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.
“Have a conversation”
Start by thinking of your presentation as a conversation. To get into this frame of mind, imagine the topic of your presentation is something 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 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.
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.
“Keep it simple”
Once you have your outline, 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.
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, to represent the point you are making. The pictures and keywords don’t try to tell the story; they support the story you will be telling, 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. In fact, a recent MIT study has found that it only takes your brain 13 milliseconds to interpret an image.
“Know your stuff”
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 your script. If you’ve chosen good images for the slides, they will provide visual clues to each point you want to make.
Once again, 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.
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.