When people give you the privilege of their attention, you have the unique opportunity to own the room and direct the conversation. Whether it is pitching to potential investors, reporting at your AGM, securing future customers or just firing up your team, it is important to nail your presentation, so your audience leaves the room knowing that the time they’ve invested has yielded a solid return. Below is some simple advice that can go a long way towards helping you achieve your goals, and if adhered to, can have you presenting ‘like a boss’ in no time.
Plan big, present small
When it comes to creating a great presentation, the most difficult step is the first one — figuring out where to begin. Most people are tempted to start with technology and begin creating slides, visuals and graphics before they know what they are even talking about. This approach is as flawed as building a house without a foundation. Instead, take the time in the beginning to sit down and write out your objectives, characterise your audience and figure out the most important takeaways from your presentation. It will save you time and hassle down the track.
When you start, have a clear understanding of what you want the audience to do directly after you present and guide them towards this goal. To help you achieve this, develop a narrative for your presentation and frequently link back to your overarching themes or goals. Many people default to the classic “problem – solution” narrative where they assess the current situation and suggest a solution. While this narrative can be highly effective, it only works in specific situations like validating a business concept for investors or pitching for a potential clients’ business.
In the planning phase, it is also important to characterise your audience. No two people can be reached in exactly the same way, and some groups of people respond in completely different ways to others. Ask yourself these three questions and you’ll soon work out why these people have decided to listen to you:
- Why am I here and what am I trying to achieve?
- Why are all these people here and what do they want to know?
- What do I want my audience to think and know at the end?
These questions seem obvious but it is so easy to lose sight of your audience where you’re in the spotlight.
Simplicity is key
Loads of text and bullet points on a single slide will bore your audience and reduce the amount of information that people take away from it. If you want people to actually listen to your presentation, ditch the bullet points for a simple statement and then back up the statement with speech and possibly a linking visual. This will force people to focus on just one thing – listening to your message. It is extremely difficult to process information when you have to read one thing and listen to another thing at the same time.
As the brain switches focus between the objects fighting for your attention, concentration declines and the messages aren’t received because the brain can only fully digest one thing at a time. Have you ever tried reading a book on public transport when there is a really interesting or loud conversation going on? Or reading an important email while someone is trying to give you instructions at work?
So do yourself a favour and create a narrative or metaphor that guides the conversation. Or show your audience exactly what they should be focusing on. In the words of Leonardo da Vinci ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’, therefore next time you’re creating a presentation direct your audience’s attention to either your words or a visual on the screen that reinforces what you are saying.
The medium is as important as the message
For years, presentation software has helped people communicate ideas more effectively. The common slide-based communication aids have however become widely misused, with people all too often overloading their slides with text, charts, diagrams, videos, music and visual effects that do little besides encourage audiences to tune out.
The cool thing about slide-less presentation software, like Prezi, is that it doesn’t force you to fragment your story into slides but enables you to create a holistic narrative or metaphor that captures the audience’s attention. Its zooming motion also results in a more cinematic experience. Therefore, you are no longer tempted to jam each slide full of pointless eye candy, which so many of us do in a misguided attempt to make our presentations more appealing and engaging.
But be careful not to use your software as a crutch. The term presentation comes from the Latin word ‘praesentare’ which means ‘to place before or bring before’ — simply, to put one person in front of the other. At the end of the day, you are giving the presentation, and the software is there simply to help you.
If you have spent time developing your narrative, characterising the audience and rehearsing your speech then you have the tools to make a stellar presentation, everything else is just down to delivery. Techniques like imagining the audience in their undies or staring at a spot on the wall ignore the simple truth about presenting — it’s not about us versus them, it’s is about developing a relationship so that both parties take something away. The best thing is, you have the opportunity to influence what they take away.
It takes practice, but spend the first few moments of your next presentation getting to know your audience and, just as important, let them get to know you. Don’t formalise this process with a ‘My name is Mrs Blabla and I have a degree in bla’ as this is often perceived as self-serving or arrogant. Start your presentation with a question, story, quote, statistic, startling statement, anecdote, expert opinion, physical object, sound effect or visual. Doing so will capture your audience’s attention and validate their decision to listen.
It’s tempting to shy away from presentations, especially for those of us who might not like being the centre of attention. But if you embrace the challenge and take each presentation as an opportunity to improve your technique you’ll soon be presenting “like a boss”. Do enough of them and you might even start to enjoy it.
Drew Banks is the Head of International at Prezi, the cloud-based presentation software that helps you connect powerfully with your audience.