I know you’ve heard about them. You’ve likely seen them. And perhaps, you’ve even created them. No, I am not talking about the latest online app.  I’m talking about presentations that bore and bewilder audiences. Call the experience what you like – ”Death by PowerPoint,” “Data Dumping” or “Verbal Anesthesia” – we’ve all been there.  I routinely challenge my clients and students to be more compelling and connected. By following a few simple best practices, you, too, can ensure that your audiences leave your presentations empowered and educated.

Tip 1:  It’s Not About You – It’s About Your Audience

After learning that you have to deliver a presentation, you likely start by thinking “Here’s what I need to tell my audience,” and then proceed to develop and ultimately deliver your thoughts and ideas.  I’d like to suggest that this approach often leaves your audience unfulfilled and unimpressed.  When you prepare a presentation from your perspective, you likely pass over critical bits of information and fail to pull your audience into the content.  Others label this self-focused approach “the curse of knowledge.”  Simply put, you often know too much about what you present.  In fact, it is this expertise that probably led you to be asked to speak in the first place.

A better, more thorough approach to your presentation would be to begin by asking the question: “What does my audience need to hear?” While this approach initially sounds similar to “Here’s what I need to tell my audience,” the difference is more than verbal jujitsu. By embracing an audience-focused approach, you will not only engage your audience more – since you’re giving them what they need – but you will present content that scaffolds their knowledge so that they can truly appreciate and understand your message.

This audience-centric approach requires you to truly know your audience.  Ask yourself the following three questions to help you better determine your audience’s needs:

  1. What knowledge and/or past experience(s) have my audience had with my topic?
  2. What attitudes and emotions is my audience likely to have toward my topic?
  3. What areas of resistance is my audience likely to have toward my topic?

The answers to these three questions help you to develop and deliver a presentation that fulfills the needs of your audience and makes your message more compelling.

Tip 2:  Connect Your Content to Your Audience

Part of your goal when presenting is to pull your audience forward in their seats.  You want them engaged and with you.  Clearly, addressing their needs (as discussed above) will help make your content compelling, but this is not sufficient.  If you truly want your content to move your audience and avoid slouching disengagement, then you must make use of what I term Audience Connecting Techniques (ACTs). ACTs bring your audience into your presentation. They invite their participation and serve notice that you expect engagement. While many ACTs exist, the following two techniques are among the most effective:

  1. Step toward your audience when you begin your presentation. Since most speakers experience some degree of anxiety when presenting, they often hide behind a lectern or place their hands up in front of their bodies leaning back away from the audience.  This nonverbal retreating position signals fear and invites disengagement. Rather, as you begin, stand tall in front of the audience – no podium in sight – and step forward with your arms extended away from your body. A start like this nonverbally communicates confidence and demonstrates that you want your audience involved.
  1. Use the word “you” when speaking to your audience. Too often, presenters invoke a very formal language, such as “One must consider the impact of this proposal to his or her well-being.” This wording and tone can be off-putting and repel, rather than compel.  A much more connecting way of speaking is to use the word “you.” For example, “This proposal is important for you.” Not only is the word “you” more inviting, but it often leads to a more expressive delivery.  Use a digital camera or mirror to see what happens to your eyebrows and forehead when you speak the word “you.” In fact, you can see even more expression if you extend an arm and gesture forward as you say “you.”

Tip 3:  Prepare, Practice and then PowerPoint

Most people start writing a presentation by firing up PowerPoint – or whatever slide creation tool they prefer (e.g., Keynote, Slide Rocket, Prezi, etc). A crucial point to connecting and compelling speeches is the realization that a PowerPoint is not a presentation. You, your content and your delivery are the presentation. I am not saying slides aren’t important. Slides certainly help clarify and embellish your message. Unfortunately, many people spend way too much time and effort creating fancy slides and cramming too much information on to them.

Before ever starting to create a slide deck, you need to prepare by doing your homework on your audience and context. Next, create a memorable structure (e.g., problem-solution-benefit) that helps set your audience’s expectations of what you will cover and allows you to easily remember your content. Third, give yourself time to practice delivering your content.  What most people think about saying is not exactly what comes out, so practice speaking from an outline that you create. Finally, only after all of the other steps have been completed, should you ask:  “Would slides help my audience understand my point?” “Might a slide make my point more memorable?” Remember, you do not need a slide for every point. The old maxim of “less is more” should factor into your decision-making.

When I coach and teach, I suggest creating a presentation development schedule that divides the time they have between the current moment and the presentation date into thirds. The first third is spent preparing. The second third is spent practicing the delivery of the content in a connected manner. The final third entails designing slides and practicing integrating them into the presentation. While quite foreign to many, once you experience the benefit of following this development schedule, you will notice that you are more confident in your presentation and more compelling to your engaged audience.

Creating and delivering compelling presentations takes work, but it is work that promises great rewards. You will be engaged and connected with audience members who will get what they need to be successful.  Fundamentally, your success as a presenter is measured in the success of your audience to act on your message, support your cause or champion you and your beliefs.