Powerful Presentations

hilaryA great speech starts with great content, including at least one great story, and builds on that content with powerful delivery.
I‘ve written before about the elements of a great speech, and the elements of a great story. I’m not bad at writing either of these, but I’m terrible at delivery, so I’ve been trying to teach myself how to be a better presenter. This article is about what I’ve learned.

Just to recap, here are the elements of a great speech:

  1. It’s emotionally engaging — it triggers something inside you that gets your heart pumping, your adrenaline flowing, your pores opening, your tear ducts flowing.
  2. It’s intellectually stimulating — it introduces you to new information, or new ideas, or new ways of thinking about things, and supports arguments logically and credibly. But it’s not overwhelming — we can only absorb so much new information in one gulp. Graphics, if used, enhance the audience’s understanding, amusement or engagement.
  3. It’s clever — it uses smart, creative language, analogies, contrast and opposition of ideas, humour (or satire), compelling examples.
  4. It’s memorable — by using stories, repetition and other techniques that help people retain what they’ve heard.
  5. It’s concise — no wasted words, no unnecessary tangents.
  6. It’s actionable — people leave knowing what they need, and want, to do.
  7. It starts and ends powerfully — saves the best ’til last and starts with the next best.

And here are the elements of a great story (which is often an integral part of any great presentation):

  1. Characters who are authentic and sympathetic.
  2. A narrative that transports the reader, takes him/her away from where they are and puts them there, in the story.
  3. Entertaining events and dialogue.
  4. Surprise. The unpredictable is engaging, funny, terrifying, saddening. It’s the shortest way to our emotions. But it has to be plausible.
  5. Well-crafted imagery that appeals to all the senses.
  6. Style/voice. A sympathetic and enthusiastic narration, flow, and point of view that engages the listener.
  7. No waste.

This is all about developing high quality content — which is most of what ‘effective presentation’ courses are about. Of course you need to know your audience (and the space you’re speaking in and the tools you are using) and do your homework and know what you’re talking about, in order to craft content that will contain these elements and connect with your audience. But once you have the content down, the rest should be easy, right? Well, maybe if you have a photographic memory. What’s the process for making the delivery of the content powerful and effortless? Here’s what the experts say:

  • Most of the time, your audience will not tolerate you reading from a script. If you’re speaking without a script, you need to be very well prepared, and rehearsed to the point where a handful of bullet points is all you need to guide you through the presentation. The only way to do this, alas, is to keep practicing until you’re almost bored doing so. Then, you also have to keep these points in mind:
    • You must appear confident, comfortable and relaxed, but passionate about your subject — speak slowly and deliberately but enthusiastically, with flow and with variance in tone, and use gestures naturally and sparingly.
    • Make lots of eye contact with the audience, and minimize looking down or at the screen behind you unless you are explaining something in a graphic displayed there. Learn to ‘read’ your audience to discover what they are, and are not, responding to in both the content and delivery style of your presentation. Show that you really care about your subject, and your audience.
  • If you have the luxury of being able to read your speech, you still need to memorize parts of it, especially the beginning and ending, and especially if you have no teleprompter so that you must look up from your text to make eye contact with the audience. In these circumstances you should write your speech in a conversational rather than formal style, double- or triple-space it so you do not lose your place, number your pages, and use colours and markings to indicate pauses, emphasis and other ‘colour’ in the speech. And of course, you still need to rehearse it.
  • Dress comfortably and unobtrusively — as businesslike (or modestly more so) than your audience.
  • Realize that your audience wants you to succeed — and as long as they get something of value from your presentation, even if they have to work to get it, they will consider the presentation a success. Imagine yourself succeeding as you speak, and never apologize for your nervousness or hesitation, or for technology failures. But use humility and humour — never be arrogant. And don’t try to please everyone in the audience — if someone is too tired or distracted or otherwise unready for what you have to say, ignore them and focus on the audience that is engaged.
  • In dealing with Q&A sessions, make sure your audience knows the plan — questions during, after or not at all. Be ready with FAQs if the audience is slow to ask questions. When questions are asked, repeat them so everyone has heard them (and to give yourself time to think through your answer). Be concise. Don’t reply to comments that have no question — thank the speaker for the comment and then ask for the next question. If you don’t know the answer say so, but arrange to find out and get back to the questioner. Restate ‘loaded’ questions in neutral terms. Consider how to ‘wrap up’ the Q&A period neatly — with a thank you, closing anecdote or ‘point to ponder’.

A great way to learn effective presentation, I’m told, is to start with something short and practice with that — a joke for example. Rehearse and deliver the joke to different audiences until it ‘works’ — you deliver it without hesitation or misstep, with the appropriate pauses for effect, and get the maximum audience reaction. By doing so you’ll find what works for you — how much you need to memorize and how much you can fill in yourself extemporaneously, without hesitation.

Also, I’ve learned, unless audience interaction (questions etc.) is prohibited, you should have a ‘core’ presentation that takes no more than half the allotted time, some interesting and relevant ‘unforced’ questions to throw to the audience if they don’t volunteer questions of their own accord, and some additional material to present near (but not after) the end of your core presentation if you really can’t get the audience engaged, so that your presentation isn’t embarrassingly short.

For a writer, memorization and rehearsal is a frustrating process — it may seem superfluous to have to learn what you’ve written, when it’s perfectly clear and engaging in written form. It’s especially challenging if, like me, you have a terrible memory. You have to think of it like the script of a play — if you’ve ever read a play or screenplay, you know it’s not at all the same thing as actually seeing it performed. And when you present you are a performer, not a writer, and the quality of your performance is every bit as important as the quality of the writing you are delivering — perhaps even more so.

So now I know just enough about making presentations to be dangerous. I welcome your additional ideas and hints, and I’ll tell you how my next presentations work out.

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4 Responses to Powerful Presentations

  1. Meg says:

    Having done quite a bit of public speaking, including in competition, I’d say you have a great outline for success here. I would say that it’s much easier to make an impression on your audience – and have fun yourself — if you enjoy what you’re talking about and feel passionately about it; unfortunately, that can’t always be the case. Fortunately, my stints in improv have given me many joyful moments of being ‘up front’, and having a great time. Those moments have made me far more comfortable with the limelight than I ever was before.

  2. Avi Solomon says:

    Steve Job’s speech is a good example to study:http://www.wiredatom.com/jobs_stanford_speech/

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Meg: I’m envious — improv is exactly what I need to help me think on my feet and wean myself off notes. Avi: Amazing speech, thanks.

  4. Dave Smith says:

    Actor Anthony Hopkins says that he prepares for a movie by reading the script 100 times.

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