Presenting a topic to an audience is hard. There is always more preparation than you expect and, for many of us, speaking in public is quite frightening. We all plan to wow the attendee and avoid giving a presentation that is only close to a promise of greatness. But that isn’t what always happens.
This blog post topic created a personal flashback to 1984 when I first attended an international conference on best teaching practices. Upon reviewing the program, I spotted a symposium that looked fantastic and even had a catchy title, “Seven Lectures on Inquiry Learning”. What a great play on words, seven lectures on a concept (inquiry learning) that is the antithesis of the “Stand and Deliver” (lecture). Cool, This will be fun. BUT...
OMG!! She is reading her paper!!!!
Recently, I once again find myself attending an international conference, but this time, the group is the best of the best psychophysiologists in the world. All 350 of them, representing 40 countries, were in Cuba for a once every two-year World Congress of experts. While the information these experts had assembled was cutting edge research, many of these brain experts once again ignored how learning happens in the brain. It is important to note that being an expert does not necessarily mean that you are a good communicator of that expertise.
"The best information in the world is worthless if it is not shared in a way that leads to comprehension."
So let’s take a few minutes to share a few communication tips to avoid giving a presentation that doesn’t engage your audience. It is important to consider preparation as well as your delivery.
- Who is the audience?
This is far too often overlooked or assumed, especially if you have previously given basically the same talk. But presentation to experts is very different from one to a group of novices.
- Start with your objectives
A great presentation starts with clear goals. What are the key points you intend to provide your audience? Not only should you know these up front, add a key slide with the three or four takeaways so your audience also knows your intention.
- Slide design
The first rule is to realize that vision trumps all other senses. Whenever possible, and it better be the rule rather than the exception, include both brief main point text comments AND an image that reinforces the text. By using this approach, you give the audience three different exposures to the concept. They can read the text, connect with the image or graphic and hear the explanation. This three-learning-modality approach greatly enhances audience comprehension.
- Speaking of text
A rule of thumb is to never use text smaller than a 32-point font. Nothing is more irritating than words on the screen that you cannot read. This rule also includes words within graphics.
- Slide theme or background
Whatever you use, it should not interfere with slide content. Keep it simple and clean.
- No more than six lines of text
Even then, you might want to add animation to create audience focus on the text you are describing.
Even the best set of presentation materials is worthless without delivery. Here are some suggestions for improving your presentation and ultimately, your impact on the audience.
- NEVER read your slide text verbatim
The slide text should have keywords and serve as a guide for comments. You should NOT read the text to your audience.
- Audience eye contact
Eye contact with your audience is crucial for connection. You must engage with them if you expect them to interact with you.
- Practice, practice, practice!
We have all seen presentations that seem to flow like magic. The speaker seamlessly moves from slide to slide and from one concept to the next effortlessly. I can tell you from experience that a great presentation takes practice. The speaker goes over the material until they know every comment they plan to make for each slide and they know what comes next. This can take at least seven complete rehearsals. If you are new to speaking, you should practice delivering it in front of a mirror. It also helps to video yourself practicing to catch any annoying habits or verbal crutches.
- Pacing for comprehension
This again takes practice and sometimes even a friend in the audience who can remind you of pacing. Anxiety can lead to nerves that translate into rapid speech that is not only hard to follow but creates tension throughout the room. The opposite is just as bad. A slow monotone delivery results in the audience mentally leaving the room. With practice, speakers will learn to read their audience and make adjustments on the run.
- Use stories to connect and add novelty
Where ever appropriate use stories to connect with the audience. Stories personalize abstract ideas and allow the audience to experience the information, not just hear it. In addition, our brain is a pattern-seeking organ. Adding a story or altering the flow in meaningful ways draws your audience back into the conversation.
- Use checks for understanding
In a one-on-one conversation, people stop listening every 12 to 18 seconds to process what they have heard. Obviously, you cannot handle a group presentation like a one-on-one interaction, but you can use a number of strategies to enhance audience attention.
- Pair up and share
One such example is to take one or two minutes during your presentation and ask participants to consider the key information presented by having people pair up and share their insights with each other. Carefully craft an open-ended thoughtful inquiry for your participant’s consideration.
- Use open-ended questions
Only ask questions that you cannot answer with a simple yes or no. This will allow for thoughtful interactions with your audience. A rule of thumb is to only ask questions for which you personally do not know the answer.
- How to close with a question
If time for questions has been set aside, NEVER initiate with, “Are there any questions?” This breaks the rule stated above. It is a yes or no question and does not activate higher order thinking. Instead, get in the habit of saying, “What questions do you have?” This is a demand for interactions and will open meaningful dialog. The killing off of good questions happens if you don't allow an appropriate wait time. Research shows that sadly most questions in a group setting are followed by an average of only 3 seconds, before the leader either restates the question, moves on without interaction, or worse, answers their question themselves. Get in the habit of maintaining eye contact with the audience and mentally counting for at least 5 to 10 seconds. This pregnant pause will bring everyone in the room to bear on the issue. You can almost hear them thinking. Do I have a question? Why isn’t anyone talking? What questions might I have to break this silence?
Public speaking is still one of the major fears many of us face. But with thoughtful preparation and practice, this form of communication can come alive for not only your audience but for you. I look forward to being in your audience.