7 Rules for Giving a Great Presentation

May 14, 2013

May 2013 Student Newsletter, 5th Edition

Written by Tutor Janine H. from New York, NY

"Ugh. A presentation. Anything but a presentation. No really. I mean isn’t there an option for a paper or an executive summary that everyone could read? I don’t want to be the clown in front of everyone going on and on about a topic that nobody cares for. I do not need the aggravation (or the nausea, sweaty palms, and shaking heads that go along with it). Please, I beg you. NOT A PRESENTATION."

Sound familiar? I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say yes. You are certainly not alone. Paul L. Witt, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, reports that the number one fear in the U.S. is public speaking. That’s right. More people are afraid of public speaking than snakes, spiders, or any other creeptastic creature you can think of. Added to the fact that you’ve probably sat through more mind numbingly dull presentations in your life than you care to remember, it's understandable why students are hesitant to embrace them.

All that being said, you still have to give the darn thing no matter how unpleasant it may be. So how can you make it more bearable for yourself and for your audience?

1. Content. Content. Content.

Yes. I am blatantly snitching and updating every realtor’s mantra of “location, location, location.” Why? Because location is to real estate as content is to a presentation. It is the bedrock of the entire process. You can have a killer delivery complete with fireworks, party favors, food and drink but if the content isn’t there your presentation is going to fall flat.

How to make your content shine? RESEARCH. I know, another dreaded word, but a well-researched presentation with SPECIFIC details will only make your life, and the lives of your audience better. When you are well equipped with the right research, creating the presentation will actually be easier for YOU to create and will be easier to follow and more engaging for YOUR AUDIENCE.

Now, this does not mean you get to write and deliver an encyclopedia on your topic. A good presentation will be rich in detail, but will contain only the absolute minimum necessary to get your point across to the audience. So cut, chisel, and sand down your content so it is as streamlined as it can be. We want a mean, lean, fighting machine that captures the audience’s attention and holds it.

Which leads me to…

2. Know thy Audience

I know I said content was the most important element of a presentation, but it is actually tied with audience. Consider all of those times you sat in a presentation that seemed that it would run until the end of time. It was most likely because you didn’t feel engaged. The content of the presentation was not geared to you. Either you couldn’t understand it or simply couldn’t find a way to connect to it. So don’t torture your audience in the same way. Tailor your presentation to whom you are speaking. Every aspect of it. You ask, “What aspects?”

  • Language: If you are giving a presentation to a group of engineers you are going to be using more technical jargon than if you were talking to a group of high school drama students. Plan accordingly. Do not assume that everyone in the audience knows exactly what you are talking about. Take time to define key terms. I always like to preface a presentation with the notion that if someone does not understand something I’ve said at any point, they should raise their hand and ask. No point suffering in silence. And if one audience member doesn’t know a term or concept, you can bet at least five others don’t either.

  • Style: Again, the group of engineers is going to be more tolerant of a drier presentation than a group of high school drama students, but that does not mean that you have the right to bore anyone to tears. When talking through complex examples you run the risk of your audience getting lost and losing focus, so try breaking the process into smaller pieces. Better yet, come up with analogies. Specifically analogies that involve people. This may sound silly, but trust me, it works. In his book, Hardwired Humans, Andrew O’Keefe discusses the concept with Mark Schenk, the co-founder of Anecdote. Before humans could write, they told stories. The human brain is specifically set up to listen and to talk. Stories tap into our humanity and can transform dry facts into something that we can relate to because people are of infinite interest.

OK. So you’ve researched the topic, you’ve streamlined your content, and you’ve tailored it for your audience. It’s all on paper so you are ready to go. Right?


3. Practice Makes Perfect

“Wait. What do you mean?” you ask. Under no circumstance should you ever give a presentation without having practiced it. I’m not talking mumbling it half heartedly ten minutes before you give it. A good rule of thumb is for every 15 minutes of actual presentation material, you should spend at least an hour rehearsing. It seems like a lot, but that’s the low end. Seriously. Have you ever been to play? What if the actors came on mumbling their lines with completely wrong inflections, made no eye contact with one another and appeared that they didn’t really know what on earth they were talking about? You’d want your money back. Same rule applies for a presentation. Now, I am not saying you have to have it memorized, but you should be very, very familiar with the content. You should feel comfortable enough with the material to make regular eye contact with your audience.

Run your presentation for your friends, family, dog, cat, hamster, bird, cactus or your favorite wall. Get feedback. Work on it again. It will help more than you know. It will make the material start to come alive for you (as you won’t be panicking about whether or not you read it correctly) and for the audience, which is really the main concern. Oh, and added bonus? You’ll feel less anxious come the actual presentation.

4. Take a breath

Before you begin, take a breath. Inhale slowly for eight seconds and exhale slowly for eight seconds. Do this three to five times depending on how bad your nerves are. It will help. I promise. When we are tense we tend to breath shallowly, which skew the oxygen and carbon dioxide balance in our bodies. Too much carbon dioxide? Your heart rate will jump, you’ll feel dizzy, your muscles will tense, and you could feel sick to your stomach. The deep breaths and the fact that you are holding them will help your body get the oxygen it needs to help calm you down and get back to normal levels in the blood stream.

5. Connect with your audience.

In theory, if you’ve practiced and you’ve taken the time to breathe, this step should come more easily for you. Remember, first and foremost you are giving your presentation for YOUR AUDIENCE. Make eye contact. Ask them questions. Check in with them and make sure that everything is clear. You would not be putting yourself through all of this if it were not for them. And guess what? It will help minimize your anxiety levels if you can try to reach out and befriend them. They are not going to start throwing things at you. They will not bite you. At least one hopes. They want your presentation to go well because they too must live through it. For examples on ways to connect with an audience, check out TED talks on YouTube or through the TED website. Presenters are not allowed to use any note cards and use very minimal amounts (if any) of PowerPoint slides. They are completed focused on communicating their points to their listeners/viewers.

6. Projection and Pacing.

This kind of goes hand in hand with “connecting with your audience” and “practice makes perfect” but it’s important enough to get its own bullet. It may seem silly but two of the most effective ways to wreck an otherwise very dynamic presentation are not projecting and pacing the presentation incorrectly. Again, it all circles back to the audience’s needs. If audience members can’t hear you or can’t understand what you are saying because you are speaking at light speed it doesn’t matter how fabulous your material is. I recommended prefacing a presentation with something along the lines of “Can everyone hear me? Yes? Good. If at any point during the presentation this changes, please don’t hesitate to raise your hand or ask me to speak up.” Breathing will help you with both issues. Take the time to breath throughout your presentation to keep you oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in check. If you do this, you won’t physically be able to rush through the material. And if you have sufficient breath, you will be able to fully support your voice to make it carry.

7. Have Fun

If you really get into the material and allow yourself to get excited, the audience will see that and will actually experience some of your joy. Ah, the beauty of mirror neurons. No really. According to new discoveries in neuroscience, when we see an action or emotion being carried out or experienced by another person, the same areas in our brains activate (to a less extent than the actual participant, but they are still lighting up. Check out PBS and NOVA’s video for more information on mirror neurons.

Et voilà. How to make a presentation enjoyable for the audience and yourself.

“Umm. But you didn’t say anything about PowerPoints…”

Ah, the dread PowerPoint. Personally, I despise PowerPoints – added time and effort on my part, and by and large distracting for an audience, but sometimes they are necessary. So if you absolutely must have them here are some simple guidelines:

  • Only include absolutely necessary information. A study at the University of Houston by Robert Bartsch and Kristi Cobern found that material included in PowerPoint presentations that is not pertinent actually was harmful to viewers’ retention of the material.

  • The slides are in addition to, NOT the focus of your presentation. If all the material you are going to discuss is contained on the slide, why on earth would any one bother paying attention to you? Give them a copy of your slides and stay home.

  • Images are more powerful than words for your slides. According to Ian Price of Business Training Direct, an audience will maintain 7% of the material in textually form words, 38% of vocal input that accompanies that slide and 55% of what is visually displayed.

  • If text must be present it should be no less than 30pt according to Guy Kawasaki a former Apple "chief evangelist” and venture capitalist.

  • No more than a slide every two minutes. The focus should be on what you’re saying not how many slides you can click through.

  • Janine is one of Wyzant's top 100 tutors for 2012 nationally. She graduated from Wellesley with a bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and French (with honors) and a M.A. from NYU Tisch in Performance Studies.

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