“To express yourself as you are is the most important thing.” - Shunryu Suzuki
In his latest book on presenting, Garr Reynolds urges presenters to get naked and focus on the natural behaviour which can help establish a personal connection with an audience despite the technology, tools and effects which can sometimes create a barrier between you and others. This means being direct, honest and clear with your audience, focusing on the core of your message and stripping away unnecessary distractions and irrelevant information, in the same way that we all stood up for our ‘show and tell’ at school without the encumbrance of powerpoint and other distractions.
Above all great presentations are conversations rather than performances, creating empathy with the audience, and improvising around their concerns and questions. We all do that best when we act naturally, in the same way as if we were talking to a friend (it’s just that we might be talking to many more than one person in a presentation). This quote from Shunryu Suzuki sums up the approach to naturalness in presentations:
“In Zen we put emphasis on demeanour, or behaviour. By behaviour we do not mean a particular way that you ought to behave, but rather the natural expression of yourself. We emphasise straightforwardness. You should be true to your feelings, and to your mind, expressing yourself without any reservations. This helps the listener to understand more easily.”
Preparation is key
When I give poor presentations, the reason is almost always that I have not properly prepared. In presentations, you can almost never fake it, and it’s much more difficult to be your natural self when you have not prepared, as you will likely come across as disorganised, uncertain and anxious (however well you can hide it). Audiences will always forgive mistakes and glitches, but rarely will they let you get away with a lack of preparation.
Creativity always requires alone time, away from the distractions and interruptions of normal life. This also means time away from your computer and presentation software. In the words of John Cleese, “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops”. Give yourself space and time to think through the presentation, and use pen and paper to sketch your initial thoughts (stay away from the computer until the presentation storyline is clear).
Preparation should start by clarifying the purpose of the presentation. The purpose should be seen from the perspective of the audience, rather than yourself, and will almost always be related to creating some change in their minds and behaviour, which will require persuasion. It helps to understand where your audience are before the presentation, and where you would like them to be afterwards (Nancy Duarte refers to these states as “Move from” and “Move to”). Ask yourself two key questions before you start writing the presentation: ‘What’s my point?’ and ‘Why does it matter?’. In nearly all presentations, we try to say too much, rather than focusing on key ideas and helping the audience ‘connect the dots’. So always think clearly about the depth and scope of your talk (you can’t have both), and remove the non-essential. The less content you provide, the more is likely to be remembered. Once you have sketched a storyline (with conflicts, contrasts, problems and solutions) you can develop the materials focusing on 1) the problem, 2) the causes and 3) the solution.
To create any impact you must create an emotional connection with your audience, and Garr Reynolds argues that the best way to connect is with punch, presence and projection.
Audiences will remember best the start and finish of your presentation (primacy and recency effects), and grabbing your audience with a punchy opening is one of the best ways to achieve impact. Garr Reynolds recommends ditching the opening pleasantries (except for a simple “thank you” or “good morning”), and plunging in with a memorable opening, which can be something personal, unexpected, novel, challenging or humorous (or a combination of these). Telling a personal story (relevant to the presentation) always helps grab attention and make it memorable, and revealing something unexpected (a shocking quote, a question with a surprising answer, or an impactful statistic) taps into our natural curiosity evoking an emotional response and immediate connection with the material. You can provide a novel opening with a fresh insight or a fact that is new to the audience, and even better if it challenges conventional wisdom (for example, by asking a provocative question). Humour immediately engages empathy (as long as the laugh is shared by all), connecting everyone with everyone else (as well as you), and building positive feelings, as long as it’s relevant to the topic and truly funny (lame jokes will turn your audience off).
You will next need to establish presence, which needs you to find yourself in the flow of the moment, focusing only on the presentation itself and forgetting any other distractions. You can take risks as long as they reflect your true self and real convictions, so don’t surrender to doubts and fears, and be authentic. We all prefer someone who is authentic and honest, even with flaws, than someone who is slick and polished but contrived.
And project yourself with confidence, by looking the part (dress appropriately), moving with purpose (don’t just stand still), facing the audience and making eye contact (make brief eye contact with those that you can in the room), showing energy in your voice, and keeping the lights on (darkness kills the atmosphere and destroys any connection as the majority of communication is non-verbal).
Engage your audience
In order to influence change in your audience, you will need to engage them, which involves creating emotional commitment, and this can be achieved with passion, proximity and play.
In business we are usually told to control our emotions, but in presentation delivery there is generally too little passion rather than too much. The most effective speakers are always those who are most passionate about their subject, caring deeply about the impact that they make on the audience. Focus on your interest in what you have to say, rather than how you can make yourself interesting to the audience (at least while you are presenting), and appeal to your audience’s emotions as well as these are critical to changing behaviour – hard facts and logic will never be enough and you will need to convince them emotionally as well as logically. Also remember that emotion is key to remembering – the dopamine rush triggered by an emotional response is the key to getting your message across beyond the end of the presentation. And always smile (genuinely)!
Get as close to your audience as possible (and appropriate) and break down any barriers between you and them. Much better to use a remote c0ntrol and move closer to the audience, than to stand behind a lectern using your index finger on the laptop (they’re easy and cheap to get these days). Make sure that the technology works behind the scenes and the audience’s focus in on you alone.
Finally, use play to engage your audience, including movement, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and interaction and involvement where you can. Create an atmosphere of exploration and discovery, and smile and laugh when appropriate too.
Sustain your pace
In order to sustain engagement and interest, pace yourself and most importantly keep your audience involved and thinking as active participants. Control the flow of the presentation by adjusting the level of intensity and pace throughout, and building variety into the material. John Medina and Steve Jobs swear by ten minute ‘sections’, which should be followed by a clear break, use of different media (ie audio-visual or group discussion). Breaking your material into ten minute sessions will help focus on key points within each section, and help your audience to digest information in between each. Also vary your speed (but never too fast), volume and pitch and avoid monotone delivery, and make use of pauses and silent (you really don’t have to speak continuously) to provide a break and also to give emphasis to key messages.
Read your audience throughout and make adjustments when necessary, especially if they seem to be flagging. Don’t stick rigidly to a plan if the plan is clearly not working! Keeping material simple will help with this, as will occasionally blanking the presentation software (use the B key) and relying on your voice alone.
Audiences will get far more from your presentation when they participate, allowing them to make the material relevant to their own circumstances and understanding. Participation should be encouraged both through planned interactions, asking questions, taking polls, using role playing, brainstorming, live demonstrations, product samples, case studies, and more simply by the use of a conversational style.
End with a bang
A strong finish is just as important as an impactful kick-off. Try and find something “sticky” to end your presentation, with something simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-based. Perhaps an “aha” moment, a final twist, a real example of your key message, a quote from a well-respected source, and ideally something with emotional resonance as well as clear relevance to your main message (this is why stories work so well). In many business presentations, we start with the main conclusions (the elevator speech), in which case you should go back to this to reinforce how your story supports that message (ideally with a last twist or something new to add to the message), followed by a final quote or image.
You should be clear about the call to action at the end, being direct and specific about how you would like your audience to follow up on the presentation. Always allow time for Q&A too (never finish late), and continue to be honest and open in answering questions, which are often a chance for you to shine and show your mastery of the topic (but keep things brief and on time so you have the final word).
With persistence you will continue to get better and better. In the words of Edward de Bono, “The one thing that all successful people have in common is persistence.”, but remember that, “persistence isn’t using the same tactics over and over. That’s just annoying. Persistence is having the same goal over and over” (Seth Godin). Do you remember Bill Gates presentations earlier in his career, and how he now presents (eg at TED)? We can all get better, and we only get better with persistence.
To summarise, be natural in your delivery and bring your own unique personality to your presentations and you will get noticed, understood and remembered, especially if you focus on three things:
- Presentations are an opportunity for you to make a CONTRIBUTION
- You can contribute when you make a CONNECTION with your audience
- When you contribute you can really make a positive CHANGE
The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides by Garr Reynolds (2011)