Many everyday presentations we sit through in boardrooms and conference rooms are pretty boring. I’m speaking plainly here but I know you know what I mean. You run into a colleague in the hallway afterwards who asks, “how was the seminar?” and you reply somewhere on the spectrum between (smile, shrug) “it was OK” and (eye roll, sigh) “you didn’t miss a thing”.
I often ask people in my presentation skills workshops what makes a presentation boring. The list they shout out inevitably looks something like the one pictured here. We can’t help but feel frustrated when we invest our time in an internal or external seminar and encounter a presenter who doesn’t:
show that they have taken the time to understand what we already know and need to know
show us that what they are saying is relevant to us (and our clients)
give us practical examples of how to apply it
make it interesting
respect our time by finishing promptly.
A recent article in The Lawyers Weekly (‘Bring value’ to your audience) suggests that to take a more audience-centric approach, lawyers need to abandon “the academic model of speaking learned at law school”. I’m not sure what the academic model of speaking is (though it does sound crushing, doesn’t it?) or whether law schools can fairly be blamed for a lack of public speaking effectiveness. But I heartily agree with the idea that most go astray at the point that some combination of ego, fear, expertise and PowerPoint distracts them from the most important thing: the audience.
Turning the spotlight around to your audience
It is safe to assume that all audiences want relevant information and ideas that affect them. In practical terms, this means that giving your audience what they want requires spending most of your prep time thinking about crafting a persuasive and helpful message. You must come to grips with two things:
What your talk is about Don’t laugh. This can be the hardest task, and one that many presenters avoid. Distilling a clear statement of what your talk is about requires you to think carefully about precisely what you want (and need) to cover. Talk through your planned outline with clients or colleagues to test whether they think it will be helpful and interesting.
Why your talk matters If you don’t think your topic is important or interesting, neither will your audience. Take the time to get clear on why your topic matters. First, how do you want it to benefit your audience members? Perhaps it will help them serve their clients better in a particular area, or avoid a pitfall, or save time. You should also allow yourself a moment to clarify what you hope to get out of the talk. Perhaps you need colleagues to better understand an aspect of your practice so they can better spot issues, or be able to effectively refer work. Perhaps you want clients to get to know you, your style and the work you do.
Next, plan the structure of your talk.
No more than three points I always suggest a simple guideline of having no more than three main points. For example, if you have 30 minutes to talk to colleagues in the same practice area about a recent case, you might plan to cover: 1. How the decision will affect clients; 2. The relevant aspects of the court’s reasoning and decision; and 3. Practice points – discussion of what your colleagues need to look out for, or change, as a result of the case. Add a short introduction that clearly states why this topic matters, and you are set to impress.
Plan your stories and examples Audiences light up whenever a presenter starts a sentence with something like, “For example….” or “Just imagine that you are an HR Manager at a large box store out in Richmond…” or “Last week, a client called and asked a very interesting question…”. So do your best to plan effective stories – real or hypothetical – to help illustrate your points.
Be the boss of your slide pack A lot has been written about PowerPoint abuse, and I think we can agree that 45-slide presentations soaked in dot points, dense text, complicated charts, and cute graphics are not effective. Nor are handouts that simply print out tiny versions of those slides with a few note lines next to them. For now, let me encourage you to try to use PowerPoint as it was originally intended: as a visual aide. Limit yourself to 7 slides. Or 10. Use them for a few key words in a readable font, or a striking image that illustrates your point, or a screen print of the section of the website you are discussing. And consider alternatives to PowerPoint handouts for sharing your content. You might give participants a short summary of your key points that includes all the relevant case references or statutory provisions, or a colour copy of that gorgeous chart/graph/flow chart.
There is certainly a time and a place for fine-tuning your delivery style, which may include video work, pacing and movement, relaxation techniques, and practice handling Q&A. But for everyday presentations, the best way to prepare your delivery is simple: rehearse. After all that time thinking about and crafting messages for your audience, it is critical to do a run-through that lets you hear how the words sound out loud, and how long it takes to speak them – especially your introduction, and the stories and examples. It’s great to rope in a mate to listen, too. They can tell you what needs adjusting, and what’s working well.
The golden rule
Above all else, remember this. No one will fault a presenter who stammers, flushes red, or loses their train of thought once or twice if that presenter seems well-prepared, thoughtful, and passionate about their topic. If you care for your audience, trust me–they will cheer for you.