Never let an audience get ahead of you

January 27, 2015

Letting the audience get ahead of you is one of the most common ways of killing a good presentation.

Once your audience know what you are going to say next, or even just think that they know what you are going to say next, there is a strong tendency for them to switch off and start thinking about other things. They will get bored waiting for you to say it and get on to the next point.

But how can an audience get ahead of you?

There are many ways for an audience can get ahead of you, if you let them. One of the most common ways is when you put up a slide with several bullet points on it and start working your way down the list. Before you are even through the first sentence describing the first bullet point, your audience will have read the slide. If the bullets are self explanatory, then they will get ahead of you. They will have caught the gist of what you are going to say and then have to wait for you to say it. While they are waiting, their minds will wander and you will have to work much harder to recapture their attention.

Using the line by line reveal facility in PowerPoint, will reduce the scale of the problem but still does not cure it. If you bring up the bullet point first and then start talking about it, you have still let the audience get ahead of you, and you will be telling them “old news”, as they have already read the headline. If you have to use bullet points, bring them up after you have talked about the topic to reinforce what it is you have said. Better still uses some pictures or even some physical props to help get your message across and leave the bullet points on your speaker notes.

Of course, handing out printed copies of the whole presentation before the event is another classic way of allowing the audience to get ahead of you. Have you ever looked at the audience during the first key note speech at a conference? Most of them will still be scanning through the handouts working out which presentations they think will be worth listening to, not paying the slightest attention to what the key note speaker is saying.

In the same vain, putting up an agenda slide at the start of a presentation is another way for your audience to “get ahead”. I know it is fairly common practise to have an agenda slide at the start of a presentation but I think this is done more out of habit than for the benefit to your audience. How many feature films do you know that start with an agenda? Agenda or contents pages are only relevant to printed documents so that the reader can skip to the part they are most interested in. Do you want your audience to skip to the part of your presentation they are most interested in, and ignore the rest?

Presentations need to have a structure, so that your audience can understand how you have taken them to where they are now. But this structure does not need to be broadcast in advance in can be revealed as you go along.

To keep an audience listening you need to build in some suspense and tension just like in a television drama or a play. Don’t give the game away by letting them see a précis of your talk before you have a chance to speak.

All the very best for your future presentations




Preparing a Presentation

January 24, 2012

When you are under pressure at work it can be difficult to allocate the appropriate amount of time to preparing a presentation that you have been asked to give. But as we all know “failing to plan is planning to fail” and this has never be more true when it comes to giving a presentation.

There are three main parts to preparing a presentation:

  • Deciding what to say.
  • Deciding how to say it.
  • Preparing yourself to say it.

What to say

Let’s start with “Deciding what to say”, this is really all about your audience and what you would like them to do. What do you want your presentation to achieve? What is your objective? How will you know if you have achieved your objective? You need to be really clear on what your aim is, so take some time at the start to work out why you are giving the presentation and what you want it to achieve. If you can write this down in one or two sentences you will have a good foundation for your presentation.

Having decided your objective, then start thinking about your audience. Who are they? Why are they coming to listen to you? What do they know about the topic already? What is it that they want or need to hear? The more you can find out about your audience the more accurately you can pitch your presentation to meet their needs and desires. When addressing a mixed audience try to define two or three different segments of your audience and create two or three alternative scenarios.

Having established why and who, it is then time to start thinking and researching what it is your going to say. Having a structure to fit the points you want to make in to is very helpful. One structure I have used successfully many times is to start by outlining the problems with the current way of doing something and the describing a vision of success, a picture of how it could be if things were different. Then go one to describe how this vision could be attained, summarizing all the benefits of the approach, inviting the audience to join you in achieving this vision which you can then restate at the end of the presentation. Don’t be tempted to add in everything that you can think of, maintain a structure. Three key points backed up by evidence or anecdotes is usually sufficient for most presentations.

It is at this point that many people make the mistake of opening PowerPoint and creating lists of slides titles and bullet points. While bullet points may be a useful way to document the points you wish to make in a speech, they do not make good visual aids.

How to Say it

Having pulled all you material together and being familiar with the main point you wish to get across, you can now turn to planning how you are going to convey this information. Are you going to stand and talk? Will you have any props to help get the message across? Will you use visual aids and if so what will they be? Are you going to tell a story? How will you involve your audience? Will you ask them questions?

Rehearse your presentation by saying it out loud. Sitting at your desk clicking though a set of slides is no way to rehearse a presentation. You need to say it out loud to become familiar with your material and to become accustomed to saying the words. By rehearsing a presentation out loud you can develop the phraseology which will work best in the spoken form, rather than the more formal style of language we use when we are writing. A single rehearsal will improve your speech by up to 80%.

You don’t need to have anyone listening to you especially the first time through, although it can help to tape record or video record your presentation rehearsal so that you get a clear view of what you actually sound and look like. I often turn off the radio and rehearse a presentation in the car on the way to the location. It is a great way to rehearse and the presentation and make sure you know what you are going to say, plus it is fresh in your mind when you arrive.

Preparing to say it

Finally, you need to put yourself in the right frame of mind for giving a presentation. If you do not feel confident you need to address it. Tell yourself that being nervous is OK, in fact, if it is an important presentation it is perfectly normal to feel nervous, you just want to recognise that you are nervous and put it to one side, while you get on with the job in hand.

Use confident boosting techniques like telling your self that you are “Poised, prepared, persuasive, positive and powerful “ and that you feel, “composed, confident, convincing, commanding and compelling”.

To counteract a dry mouth, suck a mint beforehand. Use breathing techniques to ensure there is sufficient oxygen in your bloodstream or take some gentle exercise beforehand. Wear clothes that make you feel good. Remember, the facts will only take your audience so far, it is your passion for the subject and your emotion that will lift your presentation to new heights.

Make sure you arrive at the venue, nice and early, so that you have time to get set up and familiarise your self with the surroundings, before your audience arrive. Work out where you are going to put any notes, or props you intend using and think through how any equipment you are going to use will work. Check any pens have ink in them, check your laptop to ensure the screen save, or instant messaging won’t pop up in the middle of your presentation and make sure your mobile is on silent.

Don’t rely on an off the cuff presentation, just because you know about the topic doesn’t mean you can effortlessly give a quality presentation, it takes time, it takes thought and it takes practise.

Ban the Bullets

January 27, 2011

Around the world, in every office, conference room and meeting room, every minute, of every day people are standing up giving presentations with a list of bullet points displayed on the screen behind them. Now just because millions of people do it does it make it right? The short answer is NO !Ban the Bullets

Using bullet points in your presentations is:

  • Lazy
  • Ineffective
  • Futile

They rarely help the overall communications process which the presentation is trying to achieve.

While it is true that the human memory is better at retaining visual information rather than aural information, using bullet points distracts the listener from what the presenter is saying while they read the bullets. Then when the presenter repeats what the audience has just read, it is old news. And we all know how boring it is to hear old news repeated!

If, in an attempt to be more interesting, the presenter rephrases the bullet points in his oration this just ends up confusing the audience as they hear one thing but see something different.

So using bullet points in your presentation is a “lose-lose” situation.

Why do so many people use bullet points? I believe they are a bi-product of the presentation’s development. When you are developing your thoughts for a presentation is very useful to write down short bullet points and to be able to re-order, add and delete points as you think through your presentation. The result being a sheet or sheets of paper covered with a long list of bullet points. The problem comes when people transcribe these bullets into the presentation software.

This usually happens for one of to reasons:

A)     The presenter doesn’t know any better.

B)     The presenter feels that he/she needs the reminders to help them present the information and keep the presentation on track.

In the latter case, I would suggest that the bullet points are transcribed on to the speaker’s notes, not the slides. That way the speaker can be reminded of what to say, without broadcasting it in advance to his audience.

Using the slides to remind you what to say turns the whole process of giving a presentation on its head. Rather than the presenter leading the presentation with the visual aids supporting what he says, it makes the slides lead the presentation with the presenter demoted to the role of describing what the slides say. In the worst cases the presenter becomes completely redundant as the audience can read the slides and understand the points themselves. The “presenter” would have been better off sending everyone an email, far more efficient.

Hopefully, I have now convinced you that bullet points are not good for your presentations. This raises the next question; what else should you put on our visual aids, or should we do away with the slides altogether?

Personally, I believe slides can help get your message across and help to make it more memorable. After all it was Confucius who once said, “I hear I forget, I see I remember”. What should go on the slides though? Well the clue is in the name, “visual aids”. Your slides should conjure up strong mental images which reinforce what you are saying.

The best example of this I have come across was in a presentation about global warming. The speaker was making the point that what happens in relation to global warming is all down us as individuals. To illustrate the point that one person can make a difference he put up a slide with three images: “American policemen beating up a black person”,”Martin Luther King” and “President Barack Obama”, what a change in one generation!

So I appeal to your better judgement, Ban the Bullets, be more creative and make your presentations work.

If you agree with me the bullet points should be banned from professional presentations, please add you name in the comments box below or take my poll

7 Questions to ask when creating a presentation

October 22, 2009

One of the hardest aspects of developing a new presentation is deciding where to start. To help you I have 7 questions that you should ask yourself, or the others around you, which will help to define and structure your presentation.

These questions come from a summary of the answers I received from a question posed on LinkedIn, and I would like to thank everyone who responded to my question “What three questions do you ask yourself when you create a presentation?”

Let us start with an assumption that you know roughly what the presentation will be about. The questions to ask, starting with probably the most important question of all are:

1.  Who is my audience and what do they care about?

The more you know about you audience the better. How many of them will there be? What do they know about this topic already? How receptive to your ideas will they be? What are the demographics and psychographics of the audience likely to be?

The number one question that the audience members will be asking themselves is: WITFM? (What’s In It For Me?). After you have created the presentation, go through each and every part of it and ask “Why is this bit important to my audience?” If you don’t have a clear answer, then change the presentation.


2.  What is the goal of the presentation and how will I measure the success in meeting that goal?.

Your goal should be relatively short term, so that when you measure how well you achieved it, you can still remember how the presentation went. Think about the goal in terms of “What do you want your audience to do as a result of the presentation?” “What would everyone do in an ideal world?”. The more quantitative these actions are the better.

A secondary question, once you have established your objective is “What call to action shall I use at the end of the presentation to reinforce this objective and encourage people to meet my goals?”  The last thing you should say before you sit down is your call to action, which tells people how to meet your objective.


3.  What pain does this presentation cure and how do I express or get the audience to feel that pain in the opening?

A well established principle of the solution selling approach is that without pain, there is no change. If people are completely happy with the way things are they will never feel the need to change. In order to create a need for change you have to expose the need, which is mostly commonly done by exposing the pain. As business presentations are invariably promoting some form of change you need to establish a case for change early on in the presentation.

Highlighting only the pains can leave a sour taste in the mouth, so ensure you also paint the vision of success, i.e. what it will be like once that pain has gone away.


4.  What would potential objections be to my message and how do I overcome such objections?

If there are likely to be any potential objections then you are far better tackling them head on rather than trying to skirt round them. Thinking of the three worst questions you could be asked and formulating a response to those questions will boost your confidence and give your presentation a more rounded feel.


5.  How can I make my messages memorable?

All too often presentations are listened to and then quickly forgotten. You need to think about how you can make it memorable. Think about where your passion lies in this topic, devise ways to make your audience think about the subject. After all the more people do the more they understand.

Your visual aids can also help to get your message fixed in their memory. Use creative imagery that creates a strong mental image, rather than the ubiquitous text bullets.


6.  How much time to they have to spend with me?

There is nothing worse than running out of time or running overtime. Establish up front how much time you have for the presentation and then ensure you take 10% less.


7.  How will I grab their attention at the start?

There is little point in giving a presentation if your audience are not listening. Right at the start you need to grab their attention and make them think about the subject to hand. The reaction you are looking for is a “Wow! I thought this would be good but this is going to be great! I really need to give it my full attention!”


Answer these 7 questions and your presentation should be practically complete.

Thanks to everyone who contributed by answering my questions on LinkedIn. You can see the original questions and answers here

And here.


Finally, if answering all 7 questions seems a bit too much for you then there is another approach to presentation development promoted by David Eastman,of  Chicago which I think deserves a mention. It is:

  1. What’s up?
  2. So what?
  3. Now what?

 As David says “Those are the three subliminal questions most participants have when attending any presentation. I structure every presentation around those three questions so the participants understand my main points (and the problems or situations to which they apply), why those points are important, and then how to apply the information they just received.”


All the very best with your future presentations.


If you need a helping hand, drop me an email. If you would like to add another question to ask when creating a presentation please add it as a comment below.

Why Corporate Presentations fail

September 24, 2009

How many corporate presentations have you sat through?

How many of them have really excited you?

Why are so many business presentations boring?

It all starts with the person who created the presentation, typically someone in marketing or business development. They accumulated a lot of knowledge about their markets and about their products services and solutions. They know what benefits their solution provides and they know what problems their target audience are looking to solve. They also know they need to provide a consistent brand image. This is all really good knowledge for creating a presentation about their company and how it can meet the needs of their market.

They set about creating a spectacular PowerPoint presentation, often utilising the skills of graphic designers to create aesthetically pleasing slides. This result is then approved by senior management and after several iterations is rolled out across the company as out new corporate presentation, which must be used in all sales situations.

After weeks and months of effort this corporate presentation, which the authors are so proud of, then fails to wow the audience. Why?

There are two main causes behind the failure of most corporate presentations. Firstly, the person who designed it is not always the person who presents it, and secondly they have to be designed as a one-size-fits-all presentation. Designed for what the author thinks will be a typical audience.

What affect do these two factors have in the design of the presentation?

In designing a presentation for someone else to give there is a tendency for the author to spell out every single aspect of the presentation. After all the person delivering it may need to be educated in what to say, and may need to be reminded of the particular benefits that they should bring out. At the back of the author’s mind is the thought “can I trust the presenter to say the right thing”.  This doubt in the mind of the author leads to lots of text on the slides. Slides full of bullet points, to ensure that the presenter says the “right” things about the company and stays “on message”.  In cases where slides purely contain images the author can not be sure that the presenter will say the right thing.

Having slides with lots of text is not good presentation practise, as the more inexperienced presenter tends to read the slides then say what the slides say. Good for ensuring they say the right thing, but really boring for their audience, who can read the slide far quicker then the presenter can say it, and who effectively gets ahead of the presenter and then stops listening, because he/she already knows what the presenter is about to say.

The second problem is the one size fits all nature of corporate presentations. Because the author does not know exactly who the audience will be, and what particular aspects of their products, services and solutions will be of interest, then tend to include everything. Very few audiences will actually be interested in everything a company has to offer and different people will be interested in different levels of information about the company and its products and services. For example, while the CEO of a prospective client may be interested in your financial success, geographical coverage, and number of employees very few technicians will be interested in this information. What they want to know is the technical details about your products. The end result is a presentation where up to half the content is irrelevant to your audience, which makes the whole presentation particularly boring.

How can you avoid these two fundamental problems, and still ensure that your staff bring out the right points for their audience?

To reduce the amount of text on your slides I recommend that you put all the information that the speaker needs to know in the speaker notes, not on the slides. Go through your corporate presentation and ask your self, what elements of each slide are there for the speaker and which elements are there for the audience. Then put all the speaker stuff in the notes section. There is little benefit to be gained by the audience reading the same thing as the presenters says.

Don’t write a full script in the notes, because some people will try reading the script when they give the presentation which invariably comes across as dull and boring. Include an opening phrase for each slide and a set of bullet points on the areas to be covered. Finally, teach people how to use the twin screen facilities of PowerPoint so that the presenter can see the notes, while the audience only sees the slides.

The second problem can be addressed by creating a slide library, rather than a corporate presentation. Create a variety of different slides for each aspect of your presentation according to the potential needs of different audiences. You will still want to keep the overall structure of the presentation consistent, but have different slides for different audiences which can be plugged in according to the needs of each particular audience.

Of course, designing a good usable presentation is only half of it, the other half is educating your staff in how to deliver a presentation with enthusiasm, passion and purpose.

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