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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Soft skills: Effective presentations

Five minutes and eight seconds is the latest estimate of the average human attention span, according to a recent survey of 1000 Britons commissioned by Lloyds TSB. Compared to the average attention span of twelve minutes and ten seconds in 1998, it seems that our concentration has been meandering along a downward trend for the past 10 years.

It’s easy to see why this data might hold the interest of a general insurer. While a still-lit cigarette in waste paper basket may now have been replaced with a still-on laptop igniting the duvet while you sleep, unexpected carelessness still costs insurance company reserves.

However, the findings could also have implications for actuaries of all disciplines when it comes to giving presentations; already an area where we are under much scrutiny. Our ability to produce a technically sound presentation is not in question here, but consideration of some of the softer aspects of presentation skills I’ve outlined below could help to enhance your presentation and enable you to make the most of your audience’s 308 seconds. Happily, the average person also reads at a rate of around 250 words per minute, so you should be able to finish my 850-word article comfortably before your mind begins to wander.*

1. Don’t imagine your audience naked
Ron Hoff’s now legendary advice to help beat pre-presentation nerves needn’t be taken literally. Visualisation is a powerful strategy for achieving a positive outcome. But picturing an audience naked or in their underwear is easier said than done. It takes mental effort that you shouldn’t be exerting while trying to speak. Instead, concentrate on visualising your audience fully clothed and listening intently and appreciatively to your calmly and confidently delivered presentation.

2. Use (1) lies, (2) damned lies, and (3) statistics
The rule of three is a presentation technique based on the theory that most people tend to remember things in threes. Famous speeches are peppered with lists of three items: "Friends, Romans, countrymen", "Stop, Look and Listen", and “Faculty and Institute of Actuaries”. Think about the three main points you would like your audience to take away from your presentation.

3. The eyes meet across a crowded presentation hall
The eyes are said to be the window to the soul. In casual one-to-one conversation, feelings of friendship and intimacy can be measured by the intensity and duration of eye contact. Maintaining eye contact with your audience helps to convey your honesty, openness and confidence in what you’re saying. During the presentation you can enhance your rapport with the audience by momentarily looking up from your slides or notes and establishing eye contact with a few individual members. As you begin your talk, look for one person in the room and speak directly to that individual. Deliver an idea and continue looking at that person until you have communicated a complete thought. About six seconds spent looking at one person usually seems long enough. Now pause and look at someone else to communicate your next point.

4. Engage multiple senses to tell a story
There are a few ways that people learn their presentations. And some do not memorise at all, preferring to read the presentation from their notes. The traditional memory method involves learning your speech by heart and reciting it. The main difficulty with these two methods is that inexperienced speakers will end up reading in monotone, either by reading the notes from paper of from the memory. People are often at their most animated when telling a story as if from a vivid memory, creating images for the audience as they go. The mind thinks in images and pictures. While you’re speaking approximately 150 words per minute, your audience is thinking and visualizing at around 600 to 700 words per minute. Use imagery by employing metaphors or analogies to express your message and make it memorable. You can even include stories of your own. Audiences love it when speakers share personal stories as they create instant connection.

5. Visual aids should be seen, not stared (at)
While on average, people can only remember around 20% of what they hear, they can recall almost 30% of what they see. PowerPoint presentations can provide a useful visual aid to your presentation; however it’s unlikely that the audience has voluntarily turned up for a slide show. The most valuable piece of advice that I have received on presentations with slides is to talk about the slides, not from or to them. Discuss.

6. A standard phrase that can be used in any presentation
“The current financial and economic climate presents a whole new world, a very different environment from what some of us experienced 20 or 25 years ago. It’s a world in which the ground rules have been radically rewritten. It’s a world of much higher expectation . . . and many more opportunities.”

* You can check your own average reading rate at http://mindbluff.com/askread2.htm


Jennifer May is joint deputy features editor of The Actuary