Many people start their presentations by asking a question. They believe it is an effective way to engage their audience. While I understand the reason behind asking a question, I’ve also seen this tactic go very wrong. Here are three things to consider before asking a question in your presentation:
1. What if you get an answer you don’t want?
I once went to a talk where the speaker started by asking, “How many people have ever heard of “x” subject before?” Everyone in the room raised their hand. Then, she continued by saying, “Oh, well let’s pretend you haven’t” and then gave a 40 minute talk. This speaker had probably been told that opening a talk with a question is a great way to start. However, it is critical to realize that you may get a response that you don’t want. If a response to your question could unravel your talk, I wouldn’t ask it.
2. Is this rhetorical?
It’s very common for people to ask rhetorical questions in their talks. For example, I often hear people say, “Why did we do this?” and then immediately proceed to answer their own question. While there isn’t anything wrong with this, it’s important to note that your audience will start expecting you to answer your own questions. Then after your talk, if you ask them a question, you might not get anyone to speak up. That’s because you’ve set up an expectation that you will be asking rhetorical questions. Instead, rephrase your question into a statement like, “We did this because...” It’s a much more direct transition into the next part of your talk.
3. Do you need the answer?
I’ve been to many talks where the speaker asks a question, but doesn’t actually need the information. An audience can tell when you are just asking a question for the sake of asking it, versus asking a question and appreciating the response. This is why I recommend only asking a question if you need and value the information the answer can give you.
If you ask a question in a presentation, make sure the information you receive is critical and necessary. Otherwise, rephrase your questions as statements. It will help elevate the quality of your talk.
Using filler words can become a habit. That’s because the more your ear hears these filler sounds (um, uh, like, so), the more often you repeat them. After listening to hundreds of presentations, I’ve noticed a pattern of when filler words are used. If you can focus on these moments, you can cut down on the majority of the filler words in your presentation.
When people begin a presentation, they often don’t know exactly how to start. They know the first subject they will bring up, but they haven’t practiced how they will thank the person who introduced them or how they will quiet down the room. By not having a clear idea about how they want to begin, filler words start to appear. Fillers are used to give the presenter time to figure out what to say. To avoid this, practice a few introductions — and most importantly — practice them without filler words. That way, your ear won’t hear filler words in the beginning, and therefore, won’t rely on using them throughout the rest of the presentation.
2. Point of Focus
Filler words also emerge when a presenter isn’t sure where to look. In the virtual presentation world, this often happens when a presenter is trying to navigate from their presentation screen to answer a question in the chat box. They are trying to figure out a point of focus, and during that time, filler words pop out. When presenting in person, fillers slip out when the presenter is turning their head from the audience back to the screen with their PowerPoint, and vice versa. Presenters rely on filler words to fill the “time” that it takes to find a new place to look. To give yourself something else to do when refocusing, try exhaling. That way, you get a moment to breathe and your message won’t be distilled with filler sounds.
Filler words are also heard when people are transitioning from one idea to the next. People use sound to fill the pause of moving from one idea to another. It's a crutch presenters lean on to subconsciously tell the audience, “Don’t worry, I’m still in control.” Instead, try pausing between ideas. Pauses are incredibly useful. If there is a constant stream of noise, nothing will stand out. That’s why you want to practice pausing between ideas. This way, your ideas won’t blend into one another, you cut down on filler words, and your presentation becomes much more engaging.
It’s a good idea to practice key moments without fillers. This includes the introduction, pausing between points of focus, and between transitions. If you do this, your audience can focus on what’s really important — your content and ideas.
Data is important. Unfortunately, data presentations are often hard for audiences because after looking at a few graphs, details start to blur together and it is hard to recall specifics. However, there is a powerful technique you can rely on to make your data presentations more impactful — tell the backstory.
People love backstories. They love to find out what happened behind the scenes. It’s exciting to get to see the secret behind the final product. This can include the journey, what hurdles you had to overcome, the people involved, etc.
To be clear, a long backstory behind every graph is not a good idea. People don’t want to sit through a long presentation if they don’t have to. The trick is to adjust how to introduce your graph that adds in a few specifics to make the data real, to tell the story about why you are presenting it.
For example, instead of saying, “This graph shows…”
You could say:
“I remember reading an article that got me thinking about x and y so we decided to investigate those numbers. We discovered that...”
“We were in a meeting when Kyle originally had the idea to run an experiment comparing the specifics of x and y. After looking at that data, we noticed that…” or
“When I first saw this graph, what piqued my interest was how…”
By simply adding in a few sentences that introduce a location, person, or feeling, it makes the details more impactful and therefore, easier to remember.
Next time you present data, think about what happened that caused you to seek out that information in the first place.
Virtual presentations are the new normal. However, many presenters are having a hard time adjusting to this format. It’s easy to miss the in-person connection that comes from being in the same room as your audience. If you are giving a virtual presentation soon, keep these tips in mind:
Most presentations are done while standing. If standing is how you’ve given most of your presentations in the past, I’d suggest doing the same while presenting from home. Just put your computer on some books (so the camera is still at eye level), and give your presentation standing up. Not only will you feel more comfortable, but it will also help give you more vocal power since you won’t be hunched over.
2. Don’t Instantly Share Your Screen
Most presenters start their virtual presentations by sharing their screen right away. Unfortunately, if you start this way, the audience never has an opportunity to connect with you, since the video image of your face becomes a very small box on the side of the computer. Instead, I recommend only sharing your screen after you’ve introduced yourself. Let people see your face first. Let them have that moment of connection. Then, once you’ve said hello, you can start to share the main content of your talk.
3. Talk to a Person
Presentations are an opportunity to talk to people. However, during virtual presentations, most participants turn off their cameras in order to lower the bandwidth on the call. This can make it very hard for speakers to connect to their audience since they have no one to look at and talk to. I recommend asking a few people to leave their videos on so that you have someone to look at during the presentation. If that’s not possible, post a picture of someone you enjoy talking to behind your camera. That way, you have a real person to look at while giving your presentation.
Especially in the virtual world, it’s important to take every opportunity that makes it easier for your audience to connect to you during a presentation.
The current situation has left many people scrambling to figure out how to communicate online. This includes giving presentations for defenses, conferences, meetings, etc. If you find yourself having to present online, here are five things to keep in mind.
What do you want people to learn? Since people are all tuning in remotely, people have far more distractions around them including kids in the other room, animals at their feet, etc. Therefore, having a clear goal in mind is more important than ever. Make sure you can distill your message into one sentence. Get rid of any information that doesn’t directly support the purpose of this talk.
2. Reveal info as you say it
If you are showing a PowerPoint, it is going to take up the majority of people’s monitors. People will be focusing on the changing images in front of them. Therefore, you need to animate information onto your screen as you talk about it. If you have everything on your slide at the very start, your viewer's eye will wander around. Instead, animate each point as you bring it up. That way, the images are directly supporting your idea as you introduce them.
3. Minimize filler words (so, um, uh, like)
When you don’t have the advantage of being physically in the room with people, your audio plays a larger role. If you always start a new slide with “So”, it will distract from your main message. To minimize filler words, map out how you will transition to each new slide. Go through your entire presentation and only allow yourself to say the first sentence of each slide. Practice eliminating the filler words. That way, your message isn't diluted with words that aren't important.
If you are sitting at a desk, don’t hunch over to speak. It will affect your voice and breath. You will end up sounding more nervous than you are because you aren’t able to breathe easily. I recommend standing up so you can move a little and feel more active.
5. Camera Angle
Since you aren’t able to be in the room with people, you want to do everything in your power to simulate a real conversation. This includes setting the camera up at eye level. If your camera is too low, people will be looking up into your nostrils. The lower angle is also distracting if you speak with your hands. If your camera is at eye level, you can still speak with your hands and they won’t cross over your face. This lets people focus on what’s most important, which is connecting with you and your ideas.
We hear it all the time, “practice, practice, practice.” But what we don’t hear is how to practice. That’s why people are often surprised when they rehearse a presentation and it doesn’t go according to plan. If you’re going to take the time to rehearse your ideas, you want to make sure you are doing it in the most effective way. Here are some tips to keep in mind next time you are practicing a presentation:
Most people practice their presentation in the most convenient location —in front of their computer. However, when you do this, you’re normally hunched over a desk mumbling to yourself. Instead, you want to make sure you are practicing your presentation in the way you will be giving it. Step away from your desk, stand up straight, and use your full voice when practicing.
2. Don’t rely on the slides
The other thing that happens if you practice a presentation while staring at a computer, is that you get used to looking at your slides. Then, when you get in front of an audience, you end up needing to face your PowerPoint to remember your content. Audiences don’t come to a talk to see your back turned to them. Instead, practice looking up and only check in with your slides when you click to a new one.
Many people have had the terrible experience of “blanking” in front of a crowd. They forget what they want to say next. Most of the time, this happens because they haven’t practiced their transitions. Double-check that all your transitions are mapped out in a logical order.
When you click to a new slide, you don’t want to be looking at the slide and think, “How should I start this one?” Instead, map out the first sentence of every slide. That way, when you click to a new slide, you know how to begin. It will help you stay confident and keep the audience engaged.
5. Break it down
If you have a long presentation (over 20 minutes), don’t try to rehearse the whole thing over and over. Instead, break it down into smaller sections. Practice the first 10 minutes, then take a small break. Then, practice the next 10 minutes. That way, you aren’t tired by the time you get to the half-way point.
Next time you have a presentation, practice in the most efficient way possible. Get out from behind your desk, look up and away from your slides, make sure your content is logical, know your transitions, and break down longer talks into smaller sections.
Teams are powerful. People work together to accomplish shared goals. Team members are encouraged to think outside the box and come up with solutions to current problems. However, even if you have a great idea, sometimes it can be difficult for others to see it from your point of view. Before sharing your latest idea at your next meeting, think about the answers to 3 questions:
1. Is it repeatable?
If you want people to remember your suggestion, they have to be able to repeat it. Many times suggestions are too complex for people to recall. In one sentence, what is your idea? Make sure it is succinct and to the point. If your suggestion can’t be repeated, then no one will want to put it into action.
2. Is there a story behind your suggestion?
Many people make suggestions but forget to tell the story on how they arrived at that idea. If I’m going to see it from your point of view, I need to know what you were going through to think change was necessary. Stories help us create emotional connections with worlds that we aren’t currently in. A quick way to make people care about something they aren’t currently dealing with, is to tell them a story about it.
3. How will things improve?
Whenever you make a suggestion, be sure to end on how things will improve. Give people an image of how life will be better because of this new idea. It can be easy to slip into why things are hard or how you are struggling. Instead, end on a positive note. You want people to know that, even if your suggestion might be a bit of effort, things will be better once your idea is put in place. You want people associating this idea with positive emotions rather than negative ones.
When you present an idea, you want make sure it has an impact. The best way to do that is to make your suggestion repeatable, tell a story on how you arrived at that idea, and end on a positive note.
Many people hate small talk. They’d rather engage in “meaningful" conversation. However, if you think about it, small talk can be quite meaningful. It allows people a safe environment to find common interests, engage with people they don’t know well, and connect with others outside their immediate bubble.
If you aren’t sure how to begin a new conversation, try categorizing small talk into these three categories:
1. Personal — plans, ideas for activities, things to watch, etc.
"Any plans for the holidays?"
"I love exploring the outdoors. Do you have any recommendations on places to visit?"
"I've been watching this great new show _______. Have you seen it?"
2. Professional -- work, research, news articles, etc.
"What do you do?"
"I've been working on this project lately where _______. What are you working on right now?"
"Did you read that article on _______? I found it interesting how _______."
3. Location and environment — things in the area, events, the weather, etc.
"Have you been to any farmer's markets around here?"
"I heard there is a fair coming into town. Have you been before?"
"I love this time of year when it gets a little colder. Do you have a favorite winter activity?"
Now once you start a conversation, the trick is to keep the dialogue going. If someone isn't familiar with the idea you bring up, don't just answer "yes" or "no" and leave it there. Instead, find a way to continue talking until you find common ground.
"Did you watch the baseball game last night?"
"No, I didn't see it. I was busy testing out a new risotto recipe. Do you enjoy cooking?"
It takes a while for people to feel safe enough to open up. Small talk can be an incredible tool to use. You never know who you will meet and where that one interaction can lead.
Conferences are a great way to share your work, meet new people, and hear about the latest updates in your field. In order for everything to run smoothly, everything is delicately scheduled. And yet, most presenters forget this. They think about how to stand out among the other speakers, but there is one factor that can easily overshadow their presentation. That powerful element: time.
1. Presentation Schedule
If your speech is the one before a restroom break or before a meal, end on time. Even if the presenters before you took too long, find a way to condense your presentation. Always have a backup plan ready. People have a schedule in front of them. Once the clock gets to a certain point, no one will be listening to you. Shorten a few slides and end on time. The audience, and the conference coordinators, will thank you.
2. Too Much Content
An audience can always tell when a speaker puts too much content into a presentation. It’s either too complicated for the time allotted, or the speaker speeds up the delivery to get through all their slides. You want your audience to know that you crafted this presentation for them. That you thought about the best way to present this information in this specific time frame. By editing your content, you allow the audience time to think about and absorb your ideas.
3. Being "Almost Done"
Even the best presenters fall into the trap of saying phrases like:
“Just to conclude…”
“To go through this quickly…”
“To wrap up…”
While the phrases themselves aren’t bad, they are if you say them when you have more than 2-3 slides left. Don’t tell the audience you are almost done, if you aren’t. It makes them question you, and therefore the information in your presentation. Instead, just explain your ideas. If you don’t bring it up, people won’t be thinking about it.
Time can easily dominate a presentation. With a little preparation, you can take back that power. You want your audience to focus on what’s most important — you and your ideas.
Music is powerful. It sets the mood for an event before it starts. The tune that plays while you wait for your telephone call to be transferred is strategically picked to keep you calm before talking to a representative. A single song at a wedding can get everyone jumping to their feet. And at a sporting event, a song can ignite everyone clapping together in unison.
For your next speech, consider leveraging the power of music to elevate your presentation.
1. Playlist to listen to before an event
Certain songs get you pumped up. They stop you from playing the to-do list in your mind and help you focus on the present. It can get you into a specific mood. I suggest having a playlist ready before you go to any large speaking event. Baseball players do this all the time. They have “walk-up” music. When they hear a certain song, it gets them in the right headspace to bring their A-game.
2. Music as people enter a space
Before your event starts, have music playing to set the mood. I normally play some type of easy jazz. That way the first few people coming in aren’t walking into a silent room. You want people to feel comfortable enough to turn and start talking to a neighbor without the fear that everything they say will be heard. As a presenter, you want the room to already be buzzing with energy when you start your speech. Music can help you do that.
3. Music during breaks and transitions
I also recommend playing music during breaks or at the end of your talk. It helps keep the energy going throughout the entire event. People feel freer to socialize or chat with friends if there is some sound in the background. As a presenter, you are providing a space for people to feel comfortable enough to let their guard down and learn. Creating an environment where people can chat and mingle with neighbors will elevate their overall impression of an event.
I suggest using music as a tool before, during, and after your presentation.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.