The secret to making better presentations
Whatever industry you work in, whatever job you do, you cannot avoid making presentations. Because a lot of business managers make you do presentations at the drop of a hat, for any and every expected change in the company, most people start hating them. Most of these presentations end without any specific outcomes wasting everybody’s time and effort, as Scott Adams so beautifully captures in the above Dilbert strip. It’s debatable whether presentations are boring and purposeless because they are done badly or they are done badly because people lack visibility of the purpose behind them. Whatever the case, there is a widespread aversion across the board to making presentations.
This is really sad given how powerful a driver it can be in furthering your career and how exciting the process of making and delivering good presentations can be. Don’t believe us? Read on and by the end of this post we hope to have you convinced.
How, you ask?
By laying bare the seven key things that you need to keep in mind about making great presentations and becoming a powerful presenter, is our answer.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: You don’t need to be a marketer to know this. Whether you are presenting to your team or to your bosses or pitching to a client or presenting to a room full of strangers at a seminar or conference, knowing the profile of the audience should be the starting point for your presentation. Who is in the audience, what are they seeking or interested in knowing, what do they already know, what is the context of the meeting, is there an agenda to the meeting and if so, what is it? These are some of the questions that need answering before you even start preparing the presentation. You don’t want to get into a room full of experts and share the basic fundamentals of an issue or present an analysis of last quarter’s performance when your company’s senior management seeks your strategy for the next quarter. If the answers are not obvious then don’t hesitate to ask those who may know. As important as the bigger questions are, so are the smaller details important. Like whether it’s okay to be funny and include humour in the presentation? There’s a time and place for humour and not every occasion might be suitable for it.
PREPARE & PRACTICE: Having researched your audience it’s equally (if not more) important to know your topic. In fact, being on top of your subject is the least you can do as a presenter. No one likes his or her time being wasted and as a presenter it’s your obligation to make it worth people’s time. And your own! I remember an event where the presenter was talking the ABC of the subject matter when the audience was filled with PHd level professionals on the subject matter – there was an embarrassing walk out by most of the attendees leaving the organisers high and dry! Read, research and prepare diligently for the presentation. If you’ve already know the audience then you know what they seek and what you are supposed to speak on. Some people prepare by listing all the questions that need answering during the course of the presentation. Others prepare a table of things that the audience already knows and things that they don’t know and would like to know. Yet others, including me, prefer to break down the objective of the presentation into smaller blocks, which can build one over another to paint a larger picture. Once you’ve made the presentation – and we will talk more about how to do it well – it’s extremely important to practice by doing a walk-through before d-day. The best public speakers are the ones who practice the most. The easiest way to do it is to stand in front of a mirror and present. If you are shy or an introvert, you may find it a little uncomfortable at first, but trust me it’s for your own good. The faster you get used to seeing yourself stand and speak the better it is for you. You will notice things that you never knew you did and auto-correct. Once you’ve done this a few times you will feel more confident during the actual presentation and it will help you focus more on the audience rather than trying to remember what to say next or look at the slides for help. Confidence breeds success which in turn breeds confidence. It’s a virtuous cycle, a cycle that YOU want to be riding.
THE KISS PRINCIPLE: Another great three-step way to simplify presentations is to:When you have a lot of data to share as is the case in most performance review meetings, try and reduce these to as few as possible and then explain the importance of each data set in simple terms. One way of doing this is to have a one-line takeaway from every slide that helps take the focus away from numbers, to what they mean. The ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ principle is a great one to keep in mind on most things. It works equally well for presentations too. If you include too many ideas and narratives into a single presentation, chances are that people will lose track and interest in it. Focus on one (or at most two, if you must) ideas and develop them.
Let the audience know what they are going to learn in the presentation
Presenting the presentation
Finally, letting the audience know what they’ve learnt in the presentation
The KISS principle could also stand for ‘Keep it short, stupid’. In fact simplicity and length go together, for only those who have a good grasp of their subjects can explain it in a crisp and concise manner. Long presentations are the bane of corporate employees, a fact that this Dilbert strip captures beautifully (yet again). Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule is a good benchmark to follow too. The legendary marketer says that every presentation shouldn’t have more than 10 slides, take not more than 20 minutes to deliver and have the font size not below 30. All this is in the interest of effectively communicating whatever it is you seek to communicate, for that is the ultimate goal of all presentations.
ENGAGE NOT INFORM: This doesn’t mean that you don’t share new ideas and opinions but that even when you do that you focus on drawing the audience in. Only when people connect with your content do they engage and unless they engage they won’t buy into it or act on it. Chris Anderson, the founder of the beautiful TED platform tells you the secret to great public speaking – his website, by the way, is a great place to watch and learn brilliant speakers make beautiful presentations – shared some insights on how to make powerful public speeches. While it’s not the same as making presentations, the principles apply nonetheless. Thousands of years of conditioning have wired human brains to react to stories. Not for no reason do great leaders and public speakers often start their speeches with personal anecdotes and stories. Data is boring, jargon is clichéd and information is everywhere. What we yearn for are stories that move us that we can relate to, that take us from a status of the present to what can potentially be and the solution sof how hurdles can be surpassed along the way. This doesn’t mean that you go all melodramatic on your audience. The story or anecdote should be relevant to the situation and bring some insight to the table/room. If it does that then you’ve got the audience hooked. Another way to engage your audience is to be conversational. Most presenters tend to drone on regardless of whether anyone’s listening or not. Effective communication is almost always two-way and there’s no reason why a presentation shouldn’t be too. Encourage the audience to ask questions. Better still, ask some yourself. If you do so at the beginning it will also help the audience get in the groove. Well begun is, as they say, a job already half done.
USE WHATEVER WORKS: Whatever any pundit, guru or expert might say, there are no rules. There are guidelines yes, like the ones above and those to come, but those are just that. Let no one tell you that you cannot do ‘this’ or you ought to do ‘that’. 99% of people presenting tend to use only text in their presentations. OK, I made that number up, but I am sure it’s close. Majority of the rest use images to complement text. It’s criminal how most people fail to leverage other, more potent forms of media like video clips, GIF’s, animation and audio or music. That’s what the world is consuming in its free time. With so much of it floating on the internet for you to use (you can also create your own), why won’t you use it? Of course you can’t be frivolous. But if a picture says a thousand words, a video can sometimes say more than a thousand pictures and hook your audience. Isn’t that what you want?
RELAX: If you are new to the game it’s easy to be overawed. Sometimes experience doesn’t help either. And some level of nervousness is good, in fact it’s necessary. The best and the biggest performers have it and use that nervous energy to push themselves to do better. If you’ve done all of the above then don’t worry, you will be safe and home at night. It’s absolutely important to remain calm on the day of the presentation. You can help yourself by wearing comfortable clothing (a light jacket if airconditioning bothers you) and shoes, reaching before time and ensuring that you are familiar with the set-up. Make sure the equipment is working and your slides/videos work fine on whatever system you are supposed to make the presentation on. Take a few deep breaths, stretch your arms and do some mouth exercises like blubbering your tongue before you get on stage. Nerves can make you speak fast which will immediately lose the audience. Slow down, look the audience in the eye and start.
TAKE FEEDBACK: The best way to improve yourself is by asking for feedback. You may not do this after every presentation and from everyone but make sure you seek feedback regularly from those whose opinion you value. It may be a close friend or your boss or someone from HR. Whoever it is should be able to give you a frank assessment of your ability and so should you be able to take it. You can also improve your skills by getting coached by a professional trainer or joining a group of like-minded fellow learners. Globally there are groups like Toastmasters that you can join to get better at doing presentations. There might be similar such organizations working in your city that you can look up online and join. Practicing regularly with a group, even if it’s with friends, could drastically improve your presentation skills.
There’s a lot of free advice online on what you should and shouldn’t do. Theory, while helpful, will only take you so far. Even this article, will not transform you into a great presenter. Only you, by constant practice and perseverance, can do so.