ClearWorth on Presentations

Presentation skills seem to be a very hard thing to sell and, paradoxically, the thing in woefully short supply when we work with organisations and corporations around the world. Death by PowerPoint seems to be accepted as the norm as people drone through countless slides with fonts which are illegible, animations which are nothing more than a distraction and the occasional Dilbert cartoon which, many seem to believe, is the key to audience engagement.

It’s easy to blame the tool. There is, of course, nothing wrong with PowerPoint (or Keynote or Prezi) itself but the issues surrounding it are numerous. The answer is PowerPoint before the presenter asks themselves three questions: –

  1. What’s my objective?
  2. What’s my message?
  3. Who is my audience?

Microsoft research has yielded some frightening statistics. Whilst their recommended number of words per slide is 18-20, the actual average in business presentations was measured at 50-60 and we know that would be accompanied by the dreadful admission, “I’m not sure if you can read that but…” which sounds the death knell on the message and the very point of the presentation as well as condemning the presenter for their lack of thinking and design. Other parts of the Microsoft research showed that PowerPoint shows were measured in hours rather than minutes in some institutions.

In our experience, the worst offenders are the subject matter experts. In a way, there’s a clue in their given title. They are experts in the subject matter. They are not experts in how to capture the essence of that subject and, with the audience in mind, to craft that message so that the audience gets it, and is engaged, enthused and educated. It’s not unusual for us to work with subject matter experts who have the same number of slides as the number of minutes allocated to them for their presentation – or in some cases more than that. There seems to be a mental model which tells them more is better. They add more slides or more words to the slides as they realise they’ve forgotten something they think is rather fascinating.

Presenting, of course, goes beyond PowerPoint and the principles extend to all forms of messaging with words –  both verbal and written. Strangely, most people know the English idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” and yet they still feel the need to explain the picture and even add some word to the slide in case people don’t realise it’s a tree.

Part of our work in helping leaders and managers to be more influential, have more impact and get more buy-in to their thinking and ideas is to help them rethink what their central message is and to start with their audience in mind. It’s not what you want to tell them, it’s what they need to think, feel or do at the end that’s important and the same message could be dramatically different in its medium and focus for different audiences depending on their mindset, their experience with the topic and their own expectations and objectives. Getting caught up in only thinking about the topic is a major failing.

We, of course, remind people about Stephen Covey’s Habit Number 2 – begin with the end in mind followed closely by Habit No 5 – Seek first to understand then be understood. These two together form the basis of much of our coaching, teaching and restructuring of presentations, pitches and PowerPoints to get much more with much less.

To this end, we bring their attention to the greatest speeches, greatest speechmakers and greatest speechwriters’ work and some of their abiding principles. The simplest of these is the idea of structure. There are various ways to structure your message but we teach the simplest in the world – Beginning, Middle, End. It works for films, plays, books, stories, TV programmes, news broadcasts and orchestral symphonies. But when it comes to presentations we nearly always see Middle, Middle, Middle and a rather lame “Any Questions?” (usually accompanied by a completely pointless slide with those very words on it – in case we didn’t understand the speaker perhaps).

When we ask what the most famous speech of all time is, “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Junior is the most frequently cited. As well as pointing out that MLK was working without PowerPoint slides, we use this as a vehicle for some of the most powerful learning about getting your message heard, understood and accepted. How language is used within the message has a massive effect on how much is remembered. If you are to be influential and impactful your message needs to enter your audience’s brains with the least possible effort and resonate in a way that connects with their existing understanding or changes their thinking.

We use the continually expanding and illuminating field of neuroscience to offer explanations as to why the best speeches work and why so many presentations fail so miserably. The idea of “brain-friendly presentations” is designed to move people away from focussing on their chosen topic and their speaking skills and think instead about how their audience listens and understands. With this in mind, they can begin to craft their message so that they increase the chances of their objectives being achieved.

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What do people hear?

Eight Ways to Increase your Impact and Influence in Presentations

  1. Consonants and Vowels. Choose your words with care. Words with consonants make you sound logical, rational and energetic: Clarity, commitment, and conviction. Words with dominant vowels make you sound softer and gentler: Meaning, feeling, loving
  2. Alluring Alliteration. Use alliteration to create memorable moments, fabulous phrases and superb speeches. Combine with three-part lists for added effect (see below) particularly punchy points, sweet smells of success, time takes its toll and love’s labour lost.
  3. Dramatic Tension – Describe the situation, then tell them the complication or problem and finish with the solution or resolution. The classic love story is boy meets girl, boy loses the girl, boy gets the girl.
  4. Three-Part Lists. Group things in threes with the third thing being the most important. Emphasise it with the voice by increasing volume, dropping pitch and pausing either side of the third item (often helped by including an “and”). If there’s only one thing then say it three times. There’s only one flag for this country, the Red, White and Blue” “We will fight, fight and fight again”  “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last
  5. Contrasting Pairs or Flip Flop. Find the opposite or a contrast, say it first and then hit them with the second with strong emphasis. “It’s not what you say it’s how you say it” It’s not the men in my life that counts – it’s the life in my men.” “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country
  6. Stand and Breathe. Get attention and build anticipation at the start of a presentation. If you want to project your voice don’t take a big breath, take a deep breath
  7. Eye Sweep. As you talk move your eyes around the group and make quick but significant eye contact with each person. Match the speed of your head/eye movement with your voice speed, volume and pitch
  8. Ups and Downs. Vary volume, pitch and speed for emphasis. Project your voice by fixing your eye on spots or having momentary eye contact with people at various distances and speaking directly to them.