By Belinda Huckle
We all know how important it is to be a confident, impactful and engaging presenter. Because let’s face it – you might be the smartest person in your team, have the best ideas, come up with the most innovative solutions – but if you can’t get your message across, make your point heard, persuade those who matter to listen, all your great thinking is likely to come to nothing.
So how can you super-charge your presenting ability and get you and your ideas noticed?
There’s no doubt that terrific books have been written on the matter, and of course there are countless courses you can do. But if time is not something you have a lot of, here is a very quick primer on the six things you should avoid saying or doing for greater presentation success.
1. Starting your presentation with "Hello and thank you so much for your time."
Now you might be thinking to yourself that saying ‘thank you for your time’ at the start of a presentation is a polite and respectful way to kick things off. Whilst that may be true, it also sends a very strong signal that you believe that the audience’s time is somehow more important than yours. And therefore by implication that they are, in fact, more important than you. As a result you are undermining your position and indeed the value of what you have to say – even before you have started to say it!
Most of us believe that regardless of our position/seniority everyone is just as important as everyone else. So your time is equally as precious as theirs!
So, instead, say something like ‘Hello. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share with you some exciting recommendations I have for XYZ.’ Or if the audience is indeed pressed for time then be specific and reference this overtly by saying something along the lines of ‘Hello. I know everyone is busy preparing for the conference next week so I really do appreciate your time this afternoon to finalise our plans for XYZ.’ Or it could be something very simple like ‘Hi everyone. Yes, its 4pm on Friday afternoon, and like me you’re probably itching to pack up for the week and get ready for the weekend. So I want to say thanks for taking half an hour for us to discuss XYZ.’
So make sure you start your presentation with a positive opening, and not one that undermines your value and the value of your message.
2. Making your presentation about you and your content.
It’s natural isn’t it…you’ve spent hours, if not days, working on your presentation. So of course you want to demonstrate to your audience all the hard work and deep thinking that has gone into it. In doing so however, you’re almost certain to do what we call ‘show up and throw up’ – i.e. spew lots of data and detail all over your audience, leaving them overwhelmed and under-informed.
Instead, the very best presenters make their presentations all about their audience. You should try it. In other words, take your content and then relate it directly to those you’re talking to. And that should happen from the very beginning of the presentation.
For example, compare a presentation from someone to a senior leadership team who starts ‘Today I’m going to present to you the staff engagement results from the survey we conducted last month’ vs. ‘Today I’m going to take you through the latest staff engagement results and show you how the initiatives we’ve put in place are helping to reduce staff turnover and positively impact on our bottom line.’ Or a training session to sales execs that starts where the presenter says ‘Today I’m going to teach you how to use our new LMS’ vs. ‘Today I’m going to share with you how to master our new LMS and how easy it is to book workshops that will increase your sales.’ In the first example of each scenario, I don’t know about you, but I can almost hear the yawns in the room. In the second example, I hope you agree, the audience would be far more likely to sit up and want to listen.
Of course, I’m not just talking about the start of the presentation. Everything you say within your presentation should be relevant for your audience and link to their priorities, issues, drivers, and concerns in some way.
So remember, if you want to maintain your audience’s attention make sure your presentation is about them and what’s important in their world.
3. Killing your audience with bullet points.
We spoke before about ‘showing up and throwing up’. This relates not only to what we say but also where we say it.
I don’t know for certain but I bet my bottom dollar you have sat through more than one presentation where the presenter bombarded you with slides that were swamped with words, drowning in data, or groaned with overly complex graphs and tables. Did all this information help get the message across? No! It actually makes things worse because there are more demands placed on the audience to do the impossible – read and listen at the same time. If you want to know more about this try an online search for terms like ‘cognitive load’, ‘working memory,’ ‘dual-channels’ and ‘split-attention effect’.
So why then do people do it? Well, human nature. They think that the more detail they show, the more information will be communicated. Plus they don’t have the confidence to edit their material and/or see the benefit in devoting the time required to edit it. But most of all, it’s because they haven’t been shown another way.
Three ways to avoid killing your audience with bullet points:
1. Wherever you can, support what you want to say with pictures because a picture really does paint a thousand words (and science provides evidence that your audience finds it easier to process your message – their ‘verbal processing channel’ is not overloaded by trying to listen to you and read your text-heavy slide).
2. Make your graphs graphic – don’t expect your audience to instantly see the point you are trying to make, and don’t expect them to sit there engrossed while you explain the axes, legend, scale and data points. Visually illustrate your point for them.
3. If you must use bullet points consider the 5×5 rule of thumb (no more than about 5 bullet points per slide. No more than about 5 words per bullet point). The science to support this points to the limits of ‘working memory’ and ‘cognitive load.’
So don’t be the presenter that sends your audiences to sleep. Make your slides your slave rather than you and your audience being a slave to them.
4. Not having an opinion.
There’s an expression that states ‘the thing people will pay more for than anything else is…advice’. This may not be true in all instances but it explains why doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on get paid the big bucks. Because they give people, like you and I, very valuable advice.
At the risk of offending you, I’d like to be blunt. Is what you do (or I, for that matter) rocket science? Chances are it isn’t. And could someone with the right training and attitude do what we do? Quite possibly. The thing that sets us apart from all the other Joe-blows that could do our job is our insight gained from doing our job – our practical experience. And in order to be seen as a valuable contributor to the team we need to share our expertise, our insights, our ideas and our recommendations with those around us.
Imagine you’re updating the senior management team on recent HR related legislative changes introduced by the government. Sure, you could do a pithy summary and explain eloquently what the changes are – but what the senior management team really want to know is how, in your opinion, these changes are going to affect the business and what, in your view, does the business need to do to comply with these new regulations. After all, anyone can write and deliver a summary of existing material. Not everyone has the expertise to translate that material into something that adds value. And that is ultimately the value we bring to our roles.
So don’t forget to share your ideas. It’s your thinking that sets you apart, and makes you a valuable member of the team.
5. Ending your presentation with "So, any questions?"
This has got to be the most common way that presenters finish their presentations, but it is also the weakest. Apart from anything else, if there aren’t any questions you’re going to feel like a right goose! Oh, and by the way, please don’t ever have an ‘Any Questions’ slide – this just exacerbates the lameness of your close.
Instead, close your presentation with confidence and a call to action. That call to action can be one of the mind e.g. ‘I hope you all now have a thorough understanding of the government’s new legislation and how the processes discussed will ensure we remain compliant as a business’. It can also be a call to action of the heart e.g. ‘I really hope you are all as excited as I am about the new learning management system and how you can use this to boost your value to the business’. Or you can close your presentation with a physical call to action e.g. ‘I need your approval before the end of the week to implement the range of engagement strategies discussed today so we can further reduce staff turnover and ultimately its cost to the business.’
I hope you agree that the above examples demonstrate how you can end your presentations with impact and leave a strong message in the minds of your audience.
So don’t dribble into your ending. End with confidence and a powerful call to action. This will ensure you get the results you want from your presentations.
6. Thinking to yourself, "I don’t have time to rehearse."
Here’s the reality: You’ve spent considerable time and effort putting together your presentation. And chances are you’re only going to have one opportunity to deliver it. Furthermore, your audience is giving up their time to listen to you. What they think about you, what you say, and how well you say it matters. In fact, it matters tremendously to your reputation, to your credibility, possibly even to your career. And you really think you don’t have time to rehearse? Think again. You must make time!
Now I’m not suggesting that you have to spend hours rehearsing but what I am saying is that you must rehearse the following, ideally out loud in front of a mirror, or even better in front of a colleague:
The opening to your presentation. Practice what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it so you know you’ll start your presentation by putting your best foot forward. This will also help banish any first minute nerves (the time when, for most people, nerves are the most prevalent). You really never do get a second chance to make a positive first impression.
How you’re going to deliver your key messages during your presentation so that they stand out from the rest of your content. Think about using ‘siren words’ – words and phrases that add emphasis by heralding your key messages e.g. "The critical point to remember is …"; or "Ultimately, what this all means is …"; or "The most important take-out is …".
The close of your presentation. At the end of the day the way you close your presentation will determine if you finish your presentation with impact, leaving a confident and positive impression, or if you finish like a damp squib leaving little or no impression at all. Will rehearsing these areas take hours? No. More like 15 minutes and I would like to think we can all find 15 minutes to make sure we get our message across with confidence and credibility.
So don’t say you don’t have the time to rehearse. Make the time and give yourself every chance of selling your message and selling yourself.
Author Belinda Huckle is the Founder and Managing Director at secondnature, an Australian-based executive training consultancy delivering world-class, in-house, instructor-led training courses, coaching programs and workshops in presentation skills, communications skills and interpersonal skills. Read more at secondnature.com.au