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Rules for Sharp Presentations #2: People get bored quickly

November 29, 2010

Your audience gives you their attention by watching and listening to you, and sometimes by feeling or smelling. The sense of sight dominates. Put up a slide like this:

Sudden death for any presenter

and you’re dead before you can open your mouth. People can read much faster than you can talk, and once they see what’s coming they will assume you’re just filling in some details. People in the audience will start checking emails and sending tweets. You absolutely cannot put up slides of text and read them. A friend of mine says that if someone were to find your slide deck and look through it on his own, he should have no idea what you’re talking about. The images should support what you’re talking about. So here’s the big tip: lead with your voice and let the images trail just behind. If you keep their attention by looking at them and getting them to look at you, getting them to focus on you, then your slides should simply illustrate what you are talking about, rather than talking about what they see on the screen. This is where most people fail – they lose the audience’s attention by letting what their eyes see get ahead of the points being made. I’ve often said that if the average person presenting would simply take the very last slide and rotate it around to the front and then give the same talk at the same pace, with each image coming one click later than it was supposed to, he or she would have command of the audience rather than lose it. That’s because the slides would support the talk, not the other way around. Here are some other tips to prevent driving your audience to their laptops:

Ask questions. I like to start with a central question and get them to show hands. This is an audience sound check that tells you how engaged they are. A good question will stay in their minds during the talk and then you can use it to close, bringing your topic back around to keep it in their minds.

Perform. If you’re on stage in front of people, don’t stand in one place repeating the same actions. Act it out. Move. Come toward them, back away. Cover the room. Keep their attention using your body language and eye contact.

Make your voice your primary means of communication. If your voice is monotonic, get a coach and learn to use your voice as an important part of your presentation tool kit. Just being happy will make you sound happy, and your audience will be much more interested in what you have to say.

Demonstrate something. Use a physical demonstration at least once in a 45-minute talk. Get a volunteer to work with you, or bring out some piece of apparatus and show something physical. Hand something out. Do something to engage them physically, or at least make them nervous that you’re going to come to them next.

Be spontaneous. Go off your script, react to their reactions, scare them, do the unexpected. I used to perform with a sledge hammer; if someone’s mobile phone rang during my talk, I would come at them with the hammer raised saying “I’ll get it,” and that would make everyone laugh. Go for laughs if you know you can get them.

Always Be Delivering. This is a mistake many presenters make, especially at TED. You would think 18 minutes would force people to pack as much quality into their talks as possible, but in most cases 9 minutes would have been better. If you’re on stage, you must be delivering. I can’t count how many “social media” experts I’ve seen go onstage and throw up the same Facebook and Twitter figures and give the same overhashed advice. If your content is boring, there’s no way you’ll be able to keep people from doing something else while pretending to listen to you.

Fewer images is usually better. Most people fill their presentations with useless images (I’ll talk about that more next time), just so they can keep turning the page and reading their notes below each screen. Most people are also not graphic designers, so their slides come across as amateur and need explaining. Good designers keep it simple and go for impact. See this talk by Richard Titus and this one by the incomparable Tom Wujec – note how crisp and well done their slides are. These people really put the energy into enhancing their talk visually and focus on the progression of their ideas and maintaining communication with the audience. A good rule is: no more than one slide for every 2 minutes of talking. On the other hand, in my recent talk, I showed over 120 slides in 55 minutes, and my screen changed about every 20 seconds. But this is very difficult to pull off. I have a reason for doing it, and I’ve put over 1,000 hours into my talk, so this is an advanced approach to keynote speaking.

Don’t explain your slides. Let your slides follow behind your voice, illustrating what you have just said. If you are going to present a list of 5 bullet-point items, have each one appear just after you say it.

Present meaningful data meaningfully. If you haven’t read all of Edward Tufte’s books, please do that now, before reading on. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Here’s a good example of a slide that will engage your audience:

You can talk about the information in this slide and keep your audience’s attention, because you have an important point to make and you’re showing the data to back it up. On the other hand, the slide below is a terrible example from the same presentation, and this kind of thing is all too common today:

Your visuals must not draw attention away. In 1932, Beatrice Warde wrote a seminal essay on typography called The Crystal Goblet. I highly recommend you read it. The idea is that type should support the message, rather than call attention to itself. Edward Tufte has written a book on this effect for presentations (here’s a summary). Today, many people have discovered Keynote’s and PowerPoint’s ability to wipe, fade, zip, turn, and twist from page to page, and it seems that cool-transition mania is spreading faster than the Fed can print money. Don’t even think of using Prezi or some other cool, whiz-bang presentation tool. Don’t use 3D unless you absolutely need it to make your point!

People get bored quickly. Engage them. Ask them questions. Get them to work on your (or, even better: their) problem with you. Take them on a journey. Don’t tell them everything. Leave them wanting …

Next: What to Illustrate

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