If you think botching a speech or presentation is bad, imagine how painful it is for the poor souls who have to sit through it. Easy fix: Incorporate a few of the following tips into your next presentation. Your chances of success will increase exponentially and your audience will love you – or at least not hate you like they do other speakers who sabotage themselves by doing the opposite.
Less Is More
Unless you’re negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, try to keep it to 3 or 4 main points. Any more than that is like trying to boil the ocean. Besides, all speeches/presentations share at least one goal – we want to leave the audience wanting more. We can’t do that if we jam everything we know into the presentation.
If we make our presentations/speeches too brief we may leave the audience unfulfilled. Go too long and we run the risk of appearing unfocused or self-indulgent. Just deliver the goods and be done.
Death by PowerPoint
PowerPoint is neither good nor bad – it’s just a piece of technology. Whether it’s righteous or loathsome depends on how it’s used. Is PowerPoint always appropriate? That’s entirely up to you. However, as a general rule, the more solemn the occasion – the less appropriate it is. Can you imagine someone giving a eulogy with a projector, screen, and a remote in hand? Me neither.
If you’ve already reached Jedi proficiency with PowerPoint – feel free to skim ahead. Everyone else, please stick with me for a few important tips:
- PowerPoint is a visual aid. The speaker is not there to support the PowerPoint. The PowerPoint is there to support the speaker. You are the star. Keep the attention where it belongs – on you.
- Do not give the audience printouts of your slide presentation (or at least wait until the very end). Speakers who give out the entire presentation in advance all but guarantee the audience’s focus will be on the printout. How many slides does this guy have? How many are left? Etc. Etc.
- Minimize text on slides. If not, the audience will instinctively read the slides when they should be listening to you. Instead, use images, very little text, and keep the attention where it belongs – on you. If you put too much text on your slides you’ll run the risk of committing the ultimate sin of pubic speaking…turning your back on the audience and reading to them.
- Do not read to the audience! A speaker would be better off slappin’ me across the face than expecting me to sit and listen to them read slides. It’s insulting and lazy. Why not just send an email or memo? Don’t talk to the screen – connect with the audience.
Connect With The Audience
Giving a presentation/speech is more than the transfer of information. It’s about transferring emotions and connecting with people in a meaningful way. We can establish that connection with the audience through eye contact and by asking smart questions.
People are programmed by evolution to focus on faces. As a consequence, we all have an
innate ability to read expressions. Looking people in the eyes as we speak is a way of broadcasting sincerity and our desire to connect. It also serves as an immediate feedback mechanism. Are they paying attention? Do they seem into it? Do they smile or laugh when we want them to? It’s tough to answer these questions if we’re focused on our notes or, God forbid, our PowerPoint. Look them in the eyes and calibrate accordingly.
(Bonus tip: If you’re trying to convince or influence an individual, don’t look directly into their eyes. Instead, stare into only their left eye as you speak. I read about it years ago and it works. No idea why.)
We can also use rhetorical questions to connect with the audience and strategically prime their thoughts in the direction we want to take them. Be careful though because it can also open the door for Murphy’s Law (i.e. a “heckler” who can’t resist the opportunity to give a wiseass answer, or a question that unintentionally redirects the audience’s train of thought).
Solution: Like a trial lawyer arguing before a jury, never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Instead, ask rhetorical questions with answers that carefully lead the audience to the “promised land” (i.e. your conclusion).
Get your point across with as few words as possible (this is especially important for writers). Think of it the same way a soldier practices fire discipline; ammunition is always limited so warriors must choose their targets wisely. Cut any unnecessary words and get straight to the point. After that, cut out unessential information – also known as “staying on topic.” Consider these two examples:
Example A: “Last week my mechanic needed my car for an hour so I dropped it off and decided to kill time at the coffee shop across the street. After I got my coffee I found a spot and noticed Paul McCartney was sitting at the next table.”
Example B: “Last week my mechanic needed my car for an hour so he could fix my exhaust system because it’s way too loud. I didn’t really notice until a few of my neighbors mentioned it to me. So then I drove around with my windows open and paid closer attention and I definitely noticed a difference. So I dropped the car off and decided to kill time at the coffee shop across the street. I usually drink my coffee with cream and sugar but they never have the cream and sugar I like in coffee shops so just to kept things easy and ordered it black. When I finally grabbed a seat I looked at the table next to me – which was around a corner but I could still see the people – anyway, Paul McCartney was sitting there.”
Example A is obviously better. It sets the scene and gets to the point with fewer words. Example B distracts and bogs down the audience with unnecessary information that lessens the impact of the most import piece of information – Paul McCartney.
NOTE: Unessential information is obvious with the written word but speakers do it all the time without noticing. Nervous speakers are the worst offenders because they think the rambling will calm their nerves. Meanwhile, the audience is dying for them to make a point.
Few people would like it if all movies opened with the final scene then backed up to tell the story. So don’t share your most valuable information too early. Instead, channel your inner Spielberg and tell a story by boldly hooking your audience at the beginning and building to the climax. Keep their attention and feed them along the way, but don’t give them too much too soon.
Sales are up by 400%? Great! But don’t lead off with that information if your goal is to get your employees to do more. Get their attention first and build anticipation. Tell the story of a company whose growth exploded and made every employee wealthier and happier. Then share the numbers and ask them to do more. Content is king, but the order in which we share content can have drastically different results. (Note: Consider how different this post would be if the points appeared in different order. I intentionally started off with a short tip. The longer tips would have been asking too much of the reader too soon.)
I remember putting my ear to the door of my father’s office and listening to him practice his business presentations when I was a kid. I remember the click, click, click of the slide machine’s carousel. I also remember the volume, pitch, and tone of his voice and wondering who the hell he was talking to. He was alone in the room but practiced his presentations with the same timing and intensity required to woo a real audience.
Solid speaking/persuasive skills require practice. If you think you can wing it and you’ve been successful thus far, I’ve got bad news for you – you’ve been lucky. And I guarantee it’ll catch up with you one day. I’ve been there. It’s awful.
Rehearse. Then rehearse some more. Then have a dress rehearsal. When you ultimately deliver your presentation/speech, the finely honed material should feel conversational and matter-of-fact to the audience. Leave the robotic, canned performances to the politicians.
Pick three of the above tips to incorporate into your next presentation or speech and let me know how it goes.
If you liked this article – you’d probably like my book Buck The System: Stop Marking Time and Start Making Noise. – Randall H. Miller