Most presentations are dull and ineffective, but they dont have to be. Andy Bounds shows how to keep your audience awake and interested and achieve the right result
This begs the question: given how important presentations are, why are most of them so boring? For example, can you remember seeing any of these:
? complex, barely legible slides;
? presenters who just read out their slides and add nothing to them (be honest - how often have you thought 'please give me a copy of your slides so I can go as I'll be able to read them more quickly than you're about to'?);
? minimal/no interaction between a presenter and their audience;
? that feeling you get at the end of the presentation - 'OK, I understand it, but what am I supposed to do with it?'.
Is all of this depressingly familiar? Even though you see these things - and worse - every day, it's actually very easy to fix. In fact, there are only three steps to preparing a presentation full of impact.
The first is to prepare in the right order. People tend to prepare presentations in the order they speak - they prepare the start first; then the content; finally, the end.
But, since virtually all presentations are boring, it's clear that this isn't the best way to do it. Also, when people prepare in this order, they tend to put their most important points - the ones that took most thought and time - at the end. But audiences lose concentration during a presentation. So this approach means that, when you get to the main points, your audience could well have switched off. Instead, it's better for you and your audience to prepare in this order.
Step 1: start at the end (identify the 'do')
Presentations are supposed to generate a reaction. That's the point of them. So the best way to start your prep is by thinking what response you want, then work backwards to see what your content must be to provoke it.
A simple approach is to ask yourself 'what do I want my audience to DO after I stop speaking?' For example, do you want them to agree to something, give you some budget, endorse it to somebody else, and so on?
Once you have identified this 'Do', put it on a slide, with an action-focused title - like 'to move things forward'. You will notice that this is very different to most final slides, but most final slides don't have the desired effect.
Some people initially find it strange to prepare by thinking of the 'do' first. But, if you don't, you won't know what you want them to do. And if you don't want them to do anything, why are you presenting to them at all?
There is a simple rule here: unless you state what the next steps are, there won't be any.
You can do a quick self- test. Ask yourself three questions: What do my presentation's final slides say? Do I always know what I want the audience to do after I have finished? Do my presentations always have the desired effect?
Step 2: create a compelling start (think 'afters')
Once you know what you want your audience to do after your presentation, the next step is to create content that will give them the ability, motivation and confidence to do it.
And, as the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. So you must engage them early. This means that your title must be interesting.
But most presentations don't do this. Instead, the title simply describes what's coming up. I mean, what do you think when you're invited to a presentation called 'Q2 overview', 'update', 'latest figures' you're not exactly rushing to attend, are you?
To improve titles, think why your audience will be better off after hearing your presentation. So if you are going to update them with the latest figures, their 'afters' might be that they will know where to focus next year. You then either state this as: the main title - 'Focusing on the right things next year'; or a subtitle after a more corporate introduction - 'Our latest figures: ensuring we focus on the right things next year'.
Putting 'afters' in titles/subtitles isn't new. A good example of a book that used 'afters' in the title was Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People.
'Afters' don't only work for presentations and books. For example, when somebody asks what I do, if I say 'I am a consultant', they tend to look at me sympathetically and say 'I am sorry to hear that. Between jobs, are you?'
However, if I focused on the 'afters' I would say: 'I help companies communicate better than they thought possible'. That opens up a lot more possibilities.
Again, you can do a self test. Ask yourself these questions: do you always identify the audience's main benefit of listening to you, and then mention it at the start of your presentations?; do your presentations' titles/subtitles make your audience think 'wow!', or do they simply describe what you're about to discuss? How would you describe your job in one sentence? (Not 'I am an actuary' please!)
You should extend this 'afters' concept to other forms of communication - are your email titles interesting? Meeting invites? Workshop titles? Others?
Step 3: build interesting, short content
Lastly, it's time to write your content. There are only two rules to follow here: make it interesting; and keep it short.
The good news is that it's easier to be interesting than you imagine. All you do is identify the types of things that audiences find interesting, then make sure you do them.
After I show people the five things they can do to liven up their presentation, they usually say two things to me - 'that looks easier than I thought' and 'how many of them should I do?'
The answer to the second question? It's up to you. But, if you want to be more interesting, you'll have to do more than none of them.
So what are these five things? Basically, you have to think of what audiences like and how to provide it. They like interactivity, so you need to get them involved. So ask questions. They like stories so prepare, practise and fine-tune stories. They like silence so they can absorb the messages. So, when you have made a key point, pause and count to four in your head before continuing. They don't like lots of busy slides, so strip out as many words as possible. And finally they do like technical content, but you need to keep it accessible. So simplify your messages and use analogies.
You also need to keep things short. The easiest way to do this is an exercise called 'Keep it/bin it/appendix it'. As the name suggests, you review your content line by line, asking yourself 'is this bit so important that I need to keep it in? Or could I put it in the bin? Or, if it's not key but important enough to go somewhere, should I put it in an appendix?'
This technique has two big advantages - it improves your presentation; and it doesn't take long at all. For instance, I recently showed it to one of my clients. Within five minutes, she had turned a 30-slide deck into a 12-slide one, with nine slides in an appendix and nine in the bin. In other words, in only five minutes, we had removed the worst 60% of her presentation.
Here's another self-test. On a scale of one (boring) to 10 (fascinating), how would you grade your presentations? How would your audiences grade them? Are there one or two new techniques you could adopt to make yourself more interesting?
Do you think your presentations are generally too long, too short or about right? If they are too long, what could you remove?
If you did everything in this article, every time, you would be a much better presenter. But it can be hard to do things perfectly every time. So, how can you make yourself 'better enough'?
Well, if it helps, here's a quick story you might have heard elsewhere, which makes a good point about presentations.
Two explorers in a jungle stumble across a bear. The bear rears up, ready to eat them. One of the explorers drops to his knees and starts rummaging in his rucksack. His friend says 'What are you doing?'; to which he replies 'I'm looking for my running shoes'. His friend says 'But you'll never outrun a bear'. The man responds with: 'I don't have to. I just have to outrun you'.
By all means, work on being the best presenter in the world. But you don't have to be that good. You do, however, have to be better than the other presenters out there. And, as we said at the start of this article, their next presentations will probably be quite dull.
What will yours be like?