10 Critical Success Factors for More Effective Presentations
I hate PowerPoint. Yet I use it almost every day. Seems it has become one of life’s necessary evils. The common denominator we all rely on to convey our ideas now that the memo and written word appear to have shriveled into a cliché much like the audio cassette tape of yore.
My favorite quote from Steve Jobs is when he said: “people who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” Couldn’t agree more with the Man. It’s also worth noting that Steve also had precious little patience for presentations in general (other than his own of course) and could seldom sit quietly through more than five slides. I think his “attention deficit” behaavior, his inability to sit through a data dump is emblematic of what many of us are experiencing in today’s digital age. Increasingly, we have shorter attention spans and have a visceral reaction to dry, stuffy, overloaded, lengthy presentations. Most of these decks and their authors are unable to articulate the main points or a vision and they cannot boil the material down to its essence. So what do they do? They put everything in the deck (or in supporting materials) just to prove that they did their work and in case anything is missing for the scrutinizing executives who always enjoy picking at details. Most of all, they fear they may have forgotten something or they haven’t gone to the trouble to distil the content so they put everyone through the ordeal of 50+ page slide decks. This is a disease that is slowly killing our business culture. It is a symptom of our declining critical thinking skills and our overloaded agendas. It also contributes to unnecessary and lengthy meetings. We have literally lost the point of our presentations and are succumbing to the notion that more slides and more content equals better work. I think we have it completely wrong and it needs to stop.
Here are a few guidelines for more effective communications:
- Tell a Story. Take your audience with you on a journey. They are more likely to still be with you at the end and they are much more likely to remember what you shared. Avoid the trap of pure data or information dumping. Take what you have and turn it into a relatable story with a beginning, a middle and an ending.
- Make it interesting. Use every tool in your arsenal to make your message unique, compelling and yes, even entertaining. Videos, sounds, props, humor, testimonials, analogies are all ingredients that can make your presentation more singular. Don’t limit yourself to just words and pictures. Stimulate every part of your audience’s brain to make your content more “sticky.” Science has shown that stories which trigger multiple receptors/regions in the brain, are much more likely to be remembered. So play with words, sounds, sensations and imagery!
- Talk to your audience, not at them. Don’t just recite what you have to say. Try to relate to the people in the room and empathize with their situation, whatever it may be. As the saying goes: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” So show some (genuine) emotion and let the audience feel that you appreciate them and are counting on them. Share your passion or conviction in what you are presenting and they will respond with interest.
- Ask for the business or support. At the end of the day, we are all selling something. Whether it is a product, a service or even ourselves, we are asking others to “buy” or “buy into” something we have. The content and especially the presentation are all an extension of your self. So practice, prepare and rehearse what it is you want people to leave thinking. It’s your pitch.
- Keep slides to an absolute minimum. If you can’t get your message across in fewer than 10 slides, you don’t know what you are saying or you are unable to articulate it effectively. For presentations, less really is more but, granted, less is also harder to do well.
- Don’t overload each slide. Use words and small fonts sparingly. My general rule of thumb is to use no more than 10-15 words max per slide. Think of each slide as a billboard advertisement. Your audience are in their “mind’s car” and are already racing to the next meeting or thinking about what they will have for dinner tonight. You have to get their attention in literally seconds. Reading through lengthy, numerous PowerPoint sentences is a drudge and is exhausting work for the audience.
- Try to use no more than 3 bullet points per slide. Aaaah the golden Rule of Three… If you still have more points or bullets, then move them to another slide.
- Think in terms of headlines. Avoid sentences if possible. A bullet should be a high level summary of your key message. A teaser or even a reminder of what you subject/topic is. Don’t use the bullet or text to tell the story! Similarly, don’t use an eye chart and then say to your audience “I don’t expect you to read all of this but….”
- Never read from the slide deck. Reading from the slide deck is a sign of poor preparation. It shows that you need this more as a crutch than as a springboard for discussion. Above all, never turn your back to the audience while reading from the projection screen. That’s just plain rude. Instead, look at your audience. Try to connect with each of them by ever so briefly locking with their eyes.
- Practice. Unless you are a naturally gifted presenter and storyteller, rehearse what you are about to present. Practice with colleagues until you know the content and message so well that you don’t need the slide deck. A great presenter should be able to articulate the entire presentation without ANY slides. Not a bad skill to develop, especially in instances where the projector is on the fritz or the PowerPoint file or computer aren’t working. We’ve all been there…