All communications professionals are called on to give presentations from time to time, and for many, the prospect can be daunting. But it doesn’t have to be hard. The secret to a great presentation can be summed up in nine simple words.
Start by thinking of your presentation as a conversation. It’s not a lecture, and it’s certainly not a stump speech. To get into this frame of mind, imagine the topic of your presentation is something important that you want to explain to a friend.
One successful technique is to sit down with a friend and explain the topic to them. If that’s not practical, pretend you’re talking to a friend and record yourself. Ask the question, “If I was going to talk to someone about (fill-in-the-blank) topic, what do I think you would want to know?”
The point of this exercise is to identify the main ideas: the big “take-away” of your presentation. Keep in mind that, however compelling your delivery, the amount of information your audience can absorb is limited. If you can get them to remember one main point, you’ve done a great job. Write out your big idea on a single sheet, and use that as your focal point as you begin to develop your outline.
To write your outline, step away from the computer, silence your phone, and grab pen and paper. We find that ideas flow better without constant interruptions from emails and text messages – or the temptation to update Facebook!
Once you have the big idea and your outline, add in detail and supporting points. At this stage, it’s about the ideas: avoid the temptation to start thinking about graphics and layout just yet. A presentation isn’t about great-looking slides – it’s about great-sounding IDEAS that win people over. Refine your point, work out what’s important, and make it matter to the other person.
Once you have your outline including your flow and arguments worked out, let three words, keep it simple, be your guide when fleshing them out into slides. The point is, the slides, and the words on them, are not the presentation – you are the presentation. The presentation is a conversation and that means it’s about you, not your slides. In fact, without you there to present them, the slides alone should be somewhat hard for someone to follow.
Think of it this way: if everything your audience needs to know is in the slides, why do they need you to present it? They can just read it. For this reason, one good way to start is to take everything you wrote in your outline, and copy it into the Notes section of each PowerPoint slide. This becomes your script.
Each slide should support a single key point from your outline; and for each slide, you need only a single powerful image, or perhaps a few key words taken from the script, to represent the point you are making. The pictures and keywords don’t try to tell the story; they support the script you will be speaking, and add visual interest.
Too many words on a slide actually hinders your audience’s ability to understand your presentation. If the language-parsing part of your brain is busy parsing words on the slides, it can’t take in the words you are speaking. But the visual-parsing part of the brain works independently from language, so the audience can take in a picture and your words at the same time.
When it comes to choosing images, we get the best results by sticking to a single image on each slide, and trying to use a similar style throughout. You don’t have to be a Photoshop guru – stock images are easily found online these days, and are certainly preferable to the clip-art that comes with PowerPoint. Don’t be afraid to inject a little humor either, for a change of pace.
The last three of our nine words relate to delivery. When it comes to giving the presentation, what matters most is knowing what you’re talking about. If you know your stuff – not just your speech but the subject – that will create the confidence to carry you through.
Even seasoned presenters can suffer from pre-presentation anxiety. The key to overcoming it is practice, practice, practice. Aim to know the presentation so well you can deliver it without referring more than occasionally to the script. If you’ve chosen good images for the slides, they will provide visual clues to each point you want to make.
Other than rehearsing, a good night’s sleep is absolutely the best preparation for any presentation. Don’t overdo the caffeine, and if you’re feeling nervous, take a quick five-minute walk and some deep breaths.
As we said at the start, the best presentation is not a lecture or a speech, but rather a conversation. So if you can – and it can take some time to get used to this – just talk normally, as if you were discussing the topic with a friend, rather than a room full of strangers. One trick is to talk more slowly than usual. This helps reduce the tendency to “speechify,” helps reduce the “umms” and “ahhs,” and sends a subtle signal to the audience that YOU are the expert.
Be upbeat about your topic – enthusiasm is contagious, and helps keep your audience engaged. Keep your voice elevated, smile, make eye contact, come out from behind the podium and move about the stage. All of these things help you connect with the audience. Remember, too, that the audience wants you to succeed. They’re not there to see you fail – they’re there because they want to hear what you have to say.
Giving a presentation is rewarding, but it isn’t necessarily something that comes easily to everyone. The fact is, even if you’ve been giving presentations for many years, it can still be hard. Some people find it easier than others, but for everyone, it gets a little easier every time. So hang in there and keep doing it.
Have a conversation. Keep it simple. Know your stuff. These nine words provide the foundation for building more effective presentations. A great talk is the most powerful way to persuade, encourage and even excite people. It’s the key to unlocking business success.
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