How to be a more interesting presenter

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Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Andrew Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Once you have your main structure down, it can be good to think about how to optimise.

Here are a few… ingredients? elements? that are (largely) easy to implement and make a big difference to the impression you make.

Contrast

A major way I see speakers make themselves less than interesting is by not bringing in enough contrast into their presentations. Like most things, you can, of course, go way too far in this arena, but the much more common error is making things too similar.

Ask any coach worth their decaff chai, and they’ll tell you that when clients come to them with a difficult decision to make, often all you have to do is to help them separate out the options.

“If you went for Option A, what are the upsides? The downsides? If you don’t go for Option A, what are the upsides? The downsides? If you go for Option B….”

Once the options, and their attendant repercussions, are clear, all too often the decision is obvious.

Emphasise the consequences of following your recommendations. If you make your recommendations seem too similar to the status quo, people won’t actually take action, and then, well, you haven’t actually helped them, have you?

And, whilst we’re on the topic of the status quo, the principle of scarcity tells us that we are often more motivated by what we stand to lose than what we stand to gain. And your real competition is always: the status quo. We love the status quo, even if we hate the status quo. So don’t expect your recommendations to stand on their own. Clearly lay out how your listeners will get more of what they want if they follow your recommendations, and how they will lose some of what they want if they stay the same.

It’s a good habit to get into to make sure you’re introducing benefits of following your advice (and downsides of not following it) as standard as you move from point to point. Depending on your character, your national culture, and the national culture of your listeners, you can be more or less definite about it, but see if you can make it a pattern.

Unexpected benefits

One of the things I often do when teaching a presentation class is to get people to make a three-minute recommendation presentation. After seeing hundreds of these (yes, hundreds), you know the easiest way to make them have more impact?

Make one of the benefits a surprise one.

You know when you try something new, and after a few weeks, it’s doing you good, but in ways you didn’t expect?

Sharing those benefits, the ones that only someone who has implemented your advice would know, makes your topic really compelling.

The unexpected wakes people up.

For example, I’m working from a makeshift standing desk. It’s a couple of boxes, and a really nifty laptop stand which is the size and thickness of a piece of A4 card. I’ve also got an ergonomic keyboard which not only separates the two hands, but tents.

There are obvious benefits. I got RSI for a couple of years, largely from typing on the tiny keyboard on my tiny netbook. So having a better posture means I avoid pain in my thumbs. I can also type longer without fatigue.

The other thing is: I look really weird, so people come up and chat. They ask about my setup, and, if they’re nice, I can introduce myself. So, yes, I’m the ergonomic tower guy, but I’m also the shy ergonomic tower guy, so it acts as an ice-breaker. It’s nice.

What benefits have you experienced putting your recommendation into practice? Which of those have surprised you? Do they, perhaps, overlap with the things that are important to your listeners? (See, more reasons to do your listener analysis homework…)

Proper verbal signposting

Signposting. Very important. As in: Now we’re talking about this. Now we’ve finished talking about that. Now we’re talking about this.

Using sequence words like, ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, ‘point three’ ‘finally’, as well as more emotional signal words like ‘unfortunately’, ‘surprisingly’ or ‘this is really important’ can do a great deal to keep your presentation clear.

There’s a more subtle level of transitioning from point to point which most people miss.

There are ways of signposting that can kill the interest in your talk, and ways that can kindle it.

To keep your listeners listening to your presentation, you want to balance safety with uncertainty. Too much safety is boring. Too much uncertainty is unnerving.

If you meander from story to story, even if you have a clear plan in your head, people can get restless because they’re not sure what’s happening. Do you have a plan? What are they learning? What does this relate to?

The flip side of that is telling them exactly what topics you’re going to talk about, and even some of the subpoints, probably through one of those bulleted and sub-bulleted slides. This means people will know exactly what is coming up, so there is no uncertainty, but it means that people know exactly what is coming up, so there is no uncertainty. No uncertainty can mean no curiosity.

No curiosity = boredom

You have to tread a fine line here.

Two signposting suggestions:

1. Tell people your points in advance, but give them keywords that don’t immediately make sense. (“There are two aspects to this. Burnout and broccoli.” NB That’s a real example from a friend of mine.)

2. Let them know the questions they will have an answer to by the end of your presentation. Someone who does this well is Robert Cialdini, the guy who wrote the classic book on influence (called ‘Influence’). When he presents his six principles, he doesn’t say “We’re going to talk about six principles: Reciprocity, Social Proof, Liking…” He says, “By the end of this presentation you’ll have clear, scientific answers to the following questions: 1. When listing your prices, should you put your lowest or highest price first? 2. How should you discuss the downsides of your offer?…”

The listener thus gets clarity and structure, but their curiosity stays peaked all the way to the end of the presentation.

Signposting finesse

~ It’s generally not a bad thing to reinforce when you’re moving from point to point. “So that was…. Next…”

~ You don’t have to let people know your points in advance, either. You can say ‘There are three aspects to this. The first is….” and then go through it in full. Then “The second aspect is…” Even this can just add a little extra oomph.

Focus on recommendations

Think about two people you know, maybe from different domains. If you were recommending, say, a restaurant to them, you might recommend a different one, right? Depending on what you know about their preferences. I’m not going to recommend my local sushi bar to my 92-year-old Nan, for example (“Ooh, sounds like a fishmonger’s.”). And you’re not going to recommend a place that you don’t think is a good place.

You’re even unlikely to recommend a place you haven’t tried, not without saying “Well, I haven’t tried it, but I hear…”

Recommendations imply that you genuinely think what you’re talking about will make the other person happy. Recommendations are tailored to the people in front of you.

Another benefit of focusing on recommending courses of action is you can talk from your own perspective, avoiding the need to pretend to be an expert.

Make stats human-sized

One of my favourite books on statistics (what??) is The Tiger That Isn’t. The first chapter is called ‘Is That A Big Number?’

I love that question.

Whenever you hear a number, it should be the first question you ask.

~ Help people to understand the scale of your statistics by bringing them down to human size. What does that mean for a person? What’s the base rate?

~ Compare the numbers to other numbers so we know what’s happening.

Three things people love

1. Behind-the-scenes.
2. Über-practical tips.
3. The unexpected.

If you can sprinkle those in, you’ll raise the Interest Quotient (I just made that up) of your presentation.

Tell stories

That one deserves its own article. Coming soon…

Have simple slides

Don’t get me started on PowerPoint. I’m limiting myself to just one piece of advice here.

Bullet points lead to list intonation. You stop interacting with your listeners, and start reading (and often rushing) through your boring-sounding list.

Move the heading to the centre of the slide. Move the bullet points into your notes and their handouts.

This one bit of advice immediately allows you to keep your conversational tone of voice.

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Yes, there are plenty of other ways to make your presentation interesting, and yes, there are plenty of interesting speakers who break the guidelines I’ve just mentioned. However, when I queried my mental presentation database, these are some of the patterns that came out.

Stand by for: stories.

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Andrew Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Andrew wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where he gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out andrewlightheart.com. Andrew is also an unrepentant overtweeter: he’s @alightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series: