Presenters and Speakers: Be careful!

Don't sabotage your own presentation

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting in on an excellent presentation about aging. It was co-presented by two highly qualified, very experienced women – professionals in every sense of the word. They split their presentation time, each taking on half the job. The first speaker broke the three rules that I consider absolutely basic, beginner-level advice. The second one offered a polished, accessible, engaging presentation that was a pure pleasure to watch. So what were the three basic differences between these two presentations?

Speaker one – let’s call her Judy – made these three fundamental mistakes. Judy:

·      Wrote out everything she wanted to say on her PowerPoint slides and then read them to us.

·      Viewed her slides from the projection screen instead of from the computer right in front of her.

·      Needed the slide progression to cue her speech – in other words, was not rehearsed.

Speaker two – let’s call her Nancy – did exactly the opposite. Nancy:

·      Used her slides as opportunities to provide images along with only limited key words and phrases.

·      Viewed her slides from a laptop on the podium.

·      Was clearly rehearsed – always knew what was coming next.

What was the difference in the quality of delivery, you might ask? So what if Nancy had pictures and looked at the computer screen and rehearsed? Isn’t it possible that Judy could give just as good a presentation by looking at the projection screen and reading along with the audience? Well, let’s first remember that this is not a theoretical situation. These are two real speakers who actually gave this presentation in front of nearly 300 people in a packed room, so we have actual evidence of how it went. And this is how it went.

What happened when Judy read from the projection screen instead of from a laptop? Several things:

·      She continually turned away from her audience, sometimes actually turning her back on them.

·      She continually turned away from her lapel microphone and then back again, and then away and then back… Her volume rose and fell and rose and fell. Her words were clearly audible, then hard to discern, then audible again, then nearly unintelligible…

·      She couldn’t make use of the “presenter view” in PowerPoint that allows the speaker to always see both the notes about each slide and the upcoming slide, for a smooth presentation without gaps.

The heart of the matter is probably this: What happens when you write your speech as bullet points on PowerPoint slides?

·      You tend not to rehearse, as it’s all right there anyway. Once you’ve written it all out, you feel prepared to present.

·      You commit to the word-for-word presentation, because it’s hard to contemporize when you have a fully-fleshed-out script in front of you. So you become a reader, not a speaker.

·      Your listeners, reading silently, can read almost twice as fast as you can say the material– and they’ve got the whole script in front of them; they never have to turn around as you do (if you’re reading from the big screen).

·      Your listeners don’t know when to stop reading, so they are usually three or four bullet points ahead of you when you pause to expand on something. Then they waste another few seconds trying to get back on track. While they’re doing that, you click to the next slide, and now you’ve begun to lose them.

Well, rather than belabor the point about what Judy did wrong, let’s talk about why Nancy’s presentation was so much more effective and the basic lessons that, in my mind, just simply must be taken as gospel truth:

1.     Never read to your audience. Never. Look them in the eye and speak to them. Move your eyes around the room, making direct eye contact, and speak to them contemporaneously. YOU are the heart and soul of the presentation. They want you to engage with them. If all they needed was a script read to them, you could have emailed it, and they could’ve saved themselves a trip.

2.     Do not write everything on your slides that you plan to say. The beauty of PowerPoint is the ability to illustrate with images, graphs, charts, cartoons, photos… Sure, words are fine, but only well-chosen key words and phrases.

3.     Position the laptop on which your presentation resides in a way that you can face the computer screen and the audience at the same time. Then trust that what listeners are seeing on the big screen matches what you are seeing on the small screen. Glance at it as you need to, but focus mostly on your listeners.

Those are the three big, fundamental rules. Now, what is the secret sauce that allows you to be a successful presenter without writing your script in full on those slides and then looking at the projection screen as you speak? What’s the missing element? In a word, REHEARSAL. Mind-boggling, isn’t it, that I would suggest to busy, experienced professionals that they actually rehearse their presentations! You’re not in school anymore, so you’re not being graded on your performance. Er – wait a minute – maybe you are being graded. You are certainly being evaluated. But, even more important, as a professional addressing other professionals, you have a vested interest in getting them to hear, understand, digest and reflect upon your content. The stakes are much, much higher now than they were when you were in school.

So, yes, I really mean it: rehearse. I submit to you that no speaker has the right to take the time of an audience unless he or she is as prepared as humanly possible. Rehearse! Yes, get those slides ready, with only the bare minimum of words, and then practice saying the speech out loud, looking at those slides. Over and over. And while you’re at it, you can time yourself and ensure you’ll stay within the time parameters they’ve allowed you.

I do understand the temptation to write the whole danged speech on the slides. And I don’t necessarily believe that’s a bad way to start; it’s just not the way to finish. Here are the 10 Basic Steps I would suggest:

1.     Go ahead and open PowerPoint and write your whole doggoned script out on those slides in bullet points.

2.     Review and polish and ensure you have exactly what you want to say in just the right order. Adjust and improve.

3.     When you’ve got the content you want, go through and identify just the key words and phrases; keep them and erase everything else. Delete it. Keep your slides organized just the way they were. Resist the urge to meld slides together in order to fill them up. If the slide is 2/3 empty, leave it alone and work on the next one.

4.     When you’ve reduced your verbiage by 75%, you’re ready to make this “script” into a really engaging, meaningful presentation. Now, search for visual imagery that will enhance and augment the key words and phrases on each slide. Where you had a torrent of words, now have one big image, accompanied by those few, well-chosen words.

5.     Great! Slides are ready, but the presenter is not. Now comes the rehearsal. Now you go through that presentation at least three times, out loud (not “in your head”), and struggle to say, smoothly and naturally, all the details and supporting material you’ve deleted.

6.     When you feel you have a pretty good handle on it, do it again with a stop watch. (I believe just about every smart phone has a stop watch today.) If your time is way off, adjust as needed.

7.     Put it away until tomorrow. Then give it two more times. Continue this process, rehearsing a time or two each day until the day of the presentation arrives.

8.     Insist on a laptop positioned in such a way that you can see your slides on that small computer screen while facing the audience.

9.     Advance your slides with key commands on the computer rather than looking at the projection screen and aiming a remote at the screen or the projector or any random place.

10.  Speak naturally and enthusiastically, supported by the confidence that:

a.     Your slides are visually engaging

b.     Listeners are tuned into you, because you – not the slides – are the source of the information

c.     You are ready for this because you’ve done it successfully several times behind closed doors.

You follow those 10 fundamental steps, and I absolutely guarantee a better presentation than you’ve ever given before – and one that will open hearts and minds, educate, persuade, inspire and all the other things you hoped for when you agreed to be a presenter.