10 things you need to know about presenting
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Respected wisdom is that the maximum attention span of an audience listening to a presentation is 40 minutes.
That’s if you’re really good.
If you’re not, you’ll probably lose them within 40 seconds and it’s a long haul to win them back.
There’s nothing more demoralizing for a speaker than to look up to a sea of people gazing at their iphones. You can kid yourself that they’re tweeting about the content of your speech, but in reality they are probably just finding a more interesting way to pass the time.
To avoid this, here are my tips for engaging your audience:
1. Prepare properly
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Even those people who can deliver a brilliant off-the-cuff speech have probably prepared thoroughly.
However, although most presenters do prepare, they don’t always do it properly. Often they forget their audience and present to them on a subject that interests them rather than the people listening. We are all selfish and, if we are giving up our time, we want to know what’s in it for us. Remember – no-one cares about you.
2. Work on your structure
There’s an old saying about presentations that you should: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.
This may be a bit rigid for some presentations, but a clear structure is absolutely vital. Without it, you can guarantee that audience minds will wander.
3. Don’t try to say too much
Often presenters want to show off how much they know by cramming in too much information. Or they will tell themselves that everything is so important that it simply has to stay in. The problem is that the presentation then lacks focus. As Lee Warren, a brilliant presenter from Invisible Advantage, says: “If everything’s significant, then nothing is.”
4. Be original
Even if you are the most charismatic person on the planet, you still need interesting, original content to engage your audience.
Tell people something new and avoid boring company jargon. Above all, don't trot out those conference clichés. I’ve wasted too much of my life listening to phrases such as ‘it’s not the strongest that survive, but those most adaptable to change’; ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’; ‘there’s no such thing as problems, only opportunities’. I could go on, but I’m boring myself here.
5. Don’t be a slave to powerpoint
How often have you been at a conference when up pops a slide that has 72 different points on it? They’re impossible to read, a massive turn off and while the audience is trying to work out what on earth is going on in the slide, they won’t be listening to you.
Equally, do not put up a point on a slide and then read it out word for word. That is not adding anything to your presentation.
Slides can be useful, but they need to be clear and simple and add something to your words, not just repeat them.
6. Think pictures and video
There’s nothing like a bit of visual stimulation to engage your audience. I’ve got a vested interest here as I have a video company, but there’s no doubt that pictures and video can bring your presentation to life.
7. Delivery is vital
There’s a horrible expression that is often applied to presenters that I shall paraphrase: “You can’t polish a No 2, but you can roll it in glitter.”
Everyone, however high or low they rate on the charisma scale, can improve their delivery with practice. If you have a stage, it is important to use that stage to communicate with people in different parts of the audience. Look people in the eye and pace yourself, rather than rushing through everything. It may seem strange at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
8. Don’t read from a script
Notes and cue cards are fine, but don’t read from a script word for word. It looks as though you don’t know what you are talking about and haven’t practiced – which is probably the case.
9. Steer clear of jokes
The problem with jokes is that the best ones are usually offensive to someone. Unfortunately, in 2015, you cannot get away with offending anyone. Natural humour, where appropriate, is great. But don't tell the one about the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman.
10. Practice out loud
I’ve talked about the need to practice and, before you go in front of your audience, it is vital that you do this out loud. Practicing in your head is not the same thing as we tend to read much quicker and skim over any mistakes or clumsy sentences, telling ourselves that we’ll sort that out later.
So, find yourself a quiet corner or lock yourself in a room and deliver that presentation exactly as you plan to when you have an audience.