Elements of Great Presentations: Energy and Tone

It’s often not what you say that matters, but how you say it.

Last week I was lucky to be able to give a talk called “Creating Killer Presentations” at the annual ILTA conference in Nashville and to hang around for a while to take in some of the other talks. I saw great presentations, presentations where I wished that I could sneak out of the room almost as soon as they’d started, and presentations that managed to succeed despite what seemed like impossible odds.

I’d place my friend Jeffrey Roach’s session in that last category. He was teaching hands-on “Advanced Excel” to a room set up with fifty computers– which any trainer will tell you is a nightmare to begin with. It’s just too many people and too many computers for one person to manage. Especially when you have pervasive technical problems, like Jeffrey did. Internet connections didn’t work, files couldn’t be opened, keys were actually falling off of the keyboards. It was so bad that there were a significant number of people who couldn’t follow along on their computers for the whole first hour.

A lesser presenter might have been flustered, given up, cried. But Jeffrey just kept moving ahead, making jokes and keeping the audience entertained while teaching a modified version of the class he’d planned. And it worked. The audience followed along and didn’t seem too dismayed by the technical difficulties. Almost all of them came back after a long break for the second half of the session, the evaluations were great, and I heard several people come up to Jeffrey over the next couple of days to tell him how much they’d learned.

Why did it work?  Because he didn’t let the technical problems set the tone of the session. He kept moving ahead and stayed upbeat while delivering what the audience had come for– Excel training. If he’d focused on what wasn’t working or gotten flustered the audience might have thought that they were being cheated or even felt embarrassed for him. But Jeffrey was able to make the session work by keeping his energy level up and setting the tone for the audience.

The energy you project to your audience is critical in any presentation. I noticed this over and over again at presentations throughout the whole week. The presentations that seemed to be the most successful weren’t always the presentations that had the best information or that went off without a hitch. They were generally the presentations where speakers kept their audiences actively engaged and didn’t allow minds to wander and start wishing that they were at another session or even back in the office instead of at the conference.

Whether you act nervous, excited, bored or uncertain, your audience is likely to mirror your attitude right back at you. I sat through some presentations that contained really good ideas but were drug down by the way they were delivered. Standing behind a podium or, worse, sitting at a table, can quickly drag down the energy level of a room.  So can speaking in a monotonous tone. Believe it or not, having a great speaking voice isn’t always a great thing. A deep, smooth radio voice is likely to lull an audience to sleep if you don’t work to vary your tone and keep their attention. And if things are going badly, like they were at Jeffrey’s presentation, you can’t just give up and admit defeat. If you do the audience will too.

There are some really simple things you can do to bump up the energy level of any presentation. Be aware of your voice and keep varying your delivery. Don’t stand or sit in one place for your entire talk if at all possible. Plan your interactions with the audience so they don’t get a chance to doze off or let their minds wander. And mix up your material so that you don’t stay on any one topic for too long. Nothing pulls down the energy of a room more effectively than an endless series of bullets read from a projector screen.

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