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Making Engaging and Dynamic Presentations 

By Laurie Brown

Imagine that you have spent the better part of two weeks working on an important speech you plan to give to your company. You think you have done everything right. You have created a PowerPoint presentation with tons of information and flash animation. You have created handouts of the slides for your audience, so they can follow along. Although you haven’t had time to rehearse the presentation you are not worried, because you have the entire speech typed out. You plan to read it while you blow their socks off with the dynamic PowerPoint slides. Everything should be perfect, right? Wrong!

If you were to look at your audience (which you cannot, because you are reading your script) you would see them either riveted to the screen or to the handout in front of them, but not at you. The audience members who are eye weary from all the information you have packed into the slides are closing their eyes just to rest them. What went wrong?

Experienced speakers know that to engage their audience, they must build rapport. Reading from a script makes this difficult, if not impossible, because connecting with an audience requires direct eye contact. No matter how well written your speech, if you read your presentation to an audience, you will lose them.

Reading to your audience can also make you seem less authoritative. The audience wonders, "If you know so much about the topic, why can't you just talk about it? Why are you reading?" Here are five tips for getting and keeping your audience’s attention:

Make Eye Contact: Free yourself from the written page and demonstrate your expertise by using one of these ideas:            

  1. Memorization: If you want to memorize your speech, it is helpful to rehearse it out loud just before you go to sleep and right when you get up.

  2. Outline: If you use the outline method to create your script, you can simply go back and clean it up and use that for the presentation. If you don’t have an outline prepared you can create one using the major points of your presentation.

  3. Key word method: This technique calls for you to select key words from your script that represent a paragraph or two of information. These key words should jog your memory so that you can speak extemporaneously. You can use a single page of key words, or place them on 3x5 cards (always number the cards). If you are a visually oriented person you can find an image that represents the key word and create a pictogram.

  4. Teleprompter: Nothing helps you maintain good eye contact without memorization like the teleprompter.

When speaking to an audience, you want to make everyone in the audience feel that the message is being directed to them personally. If you find that actually looking into the eyes of your audience is difficult and distracting, look at the tops of their heads which will create the illusion that you are speaking directly to them.

In order to include the whole audience, use a “Z” pattern. Start by looking at the front left section of the audience. After finishing your thought, turn your gaze to the front right section. Again, finish your thought and direct your gaze to the center section. Then look at the rear left section and after completing your thought look to the rear right section.

Know your audience: The more you know about your audience’s wants, needs and level of understanding, the better able you are to craft a speech they will feel compelled to listen to. Too often speakers give the same presentation to different groups. “Generic” speeches tend to lose most of the audience. A speech needs to be relevant and specific.

You need to make sure that you are using words and ideas that are easily grasped by your audience. This doesn’t mean you have to “dumb down” your speech, but it does mean checking to make sure that you are not using jargon or acronyms that are only known by a few.

Your audience is always thinking, “What’s in this for me?” Keep this question in mind when you craft your speech.

Throw away your PowerPoint: I think that there is no other element of a presentation that can bore an audience more quickly than PowerPoint slides. Okay, I know you are starting to curse at me now. Get rid of PowerPoint? Well, maybe I need to restate that. You can keep PowerPoint, if you use it properly and effectively and not as an eye sight test. Follow these simple rules:

  1. Choose an easy font to read, such as Arial or Times Roman.

  2. Font size should be at least 28 pt (bulleted items should be at least 22 pt).

  3. Use colors carefully (reds and oranges are hard to focus on).

  4. Don’t crowd too many words on the screen (3 lines of type is more than enough).

  5. Keep the slides simple, clean and easy to read.

  6. View the PowerPoint presentation on the screen after you have created the slides and prior to your presentation. Check for ease of readability. The slides really do look different on the screen.

  7. Don’t read the slides verbatim. Quite frankly, most of your audience will be able to read the slide, so why repeat it?

I think the most powerful PowerPoints are those that use only pictures, a key word or phrase or graphics. There is no reason to simply use a slide to repeat what you have said. Instead, use a visual aid to reinforce your point. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

You should direct your audiences attention to the screen and back to you. Simply turn your gaze to the screen for a moment or two and then look back to your audience. These subtle cues allow your audiences attention to move from the screen then back to you.

Give hand-outs after your presentation: If you are making a presentation that has a lot of important and/or technical information, you can provide a hand-out, but only after the presentation. If people have your slides while you are speaking they tend to read ahead or stay glued to the hand-out and not to you. If you give them the hand out after your presentation, it will reinforce all of your material without stealing attention from you.

Rehearse: I know people hate to rehearse. It is hard not to feel silly when practicing your speech. However, there is nothing that helps a speaker more than the familiarity and ease you get from saying the words out loud. (Yes, it does make a difference to say the words out loud.)  I practice when I am in my car driving alone or while on the treadmill at home. The shower can also be a great place to practice.

Try these ideas with your next presentation. Even if you only use one or two of these tips, you will have taken a huge step toward being the speaker that your audience will be compelled to stay awake and listen to. No one will be snoring in the back row.

Read other articles and learn more about Laurie Brown.

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