Effective Presentations — More Than One Way to Impress an Audience

Jon Stewart Richard AvedonKathy Sierra’s post on how to start a presentation or novel is inspired, but it’s not for everyone. As I mentioned in my last post, people read, listen and pay attention for two reasons: to be informed, or to be entertained. If you can do both, you’re laughing (and more talented than I am). What’s important is that you do at least one of the two: inform, or entertain.

Kathy’s six elements of an entertaining presentation, book, film or story are right on: provoke, empathize, amuse, surprise, suspend, and engage the emotions. This is especially true for fiction, but it also works for non-fiction. The most successful business gurus do more than inform — they rock the room. Love him or hate him, Michael Moore entertains an audience while he informs them. So does Jon Stewart.

But suppose you’re Al Gore rather than Jon Stewart — what do you do? If you’re wise, you do three things:
  • You make it clear that you’re there to inform, rather than entertain. Those seeking entertainment will stay away, instead of falling asleep or walking out.
  • You inform your audience brilliantly.
  • You do some little things that are unambitiously entertaining — include a relevant cartoon or video or a funny story (and rehearse it so it is funny).
From years on the speaker’s circuit, getting slowly better at it (and occasionally hitting a home run) I’ve learned I am not an entertaining speaker, but I can be a competently informative one. So here’s my advice to those who have something important to say, but aren’t the wittiest at saying it. Consider it a sequel to Kathy’s post:
  1. Do your homework. Know your subject extremely well. Rehearse with people who are hard to dazzle with new information, until they’re impressed. 
  2. Pick your venues, know your audience. If the conference is full of bored people who are only there because it’s a company-paid jaunt, pass. No point being knowledgeable if the audience isn’t interested in learning. Talk to them before your presentation to find out what they know and what they care about.
  3. Give ’em lots of new stuff. I always have twice as much new, interesting material as I expect to be able to present. I don’t let on that I have a lot of slides that I can show (I rarely get to all of them). I put most of the best stuff at the beginning, and save the very best to last, skipping stuff in the middle that won’t fit. I move at a fairly fast clip, but if people have questions, I let them come. 
  4. Make sure your information is practical and useful. Some abstract new concept may be interesting to you, and a few in the audience, but most of us are looking for something we can apply in our jobs or our lives. If it’s not obvious, it’s even OK to suggest to people how the information you’re conveying can be used. If there are free downloads or other ‘takeaway’ tools you can point them to that can help them use the information, that’s even better.
  5. No bullet point slides. Interesting, relevant pictures, graphics, screen-shots. Give the audience something to look at, but force them to listen to you at the same time.
  6. Give ’em lots of handouts. Not the entire text of your presentation — other stuff that adds to it. Reading lists. Related articles. Copies of especially good graphics. Hotlinks to sites with further information and tools and demos they can try out on their own time.
  7. Go with the flow. In a small group, if they’re really engaged, my objective is to turn the presentation into a group conversation. After giving them some new/interesting information at the start of the presentation (and handing out a bunch more) I’ll toss out a question and, if there’s a lot of discussion, I’ll just moderate and facilitate, keeping it going as long as there’s energy around it. Sometimes the audience has more to teach each other than I have to offer them. Those who don’t want to participate can read the stuff I’ve handed out. In a larger group, I leave time and room for a couple of interesting diversions (which, if I’ve done my homework, I can usually anticipate and plan for). I ask the audience if they’re interested in the tangents I’ve planned for, and if I get a lot of nods, I’ll go there — it’s a way of making a large audience feel involved in the flow. If I get no response, I’ll stay with the original agenda.
  8. Use multimedia. Relevant visualizations and short video clips that make your point make a nice break from the static. Dave Snowden showed the famous Daniel Simons “basketball” observation skills video last week, and people were talking about it for the rest of the conference. I showed the India traffic video to demonstrate complex adaptive systems.
  9. Speak enthusiastically and passionately. This can be hard if, like me, you don’t sleep well in hotels and on planes and you’re a bit weary when you step up to the podium. Or if you’re not used to speaking and are nervous. But it’s important. If you don’t sound interested or intrigued by your subject, you can’t expect your audience to be.
  10. Tell stories — about how the information you’re giving has been practically applied, or (if you prefer war stories to success stories) how it should have been applied. Stories from your own experience are best, but second-hand stories are OK too.
As Kathy says, you need to get the audience hooked from the beginning, so hit them with something really interesting right from the start. But keep another ‘wow’ for the very end, just before you conclude by reiterating how useful everything you’ve told them could be, if they act on it appropriately.

It’s worked for me, anyway — I’m a clumsy speaker and storyteller, but I get pretty high marks, and repeat invitations, for most of my presentations. I’ve even had a couple of standing O’s. And it only took me 50 years.

Good show, everyone.

Photo of Jon Stewart is by the late Richard Avedon, part of an unfinished collection on campaign 2004.

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1 Response to Effective Presentations — More Than One Way to Impress an Audience

  1. David G. Jones says:

    My most recent address – to a Montreal audience of 75 or so people – had as its initiial objective establishing a pictorial understanding of the “knowledge work place” – comparing roughly the 1900 period to the 2000 period. My intent was to illustrate with pictures what the office environment USED to be like and how it differs from today. With that, I then wanted to raise the question: what with modern technologies, globalization, fast-paced change and higher standards of living and office accommodation – were things really better today or worse? In my view pictures, aided by my speaking to the pictures and engaging the audience in that process was far more effective than 25 – 50 bulleted slides that listed techie tools and other superficial elements. Now did they get it? Not sure. But I did have several tell me that NOW they understand what KM is trying to get at. The answer to the question BTW? It’s a bit of both. We today have email, but a hundred years ago they didn’t have cube farms. I’d say the jury was still out on effectiveness measures.

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