Tag Archives: presentations

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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Take One Step

There’s a growing awareness that PowerPoint is a badly used tool for the most part. But even though my clients, and those who take my course on public speaking, might concede that PowerPoint is bad, they often still insist that they have to use it.

Some say it is part of a corporate culture or that conferences they attend will expect a slide deck for the binders. A few say their bosses demand PowerPoint, though I have never encountered a Senior VP or CEO who holds such a view. Some people try to tell me that their presentation is so complicated that it needs a bevy of bullets to help them get the message across. To them I cite several studies that show comprehension goes down when an audience is forced to read words and listen to them at the same time.

I suspect the real reason people resist ditching PowerPoint is because it’s harder to stand in front of an audience and perform – much safer and secure to hide behind a podium and have people stare at a screen. The most effective presenters, however, are often what Garr Reynolds calls “naked presenters”, meaning they can speak as effectively with or without the support of a slide deck.

So my challenge to those who are addicted to a large digital slide deck is to take one step at a time on your road to presentation recovery. Start with one of the following;

  • Eliminate some of your slides, each time you practice. If you have 30 slides, get down to 20, if you have 20 get down to 10.
  • Limit your bullet points to a maximum of three per slide.
  • Replace one bullet point slide with a large visual.
  • Take out all non-essential text and information from graphics and charts. Use them only to show trends and comparisons rather than detailed data.
  • Go analogue. Start your next presentation by writing the points you wish to make on cards or post-it notes . Once you have an outline you can turn on PowerPoint and look for ways to illustrate your points rather than stuffing your ideas into a PowerPoint screen
  • Create a separate handout document. If you plan on leaving a copy of your PowerPoint you will fill it with too much detail and ruin your presentation.

Any one of those things will make your presentation better. Take one step and get comfortable with it and then go back and take another.

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Good Public Speaking is All in Your Head

A field of scientific study tumbled upon me this week like a bunch of books falling from the top of a tall bookcase. It came up in a public speaking course that I was teaching. Later that day, I ran into my neighbor and he brought up the science and told me he was using it in his field of leadership training. On Friday night, I forgot to reset my alarm radio and woke up to the tail end of an overnight documentary on the same topic.

The science is neurology as applied to leadership or NeuroLeadership which looks at how the brain influences our talents, skills and our ability to interact socially. It addresses the question of how the way we think about something affects our ability to perform. Not without their critics, the studies try to link leadership with brain functions.

In my course, I was working with a woman who was nervous about the assignment I’d given her. “I’m not a natural story teller,” she told me. Well, if you believe you’re not, you won’t be, I responded.

Then I gently took her notes and asked her to just talk to me. The truth was she could tell a pretty good story.  But presenting, in her mind, was something that she was convinced she didn’t have the skills to do.

Research has shown that when our brain enters that “flight or fight” mode, we actually do lose some abilities. Once we recognize a perceived threat, all of our resources are diverted to physically dealing with it. Blood flow to the brain is restricted; reducing the amount of oxygen which then reduces our ability to think.

Although NeuroLeadership uses a silly acronym (SCARF) to outline the social triggers that affect our performance, the first one – Status – does come into play when we speak in public. One of the fears that most of my students identify with is the fear of looking foolish which would obviously affect their sense of status. Under threat, the brain diverts blood from itself to other muscles to prepare for a fight or to run away. Ironically that makes speaking even more difficult and a greater threat to status.

On the other side of the coin, good public speaking skills can enhance status and the brain is wired to approach things that have a tangible reward. The trick is to get the brain to see the potential reward, rather than the threat. This means focusing on the positive, rather than the negative so that you are physiologically ready to give a great performance.

A positive mental attitude then prepares you to do well. If you want to give a great speech, it’s all in your head.

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