This tip is about as obvious as they come.  But practicing (we can say “rehearsing” if we want to sound a little more theatrical) is one of the most neglected elements of developing a presentation.  By the time people organize their ideas, develop a script and put together their visual aids they’ve often run out of time for preparation.  Or they just want to get through the talk once and never think about it again.  But a little bit of practice can go a long way toward improving your talks.

No matter how good (or bad) of a presenter you think you are, your presentations will benefit from practicing them.  And practicing can help you with several aspects of your talks besides simply helping you remember what you want to say.  Running through your presentation at least once before you deliver it to your “real” audience can help you work out kinks in the structure of your talk– where you’ve left something out, where you’re repeating yourself, where you stay on one point too long or where you need a transition between ideas.  If you’re practicing your presentation and find something awkward or keep losing your way, chances are that your audience would have the same problem.

Practicing can also help you figure out where you need to add an image, introduce a group activity or insert a joke to mix things up a little bit.  Most importantly, practicing can help you overcome fear  of presenting.  Practice enough and you shouldn’t have to worry about forgetting what you have to say. It may seem uncomfortable, or even silly, to give a presentation to an empty room or a few sympathetic people pretending to be your audience, but rehearsing will ultimately make you much more comfortable in the long run.

Invest a little practice time for the sake of your presentation, your audience, and yourself.

Stay on schedule

Doing something unexpected can be a great way of grabbing your audience’s attention.  But don’t try to surprise them by messing around with their schedules.  Audience’s expect you to start and finish on time and not meeting these expectations can be a disaster.

Using more time then you’ve been allotted can make people feel that you’re not being considerate of their time.  They’ll start to feel anxious while you’re still talking if it becomes clear that you’re going to use more time then you were supposed to because it can make them late to their next appointment.  Worse, it’s very difficult if not impossible for an anxious audience to listen and really hear  what you have to say. Some people, including me, hate being late more than anything (I blame my father, who always managed to find one more chore to do before we could leave the house).  We prompt people are the type who manage to hold long grudges.  So don’t do this to your audience, or yourself.

And contrary to the opinion of some,  it is possible to finish your talk too early.  If you’re scheduled for 90 minutes, don’t wrap up in 60.  It can look like you don’t respect peoples’ schedules (they might have used that extra time for something else) or, worse,  that you’re not prepared.  I attended a conference recently where a speaker finished half an hour early because she hadn’t paid enough attention to see that she’d been given a highly-coveted 90 minute slot.  Other speakers would have been glad to have that time to use.

The Voice

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This story has been everywhere the last couple of days.  Using the standard measure of our era– YouTube hits– it’s huge.  Susan Boyle or Lady Gaga huge.  But it’s worth revisiting because it gives us examples of two ideas that are important to any presentation.

Ted Williams is the homeless man who made the jump from YouTube to all of the news outlets because of his “perfect” radio voice.  Apparently he’s been collecting job offers to do voiceovers and from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The first thing this illustrates is how important something that many presenters never think about– voice– can be.  There’s more to the Ted Williams story than just his voice (more about that in a second), but he never would have attracted all this attention without it.  A strong voice can perform exactly the same function in a presentation.  Even though most of us will never sound like a radio announcer, we can try to do our best to make our voices enhance rather than detract from our messages.

One of the most important things you can do is speak conversationally to your audiences, which is proven to make them pay attention better and remember more of what you have to say.  Other things you can do:  vary the tone of your voice; sound enthusiastic; pause every now and then to give your audience a chance to process what you’ve been saying.

What you don’t want to do:  read from a script;  drone on in a monotonous tone of voice; sound like you don’t care about your own presentation; use an inappropriate tone for your audience.  We’ve already talked about the pitfalls accents can provide for public speakers– it’s important that you keep that in mind, too.

The other thing that’s clear from all of the attention that Williams has been getting is how much people love a good story.  Clearly it’s not all about his voice, which never attracted the same sort of attention and high profile opportunities before he fell on hard times.  I saw him open The Today Show this morning!

His story has grabbed peoples’ attention because they love these kind of comeback, triumph over adversity, up-by-the-bootstraps kinds of stories.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s so surprising to hear that voice coming out of his body– people love to be surprised.  It’s the same thing that people thought when they first saw Susan Boyle.  “How could that person sound like that?”

Let’s hope that voiceovers work out for Williams.  Even if they don’t, I can imagine him out on the motivational speaker circuit, telling the amazing story of how he became famous.

As a presenter, you need to try to make every connection you can with your audiences.  Don’t forget to tell them your story.

Pocket projectors– not just for nerds.

Pocket Projector

3M's MPro 160

Yesterday I wrote about how important it is to have a backup plan for when something inevitably goes wrong.  While you should always be prepared  to deliver your talk without slides in case your projector dies, it’s even better if you can have a spare at your disposal.  That used to mean carrying around an expensive piece of equipment the size of a bulky suitcase.  It just wasn’t practical.

But a whole new class of pico projectors has changed all of that.  This is one of the technologies (along with those remote controlled helicopters) that has made the most incredbile advances in the last few years.  For a couple hundred dollars you can buy a tiny projector that weighs a pound or two and can save your day in an emergency.  They’re not exactly bright– you do need a dark room to make them work well– but they’re getting better all the time.  The 3M MPro160 (terrible name) that I link to below is twice as bright as the previous model.

Some people are predicting that these will be common in high-end cellphones within a few years so people can share their vacation pictures and movies of their kids.  Won’t that be great….

In the meantime, it’s nice to know you have your own projector in your computer bag if you need it.  And if an emergency never comes up, one of these does a great job of turning the ceiling of a hotel room into a really big screen to replace your TV at home.

Have a backup plan

It’s impossible to plan for every contingency– for example, the show probably won’t go on if there’s a major earthquake.  But there are some things you can anticipate.  Know what you’d do if you can’t show your slides for some reason, or how you could compensate if only a few people show up to a talk where you expected many.  Think about which parts of your presentation you might cut if you wind up with less time than you had planned for. Most importantly, have a plan for dealing with strong reactions if you’re discussing an emotional topic.  Sometimes continuing with your original plan isn’t appropriate and you just need to try something new.  Having a backup plan for these emotionally-charged events can be critical.

Sound the Part

Only very rarely are foreigners or first-generation immigrants allowed to be nice people in American films. Those with an accent are bad guys.
–Max von Sydow

I used to say that whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points.
–Jeff Foxworthy

Whether your presentation is persuasive or not depends on many things.  How well you’ve thought out your message.  Your audience’s attitude toward you. Whether they see you as authoritative on your subject. And, it turns out, your accent.  The results of a recent study showed what many frequent presenters already knew– people with accents are often seen to be less credible than others.  Researchers found that people, after hearing simple statements in accented English:

“Instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful,” Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar said in the study

The result of this unconscious mental operation has an “insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue,” they said, adding that an accent might reduce the credibility of job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or news anchors.

In the first study 30 people listened to phrases such as “a giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can” or “ants don’t sleep” in Austrian-German, Korean, Italian, Polish, Turkish and other accents and graded them as to how likely they were to be true.

“People were just influenced by the accent, so when people had an accent people rated the sentences as being less true than when people heard them without an accent,” Lev-Ari, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology, explained.

In my experience it’s not just foreign accents that are an issue.  Trainers from Texas have told me that they sometimes flatten out their accents when dealing with people from other parts of the country in order to be taken more seriously– but that they sometimes turn the accent up a notch in order to wage a charm offensive.  Personally, I was shocked when I had an HR manager ask me not to assign a trainer with a heavy Boston accent to teach a writing class because she thought that the accent would diminish the trainer’s authority.  I was disappointed, but she may have had a point.  What’s more important, giving everyone the chance to teach a class, or making it effective?

There are a couple of ways we can use this information.  Speakers should be aware of their accents and try to minimize them if they might otherwise impact their ability to be persuasive.  Remember that you may not think of yourself having an accent where you live, but that people from London, India, Japan or Rome may hear you differently.

I hope that knowing the effect of a speaker’s accent can help us all be better listeners, too.  The truth is that we all have an accent somewhere;  just because a speaker sounds different than you do doesn’t mean they aren’t right.

(For the record, my brief internet research shows that some ants do sleep, but that a giraffe can go longer without water than a camel can).

Read more:  Accents and Persuasion

The Moth

Storytelling is such an important part of delivering a presentation that it deserves some study. The Moth is a great place to start.  They’ve collected hundreds of stories told by people who range from the very famous to the not-famous-at all that you can listen to online or download to your iPod.  As you’ll learn from the intro to the recordings, the shows are originally told live on stage, without notes, in front of an audience.  Not exactly the most forgiving format, but I haven’t heard a poorly delivered one yet.

Obviously these storytellers are putting some thought and practice into these presentations. They can be funny, sad, shocking and thought provoking– sometimes all in the same story. And listening can help you get a better idea of how a good story works.  I find them really motivating.  Not only are they great entertainment, but they make me want to do a better job of telling my own stories; they even make me want to go out and find new stories to tell.  Some of them are truly inspirational– check out Johnathan Santlofer’s tale of how a heatbreaking loss wound up changing his life.

You can listen in on The Moth’s website, or sign up for their podcast below. Oh, and if you’re still living in the last century, they even sell CDs!

The Moth

The Moth Podcast on iTunes

Why do we have live presentations?

We certainly don’t do presentations because they’re easy.  They’re a huge hassle and most people hate giving them.  So there must be a reason.

Sometimes presentations are done to ensure compliance or that people are paying attention.  Certain training programs are structured this way– if you work at a big company, it’s why you probably have to go to Sexual Harassment Prevention training every couple of years and make sure that you get your name on the sign-in sheet.  (Though this kind of program is increasingly moving online).  It’s the only way to make sure that people are actually doing the training and not making their secretaries or assistants do it for them.

But if you’ve ever sat through a boring presentation and completely zoned out, you know that it’s possible to attend a presentation and not really be present.   If you want to make sure that people pay attention, you need to create a presentation that will hold their attention.

The great advantage that live presentations have over other forms of communication that we use at work and in our “real” lives is that they allow you to bring a powerful human element into what you want to say.  When you think about it, we tend to use live presentations for difficult topics: complex issues with no easy answers; topics that are likely to prompt emotional reactions; situations where we want to manage or “spin” our messages as best we can.

These are situations where written communications are likely to fall flat– business writing isn’t very good at getting peoples’ attention and doesn’t do a very good job of dealing with emotion or complexity.  Remember that “Sex and the City” episode where the guy from Office Space (Berger) breaks up with Carrie via a Post-It note?  It’s funny because it’s not emotionally appropriate.  Email isn’t very good at conveying emotional material, either.  And documents that try to address complex issues or answer potential questions from their readers wind up looking like legal contracts.  That’s why many emails from your HR people are so long and unsatisfying.  (Apologies to the HR people out there).  It’s also why so many difficult HR topics are handled with live presentations.

The best reason to have a live presentation is to take advantage of the interaction between the speaker and the audience in order to be persuasive.  Actually, if you’re planning a presentation and can’t identify your persuasive element, you should probably reconsider whether you need to have a presentation at all.  If all you have to present are facts, a live presentation is probably overkill and likely to bore your audience to sleep.  Try an email or memo instead.  On the other hand, if you want to change peoples’ minds or get them to do something, a live presentation with an emotional element to persuade them is definitely the way to go.  Because facts are seldom enough to change anyone’s mind.

People don’t want facts, they want something to believe in.  Once they’ve made up their mind about something– once they’ve fixed on a story about an issue– they’re unlikely to change their minds unless you touch them with another story that makes them feel differently.  Have you ever tried to change someone’s opinion about a controversial political figure or issue?  It’s almost impossible, and you’re never going to change their minds with facts.

Say you’re talking about global warming.  It’s one thing to tell them how much polar ice has disappeared.  It’s another to show them a picture of a baby polar bear whose mother swam off to look for food and never returned.  Telling a story can lodge your message in their memory and continue working to sway them in a way that facts alone are unlikely to.

The same is true when you’re trying to teach, train, or get someone to adopt a new process.  People don’t just change or learn because you tell them to.  They learn because you give them a story about why they should.  Scare tactics tend to have the most immediate effect (“you need to know how to do this in order to keep your job”) but giving people hope (“knowing how to do this will make you more marketable in today’s job market”) is probably more effective in the long run because it encourages them to keep motivating themselves in order to reach their goal.

Keep it brief

Brevity is a powerful tool.  It’s rare (though not completely unheard of) to hear complaints that a presentation was too short.  People appreciate your respecting their time and will have a strong impression of what you say if you do it economically.

Why do meetings always have to be an hour long?  Try scheduling something for 20 minutes, or 45 minutes.  People will often be surprised by your unusual timing and it will make a favorable impression on them because they’ll see that you’re making an effort to do something different and respect their time.


Be the star of your presentation

You– not your slides– need to be the focus of your presentation. That’s just a fact.  Sorry to confirm you worst fears, but whether you’re successful or not depends on your performance. If you’re relying on your slides to make your case for you, if they are the most important thing about your presentation, you’re doing it wrong.  But many presenters use their slides (or a script they can read or memorize) to hide behind instead of taking advantage of the live event in order to engage their audiences and make an emotional connection with them.  Remember that this is your best shot at persuading them– facts on slides aren’t going to do it for you.

Here’s the good news.  By the time you actually get around to delivering your presentation you should have already done all of the groundwork that will make it possible for you to succeed.  You’ve refined your objective, figured out your audience, researched your topic, written your talk, designed your materials and practiced your delivery.  By this point you should know your talk backwards and forwards.  What could go wrong?