Deliver Breakthrough Presentations Worthy of Cell-Phone Free Attention
You sit down for a presentation on a topic you want to learn about. Or minimally, your boss said you should be aware of it. Ten minutes later, without consciously thinking about it, you check your phone. Nice, your favorite band dropped a new single! Let’s check it out, maybe read a few reviews. A minute or two passes by. You realize now the presenter is talking through a fairly detailed slide. You quickly read over what’s on the screen while simultaneously listening in order to catch up. You attempt to refocus and get the most out of this session.
Why is it that you find your mind wandering so easily? How can you keep audiences engaged and attentive during your presentations? This article is the second in a series about communication that focuses on this very question. The first article in the series gave an introduction to the challenges we face, even in simple communication. Here, we tackle the art of the presentation and how to effectively communicate to your audience.
Grab their attention right at the start
Attentiveness should be at a peak near the beginning once attendees settle in. However, this portion of many presentations is comprised of an introduction of the speaker and a restatement of the topic. Don’t risk wasting this opportunity with a conventional start! Convince the audience it’s going to be worth their time to follow you closely.
The start of a presentation is like the first tee at a golf course. Anything is possible. Unless your audience has previously attended one of your presentations (or golf outings), they may not know what to expect. The introduction can shape the audience’s expectations of your talk before you even get to cover substantive material.
I recommend beginning with one of the following constructs to capture interest:
- A quiz question to highlight an interesting fact or detail about your subject.
- A joke, cartoon, or comical image. Show your audience you don’t take yourself too seriously, perhaps something that pokes fun at your topic.
- An insightful customer quote, one that highlights a notable positive or negative aspect of your topic or business.
- A relevant story to engage your audience.
Typically these constructs will elicit some type of reaction (hopefully positive). This has two immediate benefits. One, it hooks the audience because they realize this is not a boilerplate presentation. Two, it helps keep you grounded, connected to your audience, and relaxed if you are someone who gets nervous about speaking engagements.
Don’t worry about the absence of a formal introduction. Attendees will figure out who you are. Your name is visible on the title slide, right? You don’t have to read it to them.
Whatever introductory construct you choose, be sure you are comfortable with it. Always be yourself. Your goal is to relate to your audience, show the relevance of your content, and establish interest in the material to follow.
As an example, consider (an intentionally vague) business that produces widgets-that-are-awesome. Sales are down 75% because of the pandemic and economic shutdown. Your key idea is to retool factory machinery in order to produce widgets-that-prevent-virus-spread. You believe the investment in machinery upgrades can be recouped within a month based on a limited test market run.
Because the topic is a serious one, humor is not the best choice to open. Rather, you recently talked to a customer so you choose to reference a quote from that conversation. Using only the briefest reference to your role, you begin, “I work in widget design, and recently I talked with a customer who said, ‘We think the widgets are great, no question. But we just can’t fit them into our budget right now with everything going on.’ ”
You establish the customer perception of your brand is still high, but the current circumstances make it difficult to close sales. Mention that you have a proposed solution and now you’ve captured your audience’s attention.
Slides are visuals, not documents
Lackluster presentations often use document-centric slides. Documents contain large amounts of text which are not that aesthetically pleasing. You are better served to use visuals to complement your story. Virtual or online presentations are much more commonplace now. Typically in these forums, the slides take up the majority of the screen real estate. Even during in-person presentations, the focus will alternate between you (the presenter) and the screen. Visual elements of your presentation can be used to draw your audience in, and they are critical to your effectiveness.
How do you make compelling slides? Think of the slide as a visual element, rather than a document with simply a larger font and a multitude of lists. A good rule to follow is to limit yourself to a maximum of 30 words on an individual slide. This may seem like a major constraint, but will soon become second nature.
Consider a slide in our fictitious example that details key points of the proposal. In a conventional text-based approach, we quickly hit our 30-word limit as noted below at the ellipsis.
Our main idea doesn’t fit within our word limit. Why then should we constrain ourselves to this drastic limit? Consider that people read much faster than you can talk. Thus, the audience will finish reading your slide while you are still attempting to explain it. What happens then? You risk losing audience interest, and it only takes a moment to get lost in social media. We’ve all done it.
Everyone has a smartphone, laptop, or another connected device that provides access to endless information. Thus, your talk should do more than simply transmit information. It should tell a story. All the technology in the world hasn’t changed the fact that people love a compelling story.
The visuals shouldn’t be the main thing. Don’t let them overshadow your key message. It is possible to overdo it. Rather, visuals help convey your message effectively. How then do we structure our slides?
Slides as reminders
Think of each slide in your presentation as simply a reminder of what you want to say. When approached in this manner, notes pages are not really needed. With that said, I do typically have separate notes with me but solely as a backup, just in case my mind goes completely blank. Typically, you never need to refer to them. Practice your talk to the point that you are comfortable telling segments of your story after only a quick glance at the slide. If you find yourself still referring back to your notes, keep practicing your discussion of that slide until it becomes second nature.
Consider now an attendee who looks at the same slide a few weeks later. It should serve the same purpose for them, functioning as a reminder of your key message in that segment of the talk.
It isn’t necessary to spell out every detail in words on the screen. You are a storyteller who sketches out the details of the picture you are painting. Allow the audience to take in the visuals and digest your key message as the entire picture comes into view.
A nice pattern to use is a slide template with an image, graph, or diagram of some sort as the focal point. A short note or phrase adjacent to or below the image indicates why someone would care about this. The visual frames the narrative, the brief wording leads the audience down the path, and you fill in the rest of the story through your talk. At the end of each segment, leave the audience with the key takeaway for that portion.
In our example, a key concept is that although widget sales are down, our proposal projects a rapid turnaround. A good visual for this message could be a sales graph that includes the estimates. You may choose to include y-axis measurements, which is fine.
This slide contains 18 words, well under our limit. The words serve to provide context and callout that this graph includes sales projections from our proposal. The visual is primarily a storytelling aid. The audience may be thinking, how is this turnaround possible? This is where you walk them through key elements of the proposal and elaborate on the story. A test market run was successful on a limited basis, and this helps form the basis for the estimates. A cost analysis showed the break-even point from machinery retooling is not far out in time. Decide how best to break up the story into different elements. Some concepts may warrant a slide of their own.
What if I simply have to include details?
It is important to distinguish between the material you present during your talk and information left with your audience after the talk is over. The slide package may get passed along to other individuals or reviewed again later. Decision-makers and stakeholders may want additional detail included in the materials they receive.
You may choose to have a separate paper to send along with the slide package. Alternatively, a title break slide at the end of the discussion material can be used prior to the appendix or supplemental slides. This approach retains control over the flow of your talk, but also includes supporting detail other recipients may want.
If you want more detail in the main content, a detailed list does not have to be presented as pure text. Consider using light graphics to improve the aesthetics, as shown in the example below. This example is roughly analogous to the same content formatted using bullet points.
The Key Takeaway
You grabbed your audience’s attention from the start and proceeded to make your central arguments effectively using the structure described above. Now, you want a closing that summarizes your overarching key takeaway. This summary should include brief references back to the earlier “reminders” you covered. This helps to tie everything together in the audience’s mind.
Think about the presentations you have attended in the past. If the topic was not a core focal area for you, you may have walked out with a single primary memory or takeaway. This takeaway can be the result of your synthesis of the information, or it could be an explicit callout that was made. The exact message will vary based on the individual. Of course, key stakeholders will walk away with significantly more detail. Think about your key takeaway and how your summary can reinforce that message.
Your conclusion restates your key message and typically includes a call to action. This is what you hope your audience will do as a follow up to your talk. Keep in mind, it is much easier for someone to simply say “yes” to a prepared proposal rather than arrive at that same plan of action on their own.
What then is the key takeaway from this article? In order to immediately improve your presentations, you should:
- Grab the audience's attention from the start
- Limit slides to no more than 30 words
- Use your slides as visual reminders
- Structure slides around a central image with a short explanatory note why someone would care
- Summarize your key takeaway using references to earlier “reminders” and end with a call to action.
Finally, let’s not forget the call to action. I look forward to seeing your breakthrough presentations!