Delivering Great Presentations
Communicating Effectively With the Right Delivery, Content, and Slides
Ever been to a really bad presentation? You know, the kind where the speaker stands behind the podium, uses slides that mirror what he is saying directly, and includes lots of data tables to validate his position.
But. "What's so bad about that?" you ask. "Isn't that how most presentations are given?" Yes. That is how most presentations are delivered, but that doesn't mean that's the most effective way to deliver them. This kind of presentation risks boring your audience to the point where they start wishing for a fire alarm to go off so they can escape. And once you lose someone, it is next to impossible to bring her attention back.
If the information you are presenting is important enough for you to deliver orally, then it demands an appropriate amount of planning and preparation so that the information you present is memorable – for the right reasons. Give a bad presentation and you'll be remembered all right: it just won't be the type of impression you want to leave in anyone's mind.
When someone presents well, it sends the message that the person is capable, confident, intelligent, and competent. These people get noticed and that type of attention bodes well for your career. Even if you don't make formal presentations in your current position, think about the future and keep in mind that you do have to present your ideas and opinions on a daily basis. The same basic principles of effective delivery apply.
Four Principles of Great Presentations
- Understand Your Audience.
- Prepare Your Content.
- Deliver Confidently.
- Control the Environment.
1. Understand Your Audience
To deliver a great presentation you have to consider the following audience characteristics:
- Profile – Who are they? What is the common element that brings them together?
- Needs – Why are they attending the presentation? What do they need to know after you've finished?
- Wants – What do they want from the presentation? Do they want to increase knowledge, learn something or be entertained? How can you connect their interests with your message?
- Expectations – What do they expect in terms of content and length?
- Current Knowledge – How much explanation do you need to provide? What assumptions can you make?
When you know your audience, you can prepare content that appeals to them specifically. If you pass over this first crucial step you risk delivering a presentation that is content rich and relevance poor.
2. Prepare Your Content
Now that you know who you are presenting to and why they are there, you can determine what to present. Here are some tips for content preparation:
- Don't try to cover everything. As Voltaire said, "The secret of being a bore is to tell all." Great presentations stimulate thoughts, questions, and discussion. Develop your content so that it covers the main points but leaves room for the audience to apply the information to their own circumstances.
- Start off well with a great hook – you only have a few minutes right at the start to fully engage the audience. Don't use this time to present background information. Get your audience charged up and eager to listen. Make the relevance immediately obvious.
- Also, start by telling your audience where you are heading. Don't make them wait for your conclusion, tell them up front what your premise or purpose is. This helps your audience stay focused. They may or may not agree with you at the start, but they will be able to quickly spot all of your supporting arguments.
- Your presentation should have five to seven take-away points. This follows the chunking principle, which you can learn more about here.
- Tell a story, make comparisons, and use lots of examples. Be sure to mix up the type of content to stimulate audience interest.
- Present your ideas logically using supporting evidence as necessary.
- Provide only as much background information as needed.
- Outline actions or next steps that are required.
- Develop a strong close, including a summary. Bring your conclusions back around to audience need and the hook you created. Consider ending with a question designed to stimulate further discussion.
For a similar but a subtly different approach, see our article on the Rhetorical Triangle.
3. Deliver Confidently
There are two main aspects of your delivery: your visual aids and your style. We'll look at them separately.
Unless your presentation is very short, you will need some sort of visual aid to keep the attention of your audience. There is a fine line, though, between drawing attention to your points, and distracting the audience from what you are saying. Here are some key factors to consider when designing slides:
- Keep slides simple and easy to understand.
- When explaining, start with the overall concept and then move to the details.
- The information on the slide should add value to your presentation or summarize it – it is not meant to be your presentation.
- Ensure that any charts, graphs or tables you include are very simple and easy to read. Use them sparingly.
- Use images (clip art and photos) sparingly and make sure the image means something and isn't just there to fill up space.
- Use pleasant color schemes, high contrast, simple fonts, and bold and italic to add meaning to words.
- Don't use fly-ins, fade-ins or outs or other animations unless absolutely necessary to really emphasize a point. How many times have you been put into a hypnotic state watching words or lines fly into a presentation?
The way you deliver the content is often what makes or breaks a presentation. Here are some pointers to remember:
- Use gestures for meaning, not for comfort. Try not to talk with your hands or move about carelessly. Everything you do should have purpose i.e. gesture to the visual aid to draw the audience's attention.
- Pause for effect after main points or after you present a visual aid.
- Step out from behind the podium and connect with your audience – make sure you have a remote control device to change slides or cue other types of visuals.
- Talk loudly enough for people at the back to hear, or use a microphone.
- Make eye contact and hold it for three to five seconds. Any less and it looks like you are merely scanning the crowd.
- Be passionate – show your audience that you care about what you are saying.
- Consider putting up a blank or low-content screen between slides – this puts the attention where it should be: on you!
- Change your pace and style from time to time.
- Be natural – don't try to be a comedian if you're not.
- Finish early rather than late.
When you present with confidence and authority, your audience will pay attention and react to you as someone who is worth listening to. Fake it if you need to, by turning your nervousness into creative and enthusiastic energy.
4. Control the Environment
You won't ever eliminate all sources of problems, but through diligent planning and preparation, you can mitigate your risks.
- Practice, practice, practice: The ultimate goal is to deliver your presentation note-free. Short of that, you want to be sure you are comfortable with the material and that nothing comes as a surprise. Consider practicing in front of a video camera and reviewing your delivery. Don't take short-cuts here because it shows! The point is for the presentation to look effortless – when you struggle, the audience focuses on you, and not on what you are saying.
- Keep the lights on: when you darken the room, the screen stands out, not you. And it also encourages sleep, which you want to avoid at all costs!
- Always have back-ups and a backup plan. What if you forget your material? What will you do if the CD won't load? What if the equipment doesn't arrive on time? Plan for as many contingencies as possible.
- Dress appropriately for the situation – find out in advance what the dress code will be.
- Have a policy for answering questions – let your audience know when they can ask questions so you aren't inappropriately interrupted.
- Finish on time, every time. Last impressions are just as important as first ones.
Presenting is not a natural activity and to do it well requires careful thought and lots of practice. You can choose to be average, or even below average, by simply emulating what most other presenters do. Or, you can take your presentations to the next level and leave your audiences with a powerful message that they remember, while keeping them interested and connected from start to finish. To do this you need to pay strict attention to your audience analysis, content preparation, delivery style, and the external environment. When you control these for optimum audience relevance, interest, and engagement you are ready to deliver a great presentation.
The final element you must add is lots and lots of practice. Make your next presentation great by planning and preparing well in advance and making it look like it does come naturally to you.