Tag Archives: how to give a speech

I’m Fed Up with Boring Presentations

In a world that expects the wit of Jimmy Fallon, the wisdom of a TED talk and the visual stimulation of Snapchat, giving a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and bullet points sheds about as much light as a birthday candle in a coal mine. If you can’t give a straightforward, dynamic and passionate presentation you should stay home because you are wasting your time and turning everyone in the audience against you.

And don’t give me that crap about the need to cite references and give detailed explanations.

A video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing went viral.  He did it in 35 seconds. A few days later a university professor said on CBC radio that Trudeau did a pretty good job.

You probably already know the difference between a great and a horrible presentation. It’s the difference between being held hostage for 20 minutes at a boring meeting versus 40 minutes of thoughtful bliss as a speaker paints evocative words and ideas that make you forget about checking your cell phone. It’s passion, not a 20 data point chart that gets you excited.

A presentation is not a peer-reviewed paper. It is not a university thesis. It is not an engineering stress test report. It is not a learned legal opinion. A presentation is a conversation and an exchange of ideas between you and an audience. If the presentation is done well, it will entice the audience to seek out and discover more about the topic.

Most importantly though, a presentation is not a document. If you are printing out your slides to leave behind as a hand-out you’re doing it wrong. Think about this: If people can read the printout (in about five minutes) and get what your point is then why the hell did they spend 20 minutes listening to you?

When you’re speaking, the only thing on a screen behind you should be a visual that supports what you’re saying. If there are words on the screen, the audience will read them and stop listening to you. Several studies have shown that comprehension and retention plummet if you put words on a screen and then read them to your audience.

Professor John Sweller has been studying teaching methods for more than a dozen years and says that when the audience has its attention split between what you say and what they read they are less likely to remember anything. Professor Richard Mayer reached a similar conclusion; that listening to spoken narration without text on a screen increases understanding by 79%.

Stories will always be more compelling than a chart of facts and figures. Just ask any kid at bedtime.


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A Presentation is like a Love Letter

Doing a presentation without thinking of your audience is like starting a love letter with “To whom it may concern”.

Even if you’re trying to convey the same messages to different audiences, you will be much more effective if your presentation is personalized to the people you are trying to engage.

Whenever I’m asked to speak, I ask a lot of questions about the audience; what’s the age range, the gender makeup, experience, background and more. I want to be able to form a mental picture of the people I’ll be speaking to so that I can bring stories and examples they will understand and enjoy.

Then, I start at the end of my presentation. I think about the audience and decide what I want them to be thinking or doing when my talk is over. I set a goal. I imagine their acceptance of a concept or an idea that they hadn’t considered before. Everything in my presentation must lead to that conclusion and the more my material is relevant to my audience, the more persuasive I will be.

If I’m speaking to employees of a specific company or organization I try to understand its work and look for recent examples either directly from the group or from their field of interest. If the company works in aviation for example I will illustrate my points with examples taken from that industry.

Even including recent events of significance to the audience is useful. Right after an election or a major news event, I might make reference to it where appropriate to my audience.

If I can’t find out much about my audience, I will often start my talk by asking them a few short questions. Someone will likely tell me of a key event or situation that I can reference back to throughout my talk.

So to go back to my imaginary love letter, imagine how effective it would be if you waxed on about your partner’s beautiful brown eyes . . . and they were blue.

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Good Stories are True Stories

Story telling is all the rage these days. It’s touted as the new best way to give presentations and to be persuasive.

I agree that stories can be powerful and I’ve shown many clients how to work them into their speeches with great results. A good story, well told, is powerful because it connects with the emotional side of the brain. When we bombard people with facts and figures we engage the logical side of the brain which is inclined to examine the veracity of those facts rather than trust the credibility of the speaker.

Good stories also make us feel good. And they are easier to remember than a long list of facts and figures. So, I am a strong proponent of using stories in speeches and presentations. But they have to be true stories.

Politicians, I think, were the first to pervert the art of story-telling into a way of getting across a specific message. When a politician says, “I was door-knocking the other day and met a woman who told me she fears international monetary agencies will lower our credit rating if the government doesn’t balance the budget,” you know that it isn’t true because real people just don’t talk that way.

Good stories, true stories, are messy. They have very specific details but not too many details. They lead us to larger wisdoms, not specific messages. Good stories paint with a very broad brush and set the scene for us to fill in the detail or message that we want to convey to the audience.

One of my clients made a presentation to his senior executives and had to explain some complex relationships that the organization had with its customers. He started with a drawing and a story from his five-year-old daughter. When he connected the dots to the customer relationship everyone in the room got it.

Stories are metaphors and they don’t need to be long or complicated. The way you were treated when you bought your morning coffee, missing your train on the way to the office or even your daughter’s art work can be used to illustrate some greater truth in a way that a mountain of data never can.

Good stories are all around you every day. Train yourself to recognize them. And don’t make them up.

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Time for Presentation Resolutions

Even though we officially celebrate the arrival of a new calendar year at midnight on December 31st, the day after Labour Day has always felt like a new year to me. It stems, of course, from that “back to school” feeling when books and teachers and friends were all shiny and new.

I’ve been out of school for decades but that New Year feeling persists and I also see it in many of my clients. August is a big vacation month but when September rolls around it’s time to get back to business. In the coming week four clients have booked sessions to tune up their presentation skills.

It got me thinking that maybe now would be a good time for some Presentation New Year’s Resolutions;

  1. I resolve to use no more than 20 PowerPoint slides in a 20 minute presentation,
  2. I resolve that at least half my slides will be visuals with no more than five words,
  3. I resolve to tell a story instead of spewing a stream of facts,
  4. I resolve to be more concerned with my audience than my own nervousness,
  5. I resolve to have passion and energy every time I speak.

If you follow those five resolutions, you’ll have a great New Year and your presentations will be more persuasive.

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Writing a Speech in a Taxi Cab

“My presentations are often written on an airplane or in the taxi on my way to the conference”, a client told me this week, “there’s just too much else to do.” Those comments led to a thoughtful discussion about why we do presentations at all and what we hope to get out of them. Too many people do presentations because they are expected to do them. It becomes a chore rather than an opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Many people focus on the wrong things when they’re asked to do a presentation. They spend their time gathering more information on a topic when they already know more than they could possibly present in the time they’ve been allotted. They don’t realize that a presentation is not a mind-dump of information. Audiences expect speakers to have done some editing. Audiences want the speaker to do the work in picking data that is relevant. And audiences want a reward for their attention.

Presentations should always be about the audience. You need to know who they are and as much about their backgrounds as possible. Then you can decide what’s in it for you. Decide on an objective for your speech. You might want to motivate, convince, educate, sell product or sell yourself. You need to have an objective so you can measure whether the presentation was successful.

Instead of spending hours on your computer googling for more information, write the conclusion to your presentation first. I call it the Big Finish. It’s the place you want your audience to be after you’ve been speaking for 20 or 40 minutes. Then write an opening that will grab their attention while you settle down your nerves. No matter how long your speech is those two things will total about five minutes. Practice the opening and closing, out loud, five times. That will take less than half an hour.

The stuff in the middle? Well, if you can, tell a good story that will make your audience more receptive to the Big Finish. They won’t be judging you on how many facts you put on the table so don’t try to cram in everything you know.

Usually, the middle takes care of itself because you know that content – that’s why you were asked to speak. If you like, you can even write it in the taxi on the way to the conference.

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Watch Your Tone of Voice When You Give a Presentation

Let’s be honest, some people are nicer to listen to than others. They have a smooth melodious tone of voice that makes them sound like natural orators. But where does that leave the rest of us when we have to stand up and make ourselves heard?

When I was trying to break into broadcasting, I was told that I didn’t have the “pipes” for the job. I didn’t have a booming baritone voice that would command respect. I made up for it by being clever and tenacious. I knew that my reporting and writing skills would have to compensate for not having a “voice of God” delivery.

At the same time, however, I did everything I could to improve my performance. I spent many hours practicing my scripts in a lower tone – sort of like the scary monster voice you’d use to read to children. My vocal chords benefitted from the exercise and I gradually developed a more pleasant tone.

Professional singers practice their scales and anyone who does a lot of public speaking should do the same thing. Every voice is capable of a wide tonal range and the more we take advantage of that range, the more engaging we become as presenters.

Another reason to do some vocal exercises is to overcome a credibility killer common in many younger speakers, particularly women. I’m talking about “up speak” where the voice goes up at the end of a sentence, making it sound like a question. Many people are not even aware that they do it.

It’s important, however, to differentiate between practice and performance. Work on your tone when you’re preparing but when it comes time to present, express yourself naturally. Let your improved natural self come out. If you express yourself with passion and commitment the tone of your voice will reflect that.

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Pay Attention to Your Audience, You May Be Presenting Before You Know It

I was called to a meeting this week with a Board Chair, a CEO, and a Senior VP. My role, I thought, was to be a resource and to answer any questions that might come up. That’s not the way things turned out.

I hadn’t prepared a presentation, I had no PowerPoint, but I was required to present a persuasive and intelligent argument. My credibility was suddenly put on the line. Here’s how I got through it.

First of all, I had already been assessing my “audience”, which was made up of all the other people in the room, from the moment I had walked into the office. This was a no-nonsense crowd with a lot on their plate. They would not want to feel that their time was being wasted.

I had been paying attention before I was called on to speak and noticed the way information was being presented and, most importantly, the degree of detail that seemed to be required.

There was a definite hierarchy in the room and I was certain that I was at the bottom of it so I watched the way others were interacting and how that interaction was being received. I needed to know how much I would be able to push back if that became necessary.

All of those things I did even though I didn’t think I would be making a presentation. Preparation allows us to be spontaneous and we should always be ready to present.

In my public speaking courses, students sometimes ask how to prepare for the impromptu speaking occasions when they are called upon to present information and haven’t had time to prepare.

Unfortunately, there is no formula that will work in every occasion. The key to success, though, is to pay attention and assume that you might have to talk at any time. Then you can quickly answer the three questions that form the basis of all successful presentations;

  1. Why am I giving this presentation?
  2. Who am I speaking to?
  3. What does that audience need to hear in order for me to be successful?

Those are the technical elements that come into play. But most people are afraid of public speaking and their performance reflects their discomfort. If you are called upon to speak when you least expect it, you must commit yourself to the task and that takes something that can’t be taught;


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