A few years ago, I attended a company course called Presentation Power. Its main objective was to teach people how to make more powerful and impactful presentations. I’m going to distill the entire course (or at least what I can remember of it) into one single sentence:
“What’s in it for your audience to listen to you for more than a minute?”
You can be speaking on any topic on earth, but as long as you know what your audience is interested in listening to, and you know how to tell it that way, you’re already a powerful presenter.
I write this post because recently, I sat through an awful presentation. The presenter spoke English well (he’s a native speaker) and he had interesting things to say. Unfortunately, it was on a topic I had little interest in, and I was made to believe before the meeting that we would be discussing about something else.
I gave it my all to be as polite as possible and listen to what he had to say (why, maybe there might be something I could learn or benefit from this), but then it was Death by Powerpoint for nearly an hour. Look, I might work for Microsoft and I do use the Office Suite a lot, but I can tell you that with a great program comes great responsibility – Powerpoint is very easily used for the wrong purposes.
To make it worse, the Powerpoint deck he was using, appeared to be designed for another audience and objective in mind, but the presenter had deemed it okay to re-use it on me. To cut the long story short, by the end of the presentation I was really tired and not really interested in finding out more.
Not everyone can be a good or great presenter, and I think I speak too much Singlish to be a great orator. However, I can share with you a few tips I learned from the course, my journalism experience (where I met hundreds of good and horrible speakers) and my work in Microsoft.
1. Be very clear, both to yourself and your audience, what you are going to speak about before you even begin. Otherwise you’re mismanaging expectations. I often dread attending church when their most boring and longwinded speaker is giving a sermon, and ironically, he gave a sermon called “Are you wasting your time” a few weeks ago.
2. Give a good summary page/overview of your presentation, so your audience has a chance to tell you which segments they might want to skip to. Or just get to the point and expand upon it from there.
3. Use as few slides as possible. Some people have learnt how to cut down on the number of images and text paragraphs on their slides, but it’s still not enough. You have to distil distil distil your slides until it contains the barest minimum of information and visuals. Let your mouth do the talking, and not have people staring at the slides all the time trying to read reams of information.
4. Learn to read your audience and adjust your presentation on the fly. Are they yawning? Are they getting stoned out? Are they playing with their handphone? What is the reason? The one thing NOT to do is to keep droning on until you get to say what you planned to say. The right thing to do is to engage them directly and start asking them questions. You get to know if they were listening, if they were interested or if their mind is already on another planet. The feedback that you get from them will allow you to decide if you want to change topic, cut short your speech or just do something else.
Once you lose your audience’s attention, your presentation has broken down.
5. Give them a great reason (or many reasons) to listen to you with absolute rapt attention. Like I wrote earlier, what’s in it for them to bother about you and your topic? No matter whether you are a sales guy, journalist, teacher, doctor etc, your audience needs a good reason to keep listening to what you have to say. Does it benefit them financially or emotionally? Is it a matter of life and death? Will it change society as they know it? Can you say it in five minutes instead of fifty?
(Note to church preachers – you don’t need to fill up the entire 45min speaking slot you know).
Really, you don’t have to speak like a lawyer to be a great presenter. Just put yourself in the shoes of your audience and you can soon see the flaws of your presentation. Poor presentations are often the same in nature – they just don’t connect with the audience.
Sadly, many people are only interested in listening to themselves, not someone else, and that’s why they’ll never understand what an effective presentation should sound like.
You can avoid their pitfalls very easily – just recall all the bad presentations you’ve been in, or keep observing the bad one you’re stuck in right now – and ask yourself how do you avoid boring/annoying people like the guy on the stage.