Better Presentations in 5 Steps

Everyone has sat through a less-than-engaging presentation by someone in their company. All too often it consists of a PowerPoint presentation packed with way too much information and delivered without enthusiasm. By contrast, there have been 35 years of incredible TED Talks, and if you take some time to watch a bunch of those, you’ll discover all kinds of ways to improve presentations at your company. And let’s face it, corporate America could definitely be making more of an impact. Here’s what makes for better presentations by anyone and everyone.

Framing a narrative approach to your topic is what will make it an engaging presentation.

1. Don’t Develop a Presentation – Tell a Story Instead

While it’s true that many TED Talks include a multimedia element, many of the best don’t include any kind of slideshow. Better presentations don’t begin with the PowerPoint slideshow. The starting point should be figuring out the compelling story you want to tell. After you’ve developed the story, then you can develop the multimedia presentation to illustrate and support it, if it’s even needed.

Why storytelling? Framing a narrative approach to your topic is what will make it an engaging presentation. There is no better way to connect with an audience than telling a story. This is because human beings are essentially wired to listen and engage with stories – even more so when you land on the right metaphors to include. Speaking of metaphors, think of your presentation as taking your audience on a short journey during which you will serve as a guide to help them discover what it is they need to know. Ask yourself where this journey should start, where it should end, and where it needs to go in-between. Think about what your audience does or doesn’t already know about the topic so you don’t dive in at a place to deep for them. Figure out how to explain why this topic is important to you, and why it should matter to them as well.

One of the more compelling story structures that can work well for presentations is the detective story. After all, everyone likes a good mystery – even more so when they feel like they’re participating in solving it. You start out with what the problem is, then tell the story of searching for a solution. With this approach, the audience tags along on your short sleuthing journey and gets to experience the same moments of discovery you experienced.

2. The Art of Brevity Makes for Better Presentations

There’s a reason TED Talks are 18 minutes or less – call it the “less is more” approach if you like. This is part of why microlearning has become such a powerful learning method these days. Bite-sized learning where one main concept is presented in a very short eLearning lesson has proven very effective. The same holds true for making better presentations. Forget about the long sessions that inevitable bore people. If you can’t make your presentation less than 30 minutes, then you probably should consider how it can divided up into more than one session presented at different times (and preferably on different days as well). When you try to cover too much, you up not covering anything well enough.

Be relaxed, confident, and engaged with your audience and they will respond positively.

Making your presentation short, however, doesn’t mean leaving out details. The best stories are those rich in details. This is why you have to limit the ground you cover on your short journey. Limit the scope so you can provide the depth of details needed to engage your audience. Don’t go broad – go deep. But not too deep, right? Getting too deep into the details can also hurt a presentation – not seeing the forest for the trees, as they say.

3. Balancing Data and Narrative is the Key

Avoid giving a report. A report is heavy on data but short on storytelling, which is why a presentation that is little more than going over a report simply is not engaging. Yes, you need to convey facts and information in your presentation, but remember to make the story your starting point. Then you can look at where to layer in the data to support your points. The mix of story and data will differ from presentation to presentation depending on the type and purpose of the specific presentation you need to make.

4. Plan and Practice the Delivery

Busy people in busy companies often don’t feel like they have the time to do what it would take to make a presentation truly compelling. Besides everything else listed above, you should practice it enough that it can be delivered without having to read it. Reading a script (or teleprompter) doesn’t work well because no matter how hard you try, those things become a barrier between you and your audience that prevent connecting with them as deeply as you should. Memorizing what you want to say well enough that you sound natural speaking it is the way to go, and it does take time and effort. But better presentations are more effective, which makes it worth your while. If you have to, use notecards with bullet points to remind you of the sequence, and just speak conversationally.

Then there’s the matter of stage presence. Sounds intimidating, right? It’s really not. It just means being relaxed, confident and engaged with your audience. When you come off as excessively nervous and unsure, your compelling story becomes much less engaging. Most people tend to move too much – whether it’s waving their hands around too much, swaying, shifting their weight from leg to leg too frequently – which is always distracting for the audience. Use gestures sparingly and they’ll have more impact. Keep your lower body still and your stage presence will improve. If you can walk about naturally and maintain your focus, go for it – but don’t try to force it. And above all else, make eye contact with your audience. It’s the single most powerful thing you can do for better presentations.

5. Slideshows and Multimedia Only as Needed

Most people know by now the “rules of the road” when it comes to PowerPoint slides, and yet corporate America continues to largely ignore them in their presentations. Your slides should not outline your talk before you start giving it, In other words, don’t use PowerPoint as your speaking notes because it will feel like you’re reading it. Nothing you say should appear in the slides because it’s repetitive. People are there to hear what you have to say, not to hear and read it at the same time. If the best way to illustrate one of your points is with a short video clip, go for it. Just keep in mind that the multimedia aspect is not what should be driving your presentation, it should be serving and enhancing the compelling story you’ve crafted.

There you have it – 35 years of TED Talks boiled down into five steps that will make for better presentations. I hope your next opportunity to present at your company will be as effective as it can be!

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