Sooner or later, from high school to university, up to the workplace, everyone has felt the thrill of presenting something in front of an audience. Presenting content is an essential task within most organizations but that doesn’t mean people feel confident about it. Quite the opposite usually.
Striking the right balance between “entertaining” and educating others can be a tough task – especially if the scope of the presentation is broad or its subject matter detail-heavy.
One thing is certain: presentations are not immune to Murphy’s Law. Emotion or fear might kick in, the facts you memorized diligently may suddenly escape you, or the tonality of your presentation may not suit your audience. And let’s not even get started on the risks of technology failing.
Given this, and given that there are no magic formulas for the perfect presentation, there are still some useful tips that can help you prepare your presentation and engage with those listening to you.
1. Connect with your audience. Empathy is key within any normal interaction and this remains true for presentations. The best presentations sound more like conversations, so try to communicate with your audience as a group of individuals rather than an anonymous mass. How many speeches have we witnessed when the speaker seemed totally uninterested in the public’s presence? Establishing a connection with the audience demonstrates that you respect and appreciate the time they are giving you. Body language is useful in this regard: adopt measured gestures and establish eye contact with individuals in the audience.
2. Be enthusiastic. Showing enthusiasm about what you are saying (and doing) is vital. Regardless of your presentation topic, if you can’t identify a few facts or figures that you find interesting or compelling, you may be in the wrong job! That being said, be aware of your tonality: find the balance between sounding passionate or dedicated versus defensive or aggressive.
3. Walk, don’t run. One of the most common risks when giving presentations is to speak at an unnatural speed. People often feel that pausing shows a lack of command of the language or subject matter, therefore they tend to speak very quickly. Unfortunately, speaking too quickly is one of the easiest ways to lose the audience. So never rush: pausing is part of natural speech. Slowing down your delivery and knowing when to breathe conveys confidence and ensures that you communicate the message most effectively. Emphasizing a few key words with a longer pause or a different tone of voice helps stress some of the most relevant excerpts.
4. Be concise. Someone once said that “No one ever complained of a presentation being too short” and, unfailingly, nothing kills a presentation more than excess slides (or text). Keep it short and sweet, and leave remaining time to potential questions or final observations. If you are struggling to trim the fat of your presentation, remember the age-old rule of three. Aristotle wrote in his book “Rhetoric” that people are likely to remember only three things. So plan in advance what your three key “take-away” points will be and structure your presentation around them. Another option? Chunk the presentation into three sections: introduction, body and conclusion and use bullet-points to reiterate your main points throughout.
5. Practice makes perfect. Many experts say that rehearsal is the single most important thing that people can do to improve their performance. Performing a presentation out loud a few times, in front of a real audience, can be the difference between polished and unprepared.
However, perfection might also need a few aces up the sleeve. Here are a few:
Effective openings. Communication experts agree that the first few minutes of a presentation are the most important. They talk about “hooks”, which are simple techniques to grab the attention of the audience, for example, a problem to solve or some amazing facts. And a strong start usually improves the confidence of the speaker!
Dramatic contrasts are also good. Making a point by using two strongly opposing ideas is a great way of getting the attention of your audience.
Visual content. Supplementing text with pictures or video can have a strong impact on your audience and help people remember specific concepts.
Machine-gunning. This technique may veer away from the aforementioned rule of three, but on occasion six, seven or more points will impress the audience with the force of your overall argument. The list of points should be delivered at a speed resembling a machine-gun effect: bang, bang, bang!
Don’t read your presentation! Instead, write down your notes and look at them just occasionally. As said, you have to talk to the audience, making eye contact with them. This requires remembering a good amount of what you are going to say rather than relying on a script. Additionally, when using PowerPoint, always know which slide is coming next!
Do finish on a positive and definite note. This is very important since the final comments provide the lasting impression for those attending the talk. Conclude by reminding people of the key points or emphasizing the objectives of your presentation.