You need to give a presentation. And, ideally, you need to do so without boring your audience to tears. That can be more challenging than you think.
One study indicates that a whopping 91% of professionals admit to daydreaming during presentations. Even more cringe-worthy? 39% of people confess to actually falling asleep.
Other research shares that 41% of U.S. employees would rather do their taxes or visit the dentist than endure another slideshow. With that in mind, crafting an engaging presentation that grabs, and holds, the audience’s attention is a must.
Think it’s impossible? Here’s the good news: It’s not.
We’ve pulled together ten need-to-know tips for a presentation that won’t make your audience wish they were watching paint dry.
1. Start with a bang
A strong presentation starts with a strong opening. When we speak, we have 60 seconds on average to capture people’s attention – which means the beginning of your presentation carries some serious weight.
Skip the boilerplate “Today, I’m going to talk to you about…” and challenge yourself to think of something more creative. From a story to a demonstration, there are plenty more compelling ways to begin your presentation than simply stating the obvious.
Need some inspiration to get those creative juices flowing? Check out this opening from Toastmasters World Champion, Darren LaCroix. He hooks his audience right from the start:
2. Make your visual aids visual
This seems obvious. But, it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of filling your presentation slides with heavy blocks of text.
Remember, the goal isn’t for the audience to read the information off of your slides. You want them focused on you and what you’re saying – then you can occasionally direct their attention to a visual that’s displayed on the screen when necessary.
Some of you may be thinking: “Oh, but I can use plenty of text as long as it’s well organized with bullet points.” That’s not necessarily the case. Take Steve Jobs, for example. He was an incredibly engaging presenter – yet he never used a single bullet point. Instead, he relied on displaying carefully chosen words and phrases with plenty of impactful imagery.
It’s a strategy worth replicating, particularly when you consider the Picture Superiority Effect – which states we learn and retain information better when it’s presented in pictures.
When creating your presentation slides, keep Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule in mind:
- You should use no more than 10 slides
- Your slides should take no longer than 20 minutes to get through
- Your font size shouldn’t go below 30-point font
And, yes, we know we just used bullets ourselves. They have their time and place.
3. Involve your audience
One surefire way to engage your audience: Rather than speaking at them, involve them in your presentation.
People don’t have the option to sit back and halfheartedly listen to your content when you actively involve them in what’s happening through things like:
- Surveys and questions
- Smaller group discussions
There are plenty more ideas you can use to make your audience members a part of the action. Just check out this TED Talk from musician Bobby McFerrin, where he uses the audience to explain the pentatonic scale and how our brains are wired.
You likely won’t have your audience singing. But, the point remains the same: Involving your audience members is sure to hold their attention far better than just rambling on in front of them.
4. Keep it short
There’s a common theme that you’ve likely noticed with all TED Talks: They’re incredibly short.
When research states that people can only focus on one subject for a finite amount of time (typically right around 10 minutes at the very most), TED decided that they would keep their own presentations under 18 minutes.
No presenter – it doesn’t matter who – is allowed to go past that 18-minute mark.
We know that feels like almost no time at all. And, there will likely be instances when you need to fill a longer presentation slot. At those times? It’s even more important to use strategies to involve your audience and split your presentation into different parts – like an opening, a small group discussion, and then a closing.
That structure and frequent changing of gears can help to hold their attention longer.
5. Rehearse (but don’t over-rehearse)
Practice makes perfect. And, that’s true – you definitely don’t want to fly by the seat of your pants when giving an important presentation.
But heed this warning: You don’t want to over-rehearse either. That can make you appear far too stiff and formal, which will only lose the focus and engagement of your audience.
Don’t read from any notecards. Instead, move around the stage, show passion and enthusiasm, and look different audience members in the eye. That’s far more compelling than watching someone white-knuckle the sides of a podium.
Look to professor Randy Pausch’s presentation at Carnegie Mellon for an example. While there’s a podium onstage, he still moves around to make it feel as if he’s having a more casual conversation with his audience:
6. Be clear on your core message
You have limited speaking time, so make sure you can answer this question definitely: What’s the message you’re trying to get across? Perhaps you’re a famous author and you want to tell them your biggest secret to finishing a novel. Or maybe you’re a marketing executive who wants to explain your top three tips to reaching a target audience.
Whoever you are, create your entire presentation — every sentence, every story — around that core message. Each minute is valuable, so you don’t want to waste any time on irrelevant content. For each part of your presentation, ask yourself, “Does this help me clearly and effectively communicate my lesson? Does it add substance, or does it add fluff?”
Take this example from Heidi Heikenfeld. From the very start, you know that she’s going to speak about the gender gap among portfolio managers in the investment community. She talks about what this gender gap means, why we should challenge it, and ties in some of her personal experiences as one of the few women in this career space. Every moment relates back to the core message: There’s a gender gap in this industry, and we need to do something about it.
7. Avoid sounding monotone
Your thoughtfully crafted presentation won’t matter one bit if you don’t keep the audience engaged. And keeping them engaged is difficult if you speak in a flat, dull voice the entire time. You might as well be a white noise machine, lulling your listeners into a deep, dark sleep.
“People who speak in a monotone voice or with inappropriate expression in their voices are perceived as untrustworthy, boring, or even shifty,” says Susan Ward, a small business expert and owner of a consulting firm.
When you practice, don’t just focus on memorization. Practice infusing your words with passion for the topic. You should be as animated as you’d be if you were telling a good friend about the dream vacation you just went on.
Here, James Veitch tells a story about a conversation he had with someone who sent him spam mail. As he winds his way through different parts of the story (such as the scam artist sending him gold — how fun!), his voice varies in intensity and volume.
8. Structure it like a story
There’s a reason why storytelling is so powerful. Stories are based on a simple structure that allows people to see the message clearly.
Your entire presentation doesn’t need to be one story (though it can be). Instead, you could start with a personal anecdote that helps introduce the topic and the problem. Either way, the most important thing is that your presentation follows this simple story arc: beginning, middle, and end.
Graham Shaw, for instance, begins by asking the audience, “Who thinks they can draw?” Turns out, most people in attendance think they can’t, and Shaw wants to prove them wrong. So he spends the middle portion of his talk — the bulk of the time — doing so. He has them grab a pen and some paper (a great example of audience involvement) and walks them through drawing a few cartoons, step by step.
And voilà everyone successfully drew the images. Sure, they probably won’t be featured in an art museum any time soon, but that’s not the point. Shaw wraps it up with the real point: that our lack of belief in ourselves is getting in our own way.
9. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re nervous
“I’m going to start by saying… I’m nervous,” Tracee Ellis Ross — actor, director, Golden Globe winner, and more — says. Those are the first words out of her mouth as she gets up on stage at Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year Summit. “I’ve been writing this speech in between trying to live my life and do a job. And I care what I say, so bear with me.”
It may seem taboo to admit you’re nervous. Aren’t you supposed to fake it until you make it?, you might be thinking. I disagree. Yes, you should prepare — a lot. Yes, you should practice a decent amount. Yes, you want to avoid “um”-ing your way through it.
But this isn’t about that. This is about the fact that, despite how ready you are, despite how much you believe in your message, you still might be nervous. Ross admitting this doesn’t invalidate what she’s saying. It makes her more relatable to the audience. And in this instance, it’s especially powerful — sometimes it’s hard to relate to someone who’s been on TV and won a shiny golden statue in front of thousands of people.
Being honest, confessing that you’re human, too, helps break down that barrier between you and the audience, making it that much easier for your message to not only be heard, but positively received.
10. Tie everything together at the end
You’ve put a lot of time and effort into deciding on a strong core method and building your presentation around it. When you get to the end, it’s time to tie it all up in a bow.
Remind your listeners why they came to hear you speak today. Reference things you talked about and how they relate to the overall message. List the key takeaways and any possible calls to action; now that they’ve got all this great information, what should they do with it?
This is the last thing your audience will hear. It’s the last chance to drive home the point you were trying to make and keep it fresh in their minds even after you leave the stage.
In his speech about what contributes to company success, Bill Gross outlines five different factors, touching on each separately. At the end, he brings them all back together again and provides his insight on which factors he believes matter the most. This says to the audience, “Here are the five things we just mentioned, in case you forgot. And going forward, here are the ones I think you should prioritize.”
Ready to engage your audience? You’ve sat through your own fair share of boring presentations, and you’d rather not be one of them. Fortunately, you don’t have to be. Put these ten key tips to work, and you’re sure to educate and engage your entire audience – yes, even those typical back-row nappers.