Cure Those Presentation Blues

Speak NowI JUST sat through a corporate presentation at a business conference. It was the graveyard shift – last presentation of the day – the one everyone tries to skip –and amazingly enough it was terrific. There were no PowerPoint graphs, there were no diagrams, and there was no introduction. Just 18 minutes of rapid-fire spoken entertainment from a man who seemed to like the job he was doing. You actually wanted it to go on longer (how often does that happen?). Two things about that session are worth noting. First, it was unusual. Second, it was not as difficult as you might think.

By Richard Walker

It reminded me: the rules of good public speaking in business are really very simple, even if they are not always easy to follow.

First, of course, you do have to have a good script. A good scriptwriter can show you how to write for the podium not for the page, how to storyboard your ideas, how to work backwards from your conclusion. 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. Believe me, audiences don’t want you to fill time. For any one speaker the attention span of most audiences is probably less than 20 minutes. 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.

The Audience

Second, 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. Later I might let some of those facts back in using the classic nightclub bouncer’s technique: to gain entry they have to be very well-presented, and capable of standing up on their own.

It can be tough to do this. Speakers like facts, because facts feel like backup. But audiences don’t remember facts. They remember impressions.

Third – and this is often unpopular – drop the PowerPoint presentation. No really, drop it. At least, drop it if your PowerPoint is full of graphs, and diagrams, and lists of words in boxes with arrows pointing to other words in other boxes. 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 believe 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. 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 red in them.

Enough of general principles, what about technique? Technique is all about communication, and that usually means removing barriers to communication.

So for a start, don’t stand behind the lectern. 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 very powerful presentation by a CEO who paced up and down with his full script on an A4 legal notepad, and every time he came to the end of a page he tore it off, screwed it up and threw it over his shoulder.

The Power Of Red

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. Give them time, or you will lose them.

And yes, speak to the audience. Not to the microphone. Not to your script. 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).

I have one more point of technique which is the most important of all, but often difficult to achieve for busy people. It is this: rehearse. Rehearse with your scriptwriter (who by the way should also show you how to relax your posture and speaking muscles before going on stage). If you don’t rehearse there is no way your scriptwriter will know how certain words and phrases work for you, and how others don’t – and there is no way he will be able to fix what’s wrong. There is no way he 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, make a different presentation. Conviction beats everything, including being given the graveyard shift.

Well Done


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