YOU want to get that funding? You want to win that contract? You want that customer? Then sooner or later you are going to have to make a presentation. No one likes making a presentation and not many people like listening to one either. But there is a way to change that: just follow these simple steps.
By Richard Walker
Speaking in front of strangers is hard. Speaking in front of a critical audience that has the power to write you a cheque or turn you down flat – that is ten times as hard. Here are five steps to making it easier (and making what you say a lot more persuasive).
Follow these rules and you will be amazed at how people actually pay attention to what you say. There is no guarantee that you will get what you want from your audience, but at least they will take you seriously and possibly even ask you back.
Step One: you have to have a good script. A good scriptwriter can show you how to write for the podium not for the page, and how to storyboard your ideas. Above all you need to remember that a presentation is not an argument, not an essay, and not a report. It is not a logical narrative at all. It is a series of mental impressions.
Your script should be no longer than it needs to be and if possible shorter. Audiences never want you to fill time – make it short and they will thank you. For any one speaker the attention span of most audiences is probably less than 20 minutes, so aim for 15 minutes maximum. If the event really requires you to be on stage much longer, why not fill it with Q&A? If your presentation was worth hearing, there will be interesting questions.
Step Two: be very light on facts. Rely on assertion, opinion, description. It sounds odd but facts and figures are a terrible dead weight in a presentation. When working on a pre-existing script for a speaker I usually start by removing every single fact that I can find – and then ask whether any of those facts really need to be let back in.
It can be tough to do this. Speakers like facts, because facts feel like backup. But audiences don’t remember facts. They remember impressions.
Step Three: if you are planning on using a PowerPoint presentation there is only one good piece of advice and that is … don’t use it.
Most PowerPoints are full of graphs, and diagrams, and lists of words in boxes with arrows pointing to other words in other boxes. These are things that nobody can absorb during a presentation. So every time you click on that next PowerPoint slide you alienate your audience just a little bit more. You are telling them: I don’t really have much faith in what I’m saying, so here is something totally incomprehensible to distract you.
PowerPoint In Action
Photographs are different. A small number of judiciously-chosen photographs can be very powerful (not least because images can be absorbed instantly). They make listeners more receptive. They create a dramatic backdrop for your spoken words that you can use to generate contrast, timing effects, and surprise.
And if you do use photographs remember the old picture editor’s rule: try to have some colour red in them.
Step Four: use technique. Technique is all about communication, and that usually means removing barriers to communication.
So for a start don’t stand behind the lectern or table. Just move away. Why put a barrier between you and the audience if you don’t need to?
If you can work without a full script, do. If you do use a script, don’t try to hide it: I once saw a powerful presentation where the speaker paced up and down with the full script on an A4 legal notepad, and every time she came to the end of a page she tore it off, screwed it up and threw it over her shoulder. She wasn’t trying to hide her script.
The Power Of Red
Then think about timing. Most presenters deliver their material too fast. One reason for that is that they have too much material (with too many facts). The other reason is that they started too fast, because they were nervous. Once you start fast it is very difficult to slow down: you have set the clock and you have to stick with it. Also, you know your material, the audience doesn’t. So give them time or you will lose them.
The ideal presentation speed is no more than 150 words per minute. So edit your script to deliver that and no more. You may think you are under-delivering, but the audience won’t think that. This is a case where less is really more.
And speak to the audience. Not to the microphone. Not to your script. If there are more than a handful of people present then choose two or three individuals about half way back in the room, and speak to them alternately (don’t choose just one, you will make them very uncomfortable, and the discomfort will spread).
Step Five: rehearse. That may sound obvious, but most presenters don’t rehearse. Rehearse with your scriptwriter if you have one, or with anyone else if you don’t. If you don’t rehearse there is no way you will know how certain words and phrases are working when spoken aloud, or not working. There is no way you will be able to pace the script, to give you and the audience time to breathe.
You are too busy to rehearse? I advise: make time. It will be repaid.
Lastly, none of these rules and techniques are of the slightest value if you don’t have conviction in what you are saying. If you don’t have conviction then make a different presentation. Conviction beats everything because conviction is contagious. If you believe it the audience is likely to believe it too.