We’ve all heard of the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover.” There is, of course, truth to this adage. Yet in reality, not only is the content of a book important, the cover of the book also needs to be appealing enough so that readers are willing to read and appreciate its beauty. If we compare a good presentation to a good book, the same principle applies. Not only does your presentation need to have substantial content, the way you render it and your engaging presence have to keep your audience interested. Otherwise, no matter how good the content of the presentation is, your efforts would be in vain as the audience would have no interest.
This article offers ideas on how to engage your audience in a presentation, with more importance attached to oral delivery and non-verbal communication. The target audience mentioned here is a general audience, rather than those who share similar academic/professional backgrounds. A caveat is that ideas mentioned here are by no means exhaustive; yet do provide the highlights to an effective presentation.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the basics of a presentation. In most cases, the purpose of a presentation is to communicate and get your message across. The most crucial thing is to be understood by your audience so that your presentation is effective. To do this, clarity is key!
A rule of thumb when it comes to clarity is to explain your ideas as if you were speaking to a 7-year old. This does not mean dumbing down your ideas or language, but simply a reminder to express your thoughts in the simplest way possible. Put yourself in the listeners’ shoes and never assume that they already have understanding of a subject matter. For example, you may need to first define the idea being discussed or to spell out certain acronyms that come up. You also need to use language that is clear to the ear. Avoid vague pronoun references, as they are bad in writing but terrible in speech. Listeners don't have the option of looking back over the text to figure them out.
Organization & Structure
Organize your speech in a way that is easy for the audience to follow. A good way to do this is to use the rule of 3Ts - tell your audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you have told them. At the beginning of your presentation, give an outline of the talk. This is a way of providing clarity so the audience has an idea of what will come up. When actually giving the presentation, connect your ideas to each other to be coherent. To conclude, give a summary of what you have just said to remind your audience. By following this structure, you can be sure that your message is clearly communicated.
A common mistake I often see in presenters is the lack of consideration of time. For a 30-minute speech, many speakers prepare 50 to even 100 slides. What usually happens is that the speaker goes through each slide slowly in the beginning, but realizes that time is running out. He/she ends up having to rush through the rest of the presentation, skipping many slides and only managing to finish. It becomes impossible to explain one’s ideas clearly when pressed for time, which goes against the rule of clarity we just talked about. Mismanagement of time deprives your audience the opportunity to listen to a well-paced presentation and they easily miss the ideas being conveyed.
If you are unsure about how much time you will need, rehearse and record yourself beforehand. This way, you will be clear about how long it will take to finish the entire presentation Also, the general rule of thumb for time management is to allocate 1.5 to 2 minutes to each slide. For example, for a 30-minute presentation, the ideal number of slides is between fifteen to twenty. This way, the speaker can pace him/herself and go through the presentation in a manner.
Voice & Inflection
Always project your voice so the audience in the back of the room can hear you well. This does not mean that you need to shout, but to make sure every listener can hear you clearly. Make good use of inflection and speak in a way that is not monotonous. In school, we have all had teachers that talk in a ‘flat’ manner (meaning both monotonous and boring) and put us to sleep. Avoid becoming one of those speakers by using your inflection in a natural manner. Recording and listening to yourself also comes in handy when practicing the use of your voice. Imagine if you had to listen to yourself speak for an entire day, how do you use your voice so you’d be willing to listen to yourself?
Another common mistake speakers make is speaking way too fast or ‘speeding’ during a presentation. Speeding in a presentation is understandable, as most people speed up when they become nervous in public speaking. However, this does not make speeding acceptable. Speeding increases the chances that you'll trip over your words, or say something you don't mean. Even worse, speeding makes it extremely difficult for the audience to keep up with what you are saying. When we lose the attention of our audience, no matter how good the content of the presentation is, it ends up being ineffective.
Be conscious of your speed while preparing for the presentation. A good way is have someone else give you feedback. During the actual presentation, force yourself to slow down by breathing deeply. I suggest speaking slower than you normally would on stage, as speakers tend to speed up when they become nervous. Pace yourself and don't be afraid to gather your thoughts. Pauses are an important part of conversation, and they make you sound confident, natural, and authentic.
Use of Written Text
Another common mistake made by speakers is to read word-for-word from a written speech. Most people are unaware that reading from a written speech is a problem, yet it often becomes a serious barrier to communication. Most people hate listening to someone read a speech or presentation. People say, "If all they are going to do is read their speech, I could read it myself. Why bother presenting?" I'm sure many of us have experienced this at least once while attending a conference or two.
The second reason to avoid reading from a speech is that there is a gap between written and spoken language. Written language is formal and relatively complicated while spoken language is natural and relatively simple. Do not assume that written language can be directly translated into spoken language. Too often speakers write their speeches in "business language". That is often hard to read, much less listen to.
The third reason to avoid reading from a script is it reduces your chances of connecting with your audience. Reading makes it more difficult to maintain proper eye contact with your listeners, shifting eye contact away from your audience to your script. Reading also causes you to lose normal voice inflection. Both of these — proper eye focus and voice inflection — are among the keys to an effective presentation. Also, what happens if you lose your place in your script? It would be awkward for you and your audience and you’ll lose everyone’s attention.
Does this mean that you should not write a script for your presentation? Of course not. Writing scripts are helpful for organizing your thoughts and familiarizing yourself with what you are going to say. However, this does not mean that you have to read word-for-word or memorize your script. Instead, make good use of speaker notes or bullet points in your slides as a reminder. Practice, practice, and practice in advance to familiarize yourself with the content, so that you can speak naturally using your own words.
There will be times when it’s perfectly acceptable and even necessary to read from a written text, such as when you're presenting policy statements or legal/regulatory materials that must be rendered as written. It's acceptable also to read from notes when you're drawing upon quotations or statistics that must be used accurately and precisely. However, remember that this is the exception rather than the norm in effective presentations.
If there is one simple thing you can do to enhance your impact as a presenter, it is sustained, purposeful eye contact with one person at a time. When you look someone in the eye, he or she is more likely to look at you, listen to you, and buy you and your message. Eye contact, when used well, can serve to make your address much more personal and thus more effective. When you fail to make eye contact with your listeners, you look less authoritative, less trustworthy, and less confident.
Remember that some eye contact is better than none. If you are a novice to presentation, practice eye contact by focusing on people’s foreheads so that you are at least looking in their direction. This may sound silly but is much better than looking at the ceiling, floor or your notes. Step by step, gradually start to feed in direct eye contact as you become more confident.
It is also important to maintain eye contact with all members of a small audience or all sections of a large audience. Do not only maintain eye contact with the people you know or those in the first row. Be careful not to deliver your entire presentation to the people who are assessing your work. For example, as a teacher, I often have students maintain eye contact only with me instead of with the entire class. For an effective presentation, involve and make eye contact with all members of the audience.
An effective presenter pays close attention to the physical relationship with her/his audience. Find a comfortable but purposeful position in relation to your audience. You do not want to be standing/sitting too far away from your audience to seem distant. At the same time, you may not want to be too close to the audience so that they feel uneasy or overwhelmed.
Our posture says a lot about our confidence level. Good posture gives the impression of authority and confidence while bad posture take away from the presenter’s credibility. The best posture tends to be natural and open. Adopt an upright sitting or standing posture that allows for movement and gesture. Practice pressing your spine against a wall if you are not used to standing straight. Rest your arms in a relaxed way at your sides, so you appear to be relaxed and at ease.
Another way of involving your audience is through the use of gestures. Audiences pick up the physical energy and enthusiasm of a presenter and therefore the use of clear and suitable gestures will greatly add to your presentation. Gestures that are open and reach out to your audience extends your presentation to them and thus help them feel involved. If you stand in the front of the room with your hands in your pockets, you will not be reaching out to the audience, both in the literal and figurative sense. As a result, the effectiveness of your talk will be discounted.
Willingness to Communicate
One’s intention when speaking is also the key to engaging your audience. This means you should think about speaking for the purpose of being understood. If deep down inside you are not sincere about communication, your audience will pick that up, and it will be difficult to engage them. So be genuine in your communication. Know what you want to say, make good use of verbal and non-verbal communication, and speak with conviction. This will not only help you engage your audience, but also make you sound more confident and help you generate impact in your next presentation.