We’ve got a lot of ground to cover so let’s make this introduction short and sweet. Your goal in presenting information to an audience is to build and maximize trust and help them see what you see. Creating a powerful presentation that changes the hearts and minds of your audience is great and getting them to do what you want them to do is even better. Here are six simple steps to maximize your impact, minimize your freak out, and present like a Rock Star.
Step One: Connect With Your Audience
Who is your audience? Don’t overlook this step. The more you define and understand your audience and their needs, the greater your influence. Consider age, gender, lifestyle, socioeconomic standing, etc. Remember, your audience isn’t “everybody.” “Everybody” is everybody. Your audience is a small slice of the “everybody” pie.
What do you want them to do? Generally, presentations come in three forms: to educate, to entertain, or to inspire. Spend some time drilling down on exactly what you want your audience to do, as in what action you want them to take after you finish speaking.
How can you meet their needs? You will get a much greater and faster buy-in if you focus on meeting the needs of your audience first rather than focusing on impressing them with the data you believe is important to share. What information does your audience see things your way? If there is an elephant in the room, address it early in your presentation to close information gaps, to avoid distractions, and build trust. You don’t need to go into a lengthy discussion about the elephant in the room, simply acknowledging it – with a note that it will be discussed in depth later in the presentation – may be sufficient to avoid starting an audience member’s internal monologue such as “when is she going to talk about the budget shortfall? Are we going to make payroll this month?”
Brain Science Moment: Our brain is ultimately designed to keep us safe and our survival depends on spotting danger and reacting to it quickly and appropriately. One way it does this is by closing information gaps. That is why you feel a little tingle when a child asks, “why is the sky blue?” If we don’t know the answer, the question literally triggers a response in our brain to close the information gap. Our brain registers the question within the context of our survival. A blue sky is presumed non-threatening, but what about a red sky? Some presenters use a series of questions throughout their presentation to continue to engage our brains as the series of information gaps continues to focus our brain in finding the answer or seeking the resolution to the problem. Just remember to close information gaps quickly if the question itself is a distraction and does not further the storyline.
The demographics of your audience and what you believe motivates them will establish your tone, with the understanding that the tone you select should be authentic to your personality. The goal is to establish trust between you and your audience to increase the likelihood that they will believe what you are saying and do what you want them to do. Now is not the time to reinvent yourself. It’s easy to sniff out imposters.
Use caution when considering “scare tactics.” They rarely work unless you have a pre-existing trusting relationship. Generally, audiences will avoid information that scares them, particularly if they feel powerless to create change or prevent the harm. Although they may nod in agreement while you are speaking that “something must be done,” they will most likely want to avoid thinking about the issue as soon as they stand up to leave.
Step Two: Tell A Story
Design your presentation – first through structure and then through content.
Structure provides a framework and flow through a beginning, middle, and end. Start by identifying the situation, argument, and/or action you want your audience to take. Avoid simply sharing information on the assumption that your audience will connect all the dots for you and then do what you want them to do. Some presentations begin with a question and end with the answer. The presentation’s structure, or architecture, should build a storyline that includes one idea per slide, with supporting slides that contain the details, data, and anecdotes that propel your story along.
As you create your presentation, ask yourself why a particular data point is important to share, why it should matter to your audience, why it is important, etc. Although a statistic may seem impressive to you, your audience needs to know why that big number should matter to them. Tie insights to data. If the information doesn’t advance the story or argument, consider excluding it.
Although you can certainly include more, about ten slides is optimal for a 30-minute presentation that includes a 20-minute presentation with 10 minutes of Q & A. More than ten may be difficult for you, as a presenter, to negotiate effectively and maintain a connection with your audience. Font size should be big (30 point font is great) and the color should be easy to read. Be cautious in using black backgrounds as the color black is highly charged and some may perceive it’s over use as too jarring, too intense, and too negative for use on multiple slides. Text is often very difficult to read against a black background, particularly over multiple slides. You can use creative fonts as “word art” as long as it is easy to read from the back row.
Content gives the presentation meaning through a script and graphics. This is where you make your case through words and images. Ideally, your script should focus on 3 to 5 key points. Our brain gets overwhelmed with more than three points so make certain that the 4th and 5th points not only furthers the story but adds value as the retention of points one, two and three may suffer.
Sentence structure and concepts should be kept simple to maximize the opportunities to connect with your audience. Speak their language, use their words, and by all means avoid “college professor” mode (trying to prove that you are the smartest person in the room and supporting your belief by using words that no one has every heard of).
The script should be conversational. Take our your phone and practice recording your presentation – does it sound like you are reading or chatting with a friend? It’s really surprising how many revisions people make after listening to their recording. Be mindful of the pace. Even the most accomplished speakers will experience a surge of adrenaline before and during public speaking. Once that fight or flight kicks in, it is easy speed up your cadence. Slower is better, with pauses to allow the audience to catch up with what you have just said or take notes. Remember, you have heard this story before – your audience hasn’t.
A presentation is not a working session. Don’t use the slide to work through how you came to your conclusion. Instead, highlight either a key theme or data point that draws the audience to your conclusion. Often charts become distracting for audience members that are attempting to process the information while you are speaking.
Another Brain Science Moment: Before we discuss graphics, let’s take a moment to plug back into the brain science around communication. Over time, as physical safety has become less of a concern, our brains have evolved not only manage our physical safety but also to close information gaps to maintain our emotional safety. Again, our brain’s primary mission is to keep us safe. Generally, we use our eyes and our ears to process information so our brain is constructed to maximize the use of eyes and our ears.
Remember the last time you heard a loud sudden noise? Your body naturally froze to allow your brain to process the threat. Next, because the threat was a noise, you found yourself staring to allow your ears to take over to assess the threat further. In this case, your visual cortex, dulls to allow your auditory cortex, which processes written and spoken language, to process the noise. Similarly, if you had seen a fire, your auditory cortex may have dulled as your eyes focus on visual cues. In fact, you may even squint to narrow your focus.
Brain science confirms that our visual and auditory cortexes are not designed to process information simultaneously. Therefore, when creating a presentation, remember that charts and text will encourage your audience to close the information gap by processing your visual information. When that happens, their auditory cortex will shut down preventing audience members from hearing you and diverting their attention away from your face. The length of auditory disconnect is dependent upon how much information is on your slide. You are not asking your audience to trust the slide, you are asking them to trust you.
Step Three: Use Pictures
Slides should be powerful, captivating and memorable. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a million percent true. Our brain is designed to process images quickly and interprets not only information but also emotion. If you want to evoke an emotion, compel your audience, and establish a connection, show us a photo of a crying child while you are describing why the child is crying.
Movement through “slide transitions” is distracting as audience member’s brains will engage in focusing and understanding the movement and disengage from being in relationship with you, the presenter. It’s best to stick with either all photos or all illustrations, and maintain a theme (all grunge, all pop art, all stick figures, etc.) to avoid distractions. Remember, you are standing in front of this image so the image is inextricably linked to your brand. The feelings the image elicits will be projected onto you. If the slide is difficult to understand, you will appear “difficult to understand.” If the image is stale clip art, you will appear “stale.”
Final Brain Science Moment: Studies show that people retain approximately 10% of what they hear, 35% of what they see, and 65% of information that they see and hear simultaneously (using a photo to explain the anatomy of a fish). The percentage increases when a presenter demonstrates information either by drawing (stick figures or charts) or through manipulating objects.
Step Four: Presenting Data
One of the most typical reasons to make a presentation is to educate your audience and sharing information is a natural part of that process. Rather than position your presentation as a “data dump,” bring the data to life by delivering it in a way that provides insight, makes the information memorable, and encourages your audience to care. You can provide an anchor or frame of reference for your data by tying it back to a “who, what, why, where, when, how, how much” loop; a “people, product, process” loop; or a loop specific to your content. Referring back to an anchor will help you focus on the insights rather than on reading numbers on a chart. One simple chart or graph per slide. If you are referencing a particular point on a chart, consider creating a separate slide with that single data point so that your audience continues to maintain focus on the data point you are referencing without their eyes darting around the chart.
Step Five: Take Away Materials
To solidify your message and maximize trust, it’s a very good practice to provide your audience with materials to take home or back to their office. These materials could simply highlight your themes in a visually engaging way or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, provide all the charts, graphs and reports that you referenced in your presentation. The trick is to explain to your audience at the beginning of your talk that they will receive these materials at the end of your presentation and/or via email so that their attention is on you – to build and maximize trust.
Step Six: Practice
Practice, practice, practice – preferably in the venue, or something similar, to room you will be presenting in. Some people find it helpful to write one-word reminders such as “smile” or “breathe” on their script. The cues should focus on behaviors you would like to produce rather than behaviors you would like to avoid.