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Talk so people will listen

Jackie McGoey

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How to deliver an engaging presentation and create a professional PowerPoint slide show.

THINK ABOUT the last time you sat through a presentation. Were you fully present and interested in learning more about what the speaker was saying? Or were you distracted — bored, even? Maybe wishing it would Just. End. Already.

As painful as it is to be in the audience during a bad presentation, it’s even worse when you’re the presenter, staring out at a sea of eyes glazing over.

Delivering an effective and engaging presentation, whether to a handful of colleagues at a midday meeting or to an auditorium full of people at an annual conference, takes planning and practice.

With just a few simple tips, you can learn how to engage with audiences in authentic and meaningful ways and take your presentations to the next level.

Don’t skip the prep work. The No. 1 tip for pulling off a successful presentation is really an obvious one: Prepare for it. Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that promotes communication and public speaking skills, holds a speech contest each year. Its 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking, Ramona J. Smith, said her routine begins by actually writing down her speech. “Write it down, organize it and know exactly what you want to say,” Smith said.

Bestselling author Garr Reynolds echoes her penchant for pen and paper in his book “Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Design and Delivery.” “I could use a computer, but I find that the act of holding a pen in my hand allows for a more spontaneous flow and rhythm for visualizing and recording ideas,” he said.

This prep time is so important to the overall process because it allows you to formulate your thoughts, focus your storytelling and most importantly, find your core idea and why it matters.

“When building the content of your presentation, you should always put yourself in the shoes of the audience and ask, ‘So what?’” Reynolds said. If what you are planning to say won’t support your point or illustrate why the audience should care, cut it.

Practice until it’s perfect, then practice again. Powerful presentations are rarely given in an off-the-cuff fashion. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until you know it back to front. Smith recommends practicing in front of the mirror, or in front of your family. Even your dog.

“If you practice, when you get in front of the audience you’ll go on autopilot, because you have rehearsed it so many times,” Smith said. “You’ll know exactly what you want to say and how it’s supposed to sound.”

Know your audience and what they need. Having a solid understanding of who you will be speaking to is crucial to the success of your presentation, Smith said. Ask yourself the following questions: Who is the audience? What is their background? What do they expect from me? Even knowing details such as whether or not the venue is formal or casual and if you will be speaking first thing in the morning or right before lunch will clue you into the type of presentation your particular audience needs.

Tell a story. More than half of people — 55% — say a great story is primarily what holds their focus during a presentation, according to a 2018 report by Prezi, a company that creates visual storytelling software.

In a 2019 keynote address, Kindra Hall, author and chief storytelling officer at Stellar Collective, a consulting firm which focuses on the strategic application of storytelling, outlined why humans are attracted to stories.

“Stories stick,” she said. “Stories build trust, stories show value and stories change brain chemistry by releasing cortisol, which results in increased focus and attention, and oxytocin, which increases empathy and emotion.”

Audiences connect with stories through what Hall calls a co-creative process. When you share a story, the audience picks up on certain pieces, applies it to their own lives and, as a result, remembers it longer. That is why weaving a story into your presentation makes so much sense.

Know the importance of body language. Steer clear of linear presentations where you lecture from a podium the entire time. Hand gestures and eye contact give your audience something visual to look at and keeps them engaged. Use the stage to drive home certain points. Smith suggests a good rule of thumb is to position your body at different areas on the stage during different parts of your presentation: stage left, middle and stage right. “Following your body makes it easier for the audience to follow your message,” she said.

Change up your tone of voice. When your goal is a dynamic presentation, vocal variety is another tool to have in your arsenal. “You can talk really fast or talk slowly, dragging your words out,” Smith said. “You can whisper and you can shout.” Switch it up and keep the audience on their toes.

Beat the nerves. The sweaty palms, the shallow breathing, the racing heart. You know the signs. Even seasoned presenters get a little nervous before a big speech. Having a pre-presentation ritual can calm frayed nerves.

“Some people go to the restroom and do a silly dance in the stall when no one is looking, some people meditate or listen to music, some pray, and some pace back and forth,” Smith said. Find what works for you.

Talk to, not at, your audience. Smith recommends asking “you” questions to make an audience feel as though you wrote the speech just for them. For example: “How did you feel about that?” “When this happened, what did you think?” “What would you have done differently?”

Whether you expect answers back or you keep your questions rhetorical will be based on your audience research beforehand. An enthusiastic audience may have multiple people chomping at the bit to share out to everyone. But, as Smith cautions, there are audiences that, by nature, will be more subdued and contemplative. “Some are quiet but completely attentive, and that’s because that’s how they were taught to respect the speaker,” she said.

Time it right. Smith advises keeping your presentation to no more than 20 minutes. Corporate training should last 45 to 60 minutes.

Make it count. End your presentation by leaving the audience with something they can do immediately to take action. By giving them a task to complete once they are back out in “the real world,” you are helping them remember and carry your core message — and why it matters — forward.

PowerPoint presentations 101

EXPERTS ESTIMATE that upwards of 30 million PowerPoint presentations are created worldwide every single day. And while there’s no doubt that PPTs are an effective way of presenting information, not all are created equal. There are, however, tried-and-true tips to creating a compelling PowerPoint presentation.

Avoid text-heavy slides. When choosing the content for each slide, think brief and succinct. “No more than six words … ever,” advises Seth Godin, bestselling author, speaker and blogger.

During a presentation, “slides should reinforce your words, not repeat them,” he continued. This keeps your audience engaged, allows them to retain more information and ensures they don’t succumb to boredom.

Don’t always default to bullet points. Although they are better than full paragraphs, “people will tire quickly if you show slides of bulleted lists, one after another,” Garr Reynolds said. Instead, whenever possible, explore other options for displaying information, such as quantitative displays like graphs or charts.

Make it stand out visually. Design matters. A well-designed and eye-catching presentation appeals to visual learners and improves people’s ability to recall the information you share. But remember, visuals should support your narrative, not detract from or overpower it.

Reynolds’ top design tips include getting comfortable with white or negative space, and using images of faces, which our eyes are naturally drawn toward. Remember four principles of graphic design:

  1. Contrast — making a single element clearly dominant through manipulation of space, positioning, color or typeface choice
  2. Repetition — reusing the same or similar elements throughout a presentation’s design
  3. Alignment — the idea of connectivity between all elements on a slide
  4. Proximity — moving elements closer or farther apart to achieve a more organized look

Integrate gamification apps. Applying elements of fun, such as live polling and Q&A apps, into scenarios that traditionally are non-game experiences, can reinforce your message in a unique and highly collaborative way. Explore Kahoot!, Quizizz and Poll Everywhere before your next presentation.

Make sure the meaning of your slides can be understood quickly. If presentation slides are good, according to Duarte, a worldwide presentation and story firm, your audience should be able to glance at them for no more than three seconds and understand what that slide was trying to accomplish after looking away. The Duarte Method “Glance Test” is a tool you can use to gauge the effectiveness of your presentation. After you complete each slide, perform the Glance Test. After looking at the slide for only three seconds and then looking away, can you understand the point of the slide? If not, your audience won’t be able to either, and just that quickly, you may lose their attention.

Prepare handouts. Free up time during your presentation — leaving room for only your core message and why it matters — by preparing detailed handouts (but not a printed version of your slides!) to give to your audience at the end. This practice will help you avoid cramming too much information into your slides.

Powerpoint template for nine-slide presentation


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