Three key elements of effective presentations

I recently gave a guest talk on presentations for a class on Business Communications in English. The class consisted of Mongolian MBA students, with varying levels of English proficiency.  It was great fun preparing, especially as I thought about my own presentations over the years, the ones that drew kudos and the ones that drew yawns. There is nothing like first-hand experience on what works and what doesn’t work.

When preparing, I naturally searched for good presentations to use as examples–I had seen Steve Jobs’ talks used as examples and was trying to find the right video to show and spark discussion.* The search also drew my attention to some sites giving presentation tips, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony when one of “seven tips when making a presentation” was “focus on no more than three main messages.”

As my colleagues know too well, I can’t remember more than three things at a time, and chances are you can’t either.  I had to boil it all down to three key elements of a good presentation.  I had to fudge a bit, but these are the three I came up with:

  • Focus. This is where many presentations go wrong: lack of clear messages, extraneous information that distracts, overload of technological bells and whistles that do not make the main message memorable. Ask yourself: What are the three messages you want the audience to remember a day later? What is the one message you want people to remember a month later?
  • Dance-Music-Poetry. I had heard of this before as a metaphor for effective communications style.  Dance refers to the physical movement that accompanies the spoken word; Music refers to the variation in pace and pitch; and Poetry refers to the words. (I am not sure of the origin; put in a comment if you know.) How can you use your dance, music, and poetry to keep your audience engaged and get your focused messages across?
  • You. This is not only about style, but about experiences and personality. The most memorable presentations bring some of the speaker’s own self into the presentation. How can you bring some of your own experience or aspirations or personality into your presentation?

It was also great fun delivering and engaging with the students. To illustrate these concepts, I demonstrated some made-up examples of bad presentation skills: facing the screen, reading the bullets, using distracting animations and overly busy slides. I’ve committed these sins enough times to know that although they are common, they are also yawn-inducing.

To show that it doesn’t have to be this way, I also showed some good examples:

Here is Steve Jobs introducing three new products in 2007. This is an example of simplicity and Focus. Jobs is famous for employing simple visuals to accompany and support his spoken words, but his talk also shows the importance of the You factor: “This is a day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years…”  No jokes, no blah blah introduction, just a simple statement of his own excitement for what he is about to share with you; not overstated, just enough to get you to want to hear more. Watch the first 3.5 minutes to see what I mean, and also enjoy the humor.

Sometimes, charts and data are needed to help make a point. As someone who works in development and loves data and evidence, I could not not show an example of Hans Rosling deftly using a quiz format to challenge misconceptions. The best presentation I have ever done was also quiz format, although without any special technology; self-scoring on a piece of paper also works well.**

Note Rosling’s engaging Dance, no doubt reflecting his enthusiasm for the subject rather than conscious decision, and his effective use of humor: would losing to random probability be nearly as memorable as losing to the chimps?! Watch the first three minutes or so and enjoy the quiz. And kudos to the TED talk people for putting subtitles in 32 languages, including Mongolian!

There are many other great examples: Al Gore used his Music and Dance to bring the Earth to life. And here is a former boss, Sanjay Pradhan, exemplifying the You factor by bringing his personal experiences to motivate his work on open data.

The famous Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint helps remind that sometimes oratory is better without the technology, and, as I often remind myself, that you don’t have to speak for a long time to make a big impression.  The actual Gettysburg Address was about two minutes long. We have no way of knowing first-hand about Mr. Lincoln’s Dance or Music, but his Poetry? Wow.***

I couldn’t help thinking of this when I saw Michelle Obama’s powerful speech a week or two ago. Can you imagine this beautiful speech accompanied by bullet-pointed slides [•Not normal; •Not politics as usual; •Disgraceful] or a bar chart [% of men in my life who speak this way]? Me neither.

Although I am stressing simplicity (Focus) and low-tech oratory (Dance-Music-Poetry), there are exceptions. Presenting a business strategy will necessarily require that slides have detail, all the more so if the slides are to be handed out as a record for study later. This also goes for PPT slides or Prezis that will be posted online. Presenting with interpretation will require simpler language and a slower speaking pace than when presenting to an audience without interpretation.

Technology can be helpful when used appropriately. Charts and diagrams sometimes illustrate points or relationships in ways that oration, alone, cannot. Rosling is a genius at finding ways to present data in dramatic and memorable fashion. The point is that he does so to reinforce what he is saying, not to duplicate it. And the charts and animations, themselves, are free of unhelpful clutter.

The exceptions make the rule, and the rule is simple: Focus on your message; deliver it with the appropriate Dance-Music-Poetry; and be sure it has plenty of You.

So… what were the three things I wanted you to remember?

*A quick shout-out to the folks at Oratorio from whom I learned some of these ideas long ago.

** I was challenging misconceptions about governance indicators. The TED talk people weren’t there, though, harrumph, but you can read the paper here.

*** I’m pretty sure President Lincoln never used “wow” in a speech.

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