of your analysis out of your report).
Step #5 – Fine tune your report
If you are doing a written report, edit it numerous times to ensure that it is well written.
Clean out all grammatical mistakes, make sure it is very clear, and make sure the logic is
convincing. (See Appendix A for some pointers.)
Similarly, if you are delivering a presentation, ensure that you are prepared to give a very
clear and convincing message. Ensure that any visual aids (such as Powerpoint slides)
are clear and free of grammatical mistakes. Work at making the presentation appear as
professional as possible. (See Appendix D for some pointers.)
This section discusses the organization and content of the product, whether it be a written
report or a presentation.
Start with a short, creative “hook” to capture the attention of your audience.
How you hook your audience is up to your imagination, but if you have trouble thinking
of a good hook, consider one of the following types of hooks:
1) Boldly “cut to the chase”: This type of hook immediately identifies the key issue in a
provocative way. If you use this kind of hook, you normally want the very first
sentence to be short and bold.
Brand control is the key to your future success. Until now you have done a
terrific job of brand-building in India, but for a brand that belongs to someone
else – Gore-Tex. You have profited well from that brand, but given Gore-Tex’s
policy of licensing its brand on a non-exclusive basis, and the fact that there are
now 32 licensees in India, your ability to profit from these efforts is eroding
2) Imagery/metaphor: In some instances you may be able to get the audience to look at
the issue in an interesting way through a metaphor or imagery. The metaphor need
not be long or explained in detail. Often, it only takes a couple of words to capture
In 14 years, Pro-Squared has grown at an extraordinary rate. And just as a
sprouting 14 year old teenager experiences growing pains, Pro-Squared has been
feeling some strains as it has become a large company. The size and the
continued growth bring a number of challenges to human resource management.
3) Intriguing Questions: This approach is somewhat like the “cut to the chase”
approach, in that you identify the key issue up front. But instead of immediately
pronouncing the solution, you highlight the essence of the dilemma in an interesting
Zigavo is at a crossroads in its product strategy. The next move will set the
direction of the company’s long-run strategy. Should the company preserve its
focus on the highly-profitable “Dino” brand? Or should Zigavo “bet the
company” by pouring resources into the XL2 project? Or should it use its
nanotechnology capabilities to launch into the massive plastics market?
These are not the only types of hooks. For example, the hook in the document that you
are now reading does not fit into any of the three categories above. This document’s
hook tries to sell the reader on the importance of making a compelling case.
The hook does not have to knock anyone’s socks off, but it does need to capture the
If you haven’t already done so in the hook, your introduction should next very briefly
state your central recommendation(s), so that the audience knows where you are going.
In written format, this section should usually be one paragraph long. In a verbal
presentation devote a corresponding amount of time to this section.
After stating you main point(s), outline the structure of your case. The audience will find
it much easier to follow your reasoning if it has a mental picture of the structure of your
paper or presentation.
Structure of the body
There is no single structure that should be used for all cases. You need to decide on a
structure that suits the particular case. The following are some of the more common
structures people can use:
1) Identify-Analyze-Recommend: When the case has one main issue, the most standard
structure is as follows:
a) identify the key issue
b) perform your analysis
i) analyze the current situation and its the causes
ii) present the analysis you completed to support your recommendation
iii) review potential courses of action (if applicable)
c) make recommendations (including implementation plans)
2) Logical Progression of Assigned Questions: Some (but not all) cases provide explicit
questions. In those cases, the questions may follow a logical progression that allows
you to structure the case around the series of questions. Be sure, however, to
construct your case as a cohesive whole, not as a disjointed set of answers to a series
of separate questions.
3) Model-Based Structure: In many instances, you can organize your body around a
model. For example, if you are using a SWOT analysis to structure your report, your
first section would analyze the strengths of the organization, the second section would
analyze the weaknesses, etc.
4) Main Issue Followed by Secondary Issues: For a case that has one dominant issue
plus several lesser issues, a natural structure might be to thoroughly address the main
issue, and then briefly address the secondary issues.
5) Multiple Issues Addressed Separately: For a case with several important issues, you
could address each issue one-by-one in some logical order (e.g. most important to
least important, or most urgent to least urgent). If there are more than three issues, try
to group those issues into themes of issues. This will help the audience to
conceptually organize the issues rather than having a laundry list of issues.
6) Integrated Analysis of Multiple Issues: If the issues and recommendations are
interrelated, you might combine all the analysis in one section and then all the
recommendations in another section.
Suggestions on Specific Elements of the Body
• When reviewing alternatives: When presenting alternative courses of action, note
both the advantages and disadvantages of each option. Besides identifying the
advantages and disadvantages explicitly mentioned in the case, try to come up with
some that are not explicitly stated. When reviewing the alternative that you
ultimately recommend, do not avoid the weaknesses of that course of action.
Virtually any recommended action will have some weaknesses. If you ignore them in
your report or presentation, the audience will think that you ignored them in your
• When making recommendations: Sell the recommendation; ideally you want to
persuade the audience that your recommended action is the only sensible way to go.
• When suggesting an implementation plan: You may need to prescribe an
implementation plan if your recommendation involves a series of implementation
steps, or you foresee a number of issues that may come up upon implementation. If
you provide an implementation plan, it is often helpful to organize them along a time
line (e.g in the first 3 months, then 3-12 months, then the long-run).
• References to the Facts Given in the Case: For most cases, you should assume that
your audience knows the background information provided in the case. Therefore,
avoid restating facts of the case as though you are presenting new information to the
audience. Remember, a case analysis is your analysis of the case, not a summary of
what you just read in the case.2 Nevertheless, you do need to refer to the facts of the
case. Do so by weaving those facts in as support for your argument, or as a
background necessary to ensure that the audience knows what you are talking about.
When students get significantly lower marks on their cases than they think they deserve, it is usually
because they wasted too many pages summarizing what they read, rather than offering a real analysis of
• Diplomacy: Many cases require you to role-play as a consultant to the company. As
a consultant, you do not want to offend your client unnecessarily. This can get tricky
when addressing the company’s problems, since the problems may be directly or
indirectly attributable to management failures. Now you should certainly not wimp
out by avoiding uncomfortable issues. If something needs to be said, say it; but be
careful how you say it. This point is not just a matter of political correctness, but is
important to your effectiveness as a communicator and a businessperson. Careful
wording can steer the audience’s attention towards solving the problem, rather than
raising defensive barriers. Most cases require that you address company weaknesses,
so you need to select wording that minimizes offense to the client without
sidestepping the issue. Below are some possible wordings that may work in some
o [describe the weakness]….. is working at cross-purposes with [the
company’s strength] .
o Due to [describe the problem] , the company is not fully reaping the
benefits of [the company’s strength(s)] .
o “growing pains” when the problems are a result of fast growth.
o describe the problem as a “challenge” (don’t use this one too often though;
everyone recognizes that “challenge” is often used in place of “problem”)
o describe the problem as an issue that many/most companies grapple with
The conclusion is your best opportunity to stress your key points. Most people’s
conclusions merely summarize their key findings and recommendations. If that is all you
do, you squander a prime opportunity to influence the audience’s thinking. People tend
to recall best the first thing you say and the last thing you say, so make your conclusion
count by driving home your key points.
If possible, close the report/presentation with a tie-in to your hook. The tie-in to the hook
signals to the listeners/readers that you are closing your presentation up and helps create
the impression that the report is a complete package.
Finish with a positive statement – especially if you are playing the role of a consultant
reporting to your client!
DEVELOP THESE SKILLS NOW!
Making a compelling case is hard, because it requires multiple skills, each of which are
hard to master. You need strong analytical skills, persuasive selling skills and effective
communication skills. It is extremely worthwhile to start getting good at these skills
now, because your biggest business accomplishments in the future are to a large degree
riding on those skills!
APPENDIX A - TIPS SPECIFIC TO WRITTEN REPORTS
Most students underestimate the importance of effective writing, and treat writing as only
a minor part of a case project. In reality, you should devote a significant amount of time
to your writing. This reality corresponds to the business world. In fact, written cases in
the business program simulate precisely those real-world situations in which effective
writing is most important – when you want to persuade sophisticated individuals to
follow your recommendations. Effective writing (1) conveys professional credibility, (2)
keeps the reader interested, (3) improves the reader’s comprehension, and (4) makes you
more persuasive. The greatest idea, poorly presented, will not receive the credit it
Few writers can get their documents right in the first draft. Most of us need to edit our
documents numerous times. When editing, focus not only on cleaning out grammar
mistakes (a list of eight common writing mistakes follows below), but also on making
your document clear and persuasive.
Eight Common Writing Mistakes
1) Apostrophe Problems:
a) Many students confuse “its” and “it’s”. “Its” is a possessive pronoun, and “it’s” is
a contraction of “it is”. A useful way to remember the correct spelling is to
realize that possessive pronouns (e.g. his, her and its) never have apostrophes.
b) Some students are sloppy with apostrophes in other words too. Do not confuse
the singular possessive with the plural possessive.
c) Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize acronyms or numbers. For example, the
plural of UFO is “UFOs”, not “UFO’s”. The nineties are “the 90s”, not “the
2) Problematic Homophones: Homophones that people frequently mix up include
effect/affect, then/than, except/accept, their/there/they’re and led/lead. Be alert when
using these words.
3) Inconsistent Tenses: When writing a case, you normally have a choice between
writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense. Either is fine, but you have
to be consistent. Do not arbitrarily switch the tense; only switch the tense where the
context requires it.
4) Non-Parallel Lists: Make your lists grammatically parallel. Each item in the list
must play the same grammatical role in the sentence. For example, consider the
following flawed sentence: “Carolyn should tell Barry that his action was unethical,
has embarrassed the company, and that she must dismiss him immediately.” The list
includes a clause (ending with a phrase), a phrase, and a clause. One can correct the
sentence by transforming the list into a series of clauses (“Carolyn should tell Barry
that his action was unethical, that his action has embarrassed the company, and that
she must dismiss him immediately.”) or a series of phrases (“Carolyn should tell
Barry that his action was unethical, has embarrassed the company, and has led to his
5) Inconsistent Use of Singular and Plural: Each pronoun has to be consistent with its
antecedent.3 This can get troublesome when the antecedent is a collective noun, such
as “company” and “management” – words that are frequently used in business cases.
Collective nouns are singular, so the pronouns that refer to these nouns should be
singular. For example, the sentence “Nike markets shoes, but they subcontract out
their manufacturing work” is incorrect. It should be “Nike markets shoes, but it
subcontracts out its manufacturing work.” An exception to this rule occurs if the
action is done individually rather than collectively. For example, “Management is
divided in their opinions” is correct.
6) Dangling “this”: Avoid using “this” as a subject or object, unless it is absolutely
clear what your “this” refers to. Rather, use “this” as a modifier to a noun that
identifies what you are talking about. The problem and solution can be illustrated
with the following passage. “As Enron’s auditor, Andersen failed to stop Enron from
its questionable accounting practices, and then shredded incriminating documents
when the SEC investigations began. This led to Andersen’s downfall.” The
underlined “this” needs clarification. Depending on the intended meaning, the second
sentence should either be “This set of actions led to Andersen’s downfall” or “This
paper shredding incident led to Andersen’s downfall.”
7) Wordiness: Wordiness can sap the force out of your writing.
a) Avoid unnecessary words and phrases. For example, consider the following
sentence. “In fact, some customers avoid shopping online because of the fact that
they prefer to see the merchandise before they actually purchase it.” The
underlined words and phrases are wordy and can be dropped or shortened, as
follows: “Some customers avoid shopping online because they prefer to see the
merchandise before they purchase it.” You can find lists of wordy phrases and
words by running a Google search on the word “wordiness”.
b) Convoluted sentences often contain “to be” verbs (i.e. is, was, are, were, am).
Whenever you see a sentence with one of these words, try to rearrange the
sentence to eliminate the word. Usually the revision makes the sentence clearer
and more concise. This technique helps you reduce your reliance on passive
sentences and other convoluted phrasings. For example, consider the following
sentence: “What results in Dell being so successful in the computer industry as
compared to its rivals is that Dell organizes all its activities to be consistent with
the ‘direct’ business model.” The “to be” verbs signal that the sentence may be
unduly wordy. Rearranging the sentence produces the following: “Dell
outperforms its rivals because all its activities revolve around the ‘direct’ business
8) Wrong word: When discussing technical matters, you need to exercise great care
with your terminology. For an extreme example, a tax consultant cannot use the
words “person” and “individual” interchangeably, because the words have different
technical meanings in tax law. Similarly, in certain contexts “company” might not be
interchangeable with “corporation”, and “willingness-to-pay” might not be
interchangeable with “willingness to buy”. Make sure your wording is technically
The antecedent is the “earlier word, phrase, or clause to which a following pronoun refers back.” (The
Concise Oxford Dictionary, 10th ed.)
APPENDIX B – DOING NUMERICAL ANALYSIS WITH ASSUMPTIONS
The following example illustrates how you might use the facts from a case along with
some assumptions to do a numerical analysis. Suppose you need to project next year’s
sales for a store that sells sporting goods and apparel, and the case provides the following
• Last year’s sales were $1,837,000.
• Next year the store’s floor space will be expanded by 20%.
• A new Starbucks Coffee outlet is opening next door, which is expected to increase
traffic into the store.
A reasonable sales projection might be computed as follows: “Last year’s sales of
$1,837,000 + 5% assumed normal annual growth + 20% increase due to additional 20%
floor space + 3% assumed sales increase due to new Starbucks” to get $2,384,000.
Note that the 5% normal growth rate and the 3% growth attributable to the Starbucks
were pulled “out of the air”. Someone else could just as reasonably have picked 8% and
15%. Just pick numbers that seem reasonable to you. Note also that a student could
plausibly pick a number larger or smaller than 20% for the sales increase attributable to
the additional floor space, if the student thinks that sales per square foot will increase or
decrease as the store gets bigger. Just try to be reasonable.
Be sure to clearly and concisely explain your computations. The wording from my
illustration above provides an example of how to do that. (Note that assumed numbers
are clearly identified as such.) The computation should usually be in a footnote or
appendix, so that it does not bog down the flow of the report.
APPENDIX C – AVOIDING PLAGIARISM
Plagiarism is a serious violation of the university’s standards on academic honesty.
Students caught cheating sometimes profess that they did not realize that they had
cheated. I therefore provide some comments below to help clarify the distinctions
between cheating and not cheating, particularly as they pertain to case reports.
Nevertheless, the distinction between cheating and not cheating is really quite straight
forward. A common sense definition of cheating is as follows: using someone else’s
work and claiming it as your own. Note that when you put your name down as the author
of the report, you are claiming that the contents of the report are your own work, except
where you explicitly state otherwise (e.g. with a footnote referencing a source).
Discussing the case with other students: Certain types of interaction between students
are legitimate – and even desirable. There are two reasons for this: (1) real, healthy
learning can take place when students grapple with issues together; and (2) in the
business world it is normal and desirable to consult others in order to do the best job
possible. On the other hand, here at the university we also care about fair grading. It is
important that the case write-up allow the marker to make a fair assessment of your
abilities and mastery of the course concepts. Any interaction you have with other
students should be consistent with these principles. Learning as a group is appropriate,
but it is not appropriate to submit an analysis that is essentially (in whole or in part)
someone else’s solution. Examples of inappropriate interaction include:
(1) reading all or part of another student’s case write-up (whether it be draft or final);
(2) one student simply telling another student how to address an issue; and
(3) discussing the case with someone while you are drafting your report (other than
for clarification of minor points).
Examples of legitimate interaction include:
(1) discussing issues at a conceptual level when each participant is just beginning to
think about the case’s issues; and
(2) clarifying minor points.
Editing: You may get someone who has not taken the course to review your case write-
ups to help you improve your clarity and your writing.
Referencing the facts of the case: You do not need to provide a reference every time you
use a fact from the case, since your case analysis is obviously based on that case.
Providing references for each fact in the case would get needlessly cumbersome.
However, you can help the reader by providing a page number or exhibit number when
you refer to data from the case.
Letting other students use your work: If you knowingly let other students use your work
dishonestly, then you are participating in their academic dishonesty.
APPENDIX D – TIPS SPECIFIC TO PRESENTATIONS
Making effective presentations is hard and takes practice.
I provide numerous suggestions below. There are many ideas, and it is very difficult to
follow them all under the stress of doing a presentation. If they seem too overwhelming
to you, focus on the first tip – engaging the audience. You can work on the other tips as
you get more experience at presenting. If you can engage the audience, you have already
1) Focus on ensuring that your audience is engaged. Do not be self-conscious. Rather
than worrying about how you are coming across, focus on how the audience is
responding to the message. Read the audience. If the audience looks bored, do
something to break the monotony. Even little things can make a difference, such as
moving around a bit, or modulating your voice. If people look like they did not
understand a particular point, go over that point again.4 Whatever you do, do not
The best speakers are very effective at reading their audience. They plan what they will say, but are open
to changing it on the fly if they sense from the audience that something else will work better. For example,
read your presentation! Do not read word-for-word from a paper, cue-cards, or
Powerpoint slides. Read presentations are almost always boring, because they fail to
engage the audience.5 Look at your audience!
2) Use your own communication style. Each person has his/her own style of
communication. Some people burst with enthusiasm, while others have a more
reflective style. Some people have a formal style, while others use a conversational
style. Use a style that suits you, because attempts to use a different style will seem
unnatural and false. For example, genuine enthusiasm is good, but faked enthusiasm
just looks fake. Similarly, effective use of humour is great, but forced humour is
irritating. It may very well be worth tweaking your delivery in some respects, but do
not pretend to be someone you are not. You can be most persuasive using your own
3) Maintain eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most important ways in which you
can engage your audience. Try to make everyone in your audience feel included; if
you look only at the right side of the room and not the left, the left side will feel
excluded. A simple trick to avoid this problem is to make sure you occasionally look
at the right-most person and the left-most person. Doing that makes all in the
audience feel like they are in your field of vision. Eye contact is especially important
at the very beginning and the very end of the presentation.
4) Maintain a professional posture and appearance. Your physical posture and
appearance affect how the audience responds to you. Look confident. (It is difficult
to persuade someone to have confidence in your recommendations if you yourself
appear unconfident.) Stand up straight. Avoid slouching or leaning against the back
wall. Do not wear a ball cap or stocking cap. You do not have to wear a suit (unless
your instructor suggests you should), but you should try to present a professional
5) Speak confidently. Many people (particularly Canadians) have a habit of raising the
pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence, as if the sentence were a question. When
you do this, it sounds like you are looking for approval. The audience feels like the
statement is made with an implied question of “is what I am saying OK?” If you
have a habit of doing this, work on making your statements sound confident.
6) Mind the 10-minute rule. Only the most gifted speakers can hold an audience’s
attention while talking for more than about 10 minutes straight.6 The rest of us need
to vary what is going on in one way or another.
7) If you use visual aids, use them wisely. Many people use PowerPoint slides very
poorly. In the worst presentations, the audience has a hard time staying awake,
when Martin Luther King gave his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the beginning of
the speech strictly followed what he had planned. However, based on his sense of the audience (of 250,000
people!) about half way through his speech he departed from his planned speech and started improvising.
The unplanned part of his speech is the most famous part, where he proclaimed, “I have a dream”.
Apparently, he had said similar things a week earlier, so he was saying things that he had thought about and
expressed before, but the point is that he sensed the mood of the audience and had the courage to change
his speech when he felt that doing so would be more effective.
Watch your professors. The best presenters engage their audience very effectively, and the worst
presenters do not. Imagine what a class would be like if a professor read his/her lecture to you!
Some people contend that in today’s sound-bite culture, attention spans have dwindled to five minutes, or
because the lights are turned low while the presenter drones on, just reading what
his/her PowerPoint slide says. As a consequence, some critics claim that PowerPoint
is just a crutch. Some companies have actually banned PowerPoint. Those responses
are surely over-reactions, since visual aids can be very effective, if used properly.
The following are some pointers:
a) Keep the room brightly lit. You will need to have the lights over the screen off,
but keep the other lights in the room on. To optimize visibility, keep your slide
backgrounds white (or a very light colour), and your print black (or a very dark
b) Use font-sizes that are large enough. I find that font sizes smaller than 20 are
problematic. 24 or higher is better yet.
c) Keep your slides concise.
d) Do not get carried away with the bells and whistles of the software. Some
presenters, for example, use the “entrance” feature for every bullet point, but this
slide animation only distracts the audience. It is better to just put up the whole
slide so that the audience is free to see it. Only use these additional features when
there is a purpose to it, such as not wanting to reveal a particular point too early,
or perhaps to interject a humorous effect.
8) Do not overwhelm the audience with numbers. Numerical analysis and numerical
data are difficult to absorb when heard orally. When presenting numerical data, just
highlight the most important ones.
9) International students with strong accents. If you have a strong accent that some
people have difficulty understanding, consider using more detailed visual aids (e.g. a
more detailed powerpoint outline) than others would, to help the audience follow
what you are saying. You should still, however, regard your oral delivery of the
presentation as the primary means of communication. You can use the additional
visual detail to facilitate the audience’s understanding of the content of your
presentation, but the persuasiveness is going come entirely from you, not the visual
10) Finish effectively. Sometimes students finish presentations by saying “that’s it”. If
you have to say that, then you probably have not delivered an effective conclusion. If
you really need to signal that the presentation is done, say “thank you” rather than
11) Be diplomatic when fielding questions. Below are some tips on how to handle
difficult situations when fielding questions. A number of these tips have suggested
wordings, but you should adopt your own wording – because each person has his/her
own style of communicating.
• When you don’t understand someone’s question: If you can, avoid asking the
person to repeat or rephrase the question. Rather, come up with your best theory
on what the question is (or should be), and say something like “Let me make sure
that I understand your question correctly. Are you asking ______?” If the
question was vague, very often the questioner himself/herself didn’t have a clear
idea of what his/her question was – so you can bail the questioner out by turning it
into a clear question. If the questioner did have a clear idea, that person will be
able to use your guess at the meaning to figure out where the ambiguity lies– and
thus can clarify the question.
• When the questioner asks something that you already answered: As a general
principle, make the questioner feel like they asked a good question. Don’t point
out that you already answered it. Don’t even say “as I said in the presentation”.
If you can, answer the question with different wording from how you said it
• When the questioner asks something that you can’t answer because insufficient
information was given in the case: Do not mention “the case”. In a presentation
you are usually role-playing as though you are a consultant and the audience is a
group of company executives. In that scenario, there is no “case”. If in the real
world the missing information would be known, make a reasonable assumption
and say something like “assuming that _______, ______”. If in the real world the
information might require some research, say something like “That’s an intriguing
question. To answer that properly, we would need to know _______ and I think it
would be worth exploring.” If there are only a couple of possible outcomes of
that research – you could indicate your answer for each possible scenario.
• When you don’t know the answer to the question: Students probably fear this
scenario the most, but in business cases it happens much more rarely than you
might think. Almost all of the questions you will face ask for your professional
opinion, rather than for hard facts. Instead of getting questions like “what is the
formula for calculating the net present value of an annuity?” you will normally
get questions like “what do you think the company should do about the _____
issue?” Since you have read and carefully analyzed the case, you normally have
enough background knowledge to offer a response, even if you hadn’t specifically
thought about the exact issue addressed in the question. In the unlikely event that
you get a factual question that you can’t answer, you might be able to answer
some aspects of the question on the spot, and then promise to provide a more
complete answer at a later date.
• When a team-mate answers a question and you strongly disagree with his/her
response: If the disagreement had been discussed in your preparations, and the
group had decided on a solution that you don’t agree with, then you should keep
quiet. However, it might be appropriate to speak up if the disagreement involves
an issue that had not been discussed. In some instances you can phrase your
answer as “another alternative”. But in some instances, you won’t be able to say
something without it becoming obvious that you think your team-mate is wrong.
You can disagree with your team-mate in front of the audience, but it needs to be
done in such a way that the audience sees that you are professionals who are
comfortable with debating alternatives. A possible phrasing might be: “If I may
interject, I actually disagree with my colleague on that point. ____”. It is also
important that the team-mate who was contradicted give some queue that he/she is
OK with the disagreement. You don’t want the audience to feel like you are
fighting. You want them to feel like you are professionals.
• When someone asks “did you consider [such and such]?” and you had not: The
underlying question is not “whether you considered it”. Rather, the questioner
wants to know what you think about the particular issue or idea. I therefore
suggest that you simply address the issue or idea, without saying whether you had
previously considered it.
• When someone challenges your recommendation: Hold your ground. Cite the
advantages of your recommendation and claim that you are convinced that those
advantages outweigh the advantages of the challenger’s favoured position “as
important as those are”. The only time you should ever back down is if your
position has clearly become untenable, in which case it would be farcical to stick
to your position.7 In all other cases, hold your ground. For example, someone
might discount some of your arguments or introduce new arguments against your
position, but as long as you had other arguments that still hold, you can still
reasonably stand by your recommendations.
• When a questioner is confrontational: If this happens, think of it as an
opportunity to demonstrate professionalism.8 Portray confidence – whether you
feel it or not. (A little trick – take a step forward towards that person. It helps to
make you feel bold. And to the audience, it suggests that you are not backing
down, but are very willing to engage in discussion with that person.) Of course,
do not get confrontational yourself; be professional and earnest. If the person
persists in being confrontational, it may be best to just let the person say their
piece, perhaps acknowledge it as a well-articulated alternative viewpoint, and
An example would be where your recommendations are based on a numerical analysis, and it has been
shown that your calculations are undeniably wrong and that correcting the miscalculation would lead to a
different conclusion. In such a situation you show more professionalism by recognizing the mistake than
by obtusely sticking with an illogical position.
In the business world (or in a business case competition) the confrontational person could become one of
your biggest supporters after you leave the room, if you handled the situation well.