Tag Archives: Public Speaking

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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Stories Are Just Data With a Soul

Often, after I teach a presentation class, I’m confronted by converts to the power of public storytelling who are eager to know what to do next. Of course I tell them to take every opportunity to stand up and speak but I also suggest they browse www.ted.com for inspiration and examples of great storytelling.

If you’re new to the TED Talks check out the website whose motto is “Ideas worth spreading”. Each speech is 18 minutes long and usually done with minimal or no PowerPoint. All the TED Talks I’ve seen demonstrate how compelling a story can be when it combines knowledge with passion.

I came across another excellent example this week by a woman named Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor who spent 10 years studying why people feel vulnerability and shame. She’s just recently done her second TED Talk but in the first one she explained her transition from a scientist who believed “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” to what she now calls herself – a researcher-storyteller.

You can watch Dr. Brown’s TED Talk on her website here.

My favorite line is when she says that “stories are just data with a soul”.


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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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Cry for Me, Argentina

I was in Buenos Aires last week and even though I was on holiday, there were many things that reminded me of my work. Porteños (as the residents of the city are called) are well known for their passion and I’ve written here before that passion is essential in public speaking.

Passion, however, should not be confused with volume. I saw Porteños being extremely expressive – with their eyes, their body and their hand gestures – even as they spoke barely above a whisper in a fancy restaurant.

Of course, in my line of work I would be remiss had I not visited the museum devoted to Eva Duarte Peron, perhaps Argentina’s greatest public speaker. The museum features a number of video and audio clips of her which, alone, are worth the admission price. Eva really knew how to tailor her speeches to her audience. She spoke very specifically to the working poor who were known as the Descamisados or “shirtless ones”. They in turn gave her the endearment “Evita” and came out by the tens of thousands to support her. In fact on one occasion two million people gathered along Avenida 9 de Julio to hear her speak!

Her museum has recordings that were made more than 60 years ago but as I listened to her, the emotion came through strong and clear. And, even though, my Spanish is less than basic, I was captivated by the commitment in her voice and the way she was forming a connection with each individual in her vast audience.

As I read the sub-titles and listened to the hope and spirit in that voice, the emotional connection was so strong that I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up. Everything I am is because of you, she told the crowd, and they roared their passionate response.

I was deeply impressed by her ability to craft her messages so well. Of course, like any good politician, Evita backed up her messages with action. She spent millions of pesos helping poor children and set up a shelter for single mothers in one of the toniest neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, thumbing her nose at the moneyed elite. The rich were clearly not in her target audience.

Evita’s messaging skills knew no bounds. When the Generals refused to allow her to become vice-president (women had only just been allowed the vote) she told a massive rally that she was turning down the job because of her failing health.

Her health was declining, she was dying of cancer. Even so, she continued to give stunning speeches, propped up by a plaster and wire support hidden under her coat because she was too weak to stand.

Think about that the next time a cold makes you consider cancelling your presentation.

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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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