Confession: I joined a chapter of Toastmasters a year ago in order to improve my punctuality. Routine and schedules drive me insane, yet I understand the need for those kinds of things in business, so I figured the rigidity of Toastmasters meetings would help me practice being punctual. I still struggle with it. I didn’t join in order to improve my presentation skills because I thought I was all set there--but it turns out I wasn’t. Toastmasters has helped me tremendously with becoming a more effective communicator. In no particular order, here are few things I’ve learned along the way.
1. You have three cuss words then you’re out.
Even if you’re presenting to people who have a high tolerance for swearing, realize that giving a presentation is still professional business. In some cases, a well-placed curse word can be highly effective. If you know your audience can handle it, go for it. My rules of thumb are never use more than three no matter the tolerance level, and never employ the F-bomb. While a couple well-placed curse words can be effective, more than three begins to sound superfluous or angry.
2. No random funny business.
Always have a point when using humor. I often see people open a presentation with a comic that has little or nothing to do with what comes next. It’s nice if your opening grabs people’s attention, but we're not high school speech class anymore--so assume your audience is there to listen and learn. And using humor is a wonderful way to keep an audience engaged (laughter is good feedback for you too), but if it has nothing to do with your subject matter, you’ll come off as desperate and amateurish.
3. Communication is a two-way street. Is your audience participating?
If it’s all you talking and them listening, you’re doing it wrong. Consider asking questions that require a nod or head-shake. Consider using humor that allows for genuine laughter. Consider asking your audience to think of how they’d answer a specific question. Communication doesn’t have to be you soliciting verbal answers or taking polls--but if you can keep an audience engaged, they have a better chance at retaining what you’re presenting.
4. Speak to others as you would have them speak to you.
No personas; bring yourself. This isn’t the theater, and no one bought tickets. Generally speaking, if you’re giving a presentation, it’s because you’re an expert in a particular field. People will respect and trust your knowledge and skillset—unless you get goofy and showy. If it looks like you’re trying to compensate, then you probably are.
5. You don't have to use branded slides.
Though your marketing manager may insist, feel free to resist the urge. Branded slides can often look unappealing. Hey, while you’re at it, go ahead and use corporate lingo like “low-hanging fruit” and “synergy” and lose their attention completely.
Seriously, there may be a time that it makes sense to use branded slides (or maybe just one at the beginning), but don’t marry the idea that every slide needs the company logo and Twitter handle.
6. Leave the fancy slide transitions alone to die.
The birth of PowerPoint was neat, and it was fun to do all those wacky, twirly fade-ins in the 80s, but fifteen years later they were lame. Now, they’re just annoying and embarrassing. So just don’t.
7. Ums are okay in small doses.
We all say "um." It’s cool; don’t let it get you down. Think of it as a verbal Oxford comma (if you’re an Oxford comma hater). We see the unneeded comma and we move on--because, who's going to spare the time and energy to care it’s there? It’s the same with “ums” in speeches. We’ve learned to tolerate them. Stop sweating it.
8. Remember why your audience is there.
It’s not so much about staying on topic as it is about being flexible. If you start down a path and your audience isn’t engaging how you’d expected, change course. Skip ahead or slow down as needed. Abandon ship altogether and talk about something else if it helps the audience. This will require you to make eye contact and look for verbal cues as you go, which can be very hard for the novice speaker. When I was a high school teacher, my mentor said, “If they’re not learning, it’s because you’re not teaching.” Same goes for you. If people come out of your presentation without what they need, that's on you.
9. Silence can be as effective as words.
Much like cursing, silence can be shocking and uncomfortable. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Pauses can punctuate a point, offer a reprieve, or allow for reflection and thoughtful feedback. For a nervous speaker, silence can drag on longer than a line at Disney World. But don’t be afraid of it. Practice using it and it will become easier to use effectively.
10. The visuals you choose should serve as memory hooks for points you want to stick.
Visuals are the most important part of your presentation. You may use so many words that some audience members will get lost--but if you use imagery that helps solidify ideas you present, you’ll be a lot more effective. I’ll even go so far as to say that many of your slides should be only images. It allows people to listen instead of struggling to read words on a slide while they try to listen to you speak. And later, they’ll recall the image when thinking on your point. Like this tip? Check out the book Presentation Zen for more help with finding great visuals for presentations.
So, here’s my challenge: Next time you give a slide presentation, don't use more than six words per slide. Seems impossible, right? But it can be done, and everyone will be better off for it. Not only will it force you to know exactly what you want to say, but it will also prompt people to take notes. Let them. It’s a natural part of learning.
What are your presentation triumphs and hang-ups? Tell us in the comments.