Presentations can be really good or really bad.
Even the “okay” presentations–the ones that are well put-together but don’t particularly stand out–end up being really bad, and usually it’s for one reason:
Boring presentations are reputation killers, and they can turn a room full of attentive professionals into a room full of sleepy zombies, checking their phones and counting the slides.
“I want to engage my audience,” is what over half of the presenters I coach tell me. Here’s what I tell them. First, many people in your audience are tired—probably at least a third of them just don’t get enough sleep. They’re sitting there hoping they won’t embarrass themselves by nodding off. Part of your job is to help them stay awake, to actually pay attention and consider what you are saying. Next time you practice a presentation, note how many of the following strategies you actually use. Then add a couple more. You don’t want your audience to look like this.
Best practices for presentations, including practicing and structuring your presentation effectively, are important to make a quality show. However, it’s the little things, the speaking and body language tricks you use, that will keep your audience awake long enough to hear it.
- Start off with something shocking. Don’t start off a presentation with something general and clunky, like a conventional introduction to your topic. If you have a bold conclusion planned, why not start out with a tease of it? For example, if your presentation builds to a conclusion that your company can change the way people talk to each other, start out by introducing a vision of that change. Inspire a bit of interest right off the bat, and people will be desperate to know how you got there. You can also use surprising statistics or eye-opening facts in the same way.
- Tell a story. Humans take naturally to stories. Narratives are an evolutionary social tool we use to convey experiences, so we find it far easier to listen and relate to a story than we do a list of facts or statements. Transform anything you can in your presentation into a story format. Use real-life and invented examples, and use illustrative metaphors to prove your points. The more narratives you can weave into your overarching presentation, the more people will want to pay attention.
- Go off script. It’s a good idea to prepare your presentation in advance, and even practice it a few times so you can iron out all the kinks. But once you’re on stage, you should probably abandon the cue cards altogether. At this point, you should be so familiar with your subject matter and so engrossed in your presentation that you can talk about it naturally in your sleep. Veer off course. People will be able to tell which lines you’ve rehearsed and which ones you haven’t.
- Use emotional inflections in your voice. If you aren’t emotionally invested in whatever it is you’re presenting, you probably shouldn’t be the one presenting it. Be sure to show that emotion to the people listening to you. Get angry if the statistics call for it. Get excited about the solutions you propose. Get animated on the stage, and use emotional vocal inflections to put some real texture behind your words. Without that emotional inflection, you might as well hand your presentation to a robot to read.
- Use the power of different pitches. Speaking in one constant tone will bore your readers, even if you somehow manage to put some emotion behind it. Certainly, some sections or your presentation are more compelling or more important than others. Use the power of louds and softs to accentuate those differences. Speak softly when you can afford your users to trail off, and rise back up to a higher volume when you drive home an important point.
- Alternate your pacing. Similarly, it’s a good idea to vary your pacing. Talk fast when it comes to background information that most people already know, or when you recap sections from earlier, then slow way down when it comes time to hammer in an important piece of information. Use the power of silence, but don’t become trapped in a predictable pattern of speech.
- Call out individuals in the audience. This one demands a degree of improvisation, since you may not be able to predict the makeup or participation willingness of your audience until the day of your presentation. Try to get individual people involved in your presentation however you can. This may include taking them onstage for a demonstration or something far more innocuous like pointing to them when making a point.
- Set up some jokes. Even the most serious of topics deserve some kind of humorous break. It’s your job to help people find humor throughout your presentation. If you can get them laughing, or at least smiling, you’ll keep their attention firm. Obviously, you’ll want your jokes to be appropriate, but don’t be afraid to push the boundaries–confident, unexpected humor tends to facilitate likeability.
- Skip the data. If you can, avoid mentioning statistics and facts at all. Put them on a background slide for people to visualize independently of your presentation. People don’t attend presentations to be read information they could read themselves. They want new insights and personally related beliefs.
- Never read a slide. Last, but certainly not least, you should never read from a slide directly during the course of your presentation (assuming you have some kind of slideshow in the background). Your audience can see the slides for themselves. Reading those slides aloud insults their intelligence and makes your presentation flat-out boring. Say something different, and let your slides speak for themselves.