What the audience needs

Did you ever give a presentation to a professional audience and think to yourself, what a boring audience. They didn’t ask questions, and they didn’t show any visible response.

Well, it is probably not their fault. Most people come to professional or technical presentations because they want to be there. They either want to learn the most recent information in their field in order to solve some challenges, or just stay technically up to date. In many cases, they leave disappointed, why?

While presentations are usually done by experts in their field, many of those experts did not have training on how to deliver their presentations, or did not think deep enough about what the audience needs.

In general, people want three things when sitting in the audience.

  • People want to be entertained. No one wants to sit in a presentation and fall asleep. People like stories, examples and humor when appropriate.
  • Next, people want to connect with the speaker. They want to know that the speaker understands their unique challenges.
  • Finally, people want new ideas presented in a clear, logical, and practical way. Most of us have been trained by the public media to accept sound bites, bullet points, and clear practical steps. Otherwise, the channel gets turned off right away. The same is true when listening to a presentation.

The most common mistakes when presenting technical material

Many professional presenters fail to think about the desired outcome of their talk from the audience view. That is, if I was in the audience what would I want to get out of this talk and why. Instead, the speaker focuses on how I can get the most information presented in the time available.

Another common mistake is placing too much technical information and terminology into the presentation without first defining it. It is fine to present technical terms and data but only after taking time to label and define it. It is a mistake when presenters assume that people know all the material in advance.

Many speakers depend on tools such as Power Point to do the speaking for them. Slides are wonderful for setting a foundation but they should not replace the presenter. Using a method such as having no more than six lines per slide and six words per line will force the audience to not only listen to what you have to say, but also challenge their own mind to keep up with the presentation. When all the information is available as the speaker is presenting, people will typically read ahead and drift off worrying about their bills, relationships, and what to eat for their next meal.

And last but not least, professional speakers make the mistake of not engaging with the audience. This can be avoided through the simple use of eye contact, asking questions, smiling and telling practical and useful stories.

Virtual presentations pitfalls and possibilities

These days there are many opportunities to give professional presentations virtually via webinars and related technology. Many professionals take advantage of this and give many presentations virtually and tend to make the same mistakes as when presenting face to face. When presenting virtually, the challenge is even greater. For example, direct eye contact is removed and in many webinars, neither the speaker nor the audience is seen, only heard. This tends to lull both the speaker and the audience into a restful sleep. When presenting virtually, speakers must use the power of their voice to make contact and get engaged with their audience. They must pause, ask questions, or collect questions to be answered. It is critical for a virtual presenter to have the audience read slides without overwhelming them with detailed content. It is helpful to give the audience time to do exercises, reflect, and ask questions. Many studies have suggested that over 80% of our communications occur non-verbally. This is what influences people the most. Once an audience forms their perception about the speaker, they will look for the clues which affirm their perception. For the virtual speaker, it is important to use the art of one’s voice to offer energy, passion, and practical content.

Envision, plan, practice, and build rapport!

The best approach to giving a talk, which people will benefit from, involves four critical steps.
The first step is to envision exactly what you want the audience to take away from the presentation. For example, do you want them to either learn something new, or to have their behavior change as a result of your talk? This takes a lot of deep thought. You can help yourself asking the following questions:
In which ways do you want your audience to benefit from your talk?
What do you want them to do as a result of listening to you?
If you can’t answer these two questions, you are not ready to give a talk.

Next, make a mind map or outline of your talk. Make between 5-7 points that you will memorize as to the flow of your talk. This is about the most that people can remember. Then write down 1-3 points or branches off of each point. This is all you need to talk through a presentation while keeping on track. With any more information, you will need notes and too many notes convey to an audience that you do not know the material well. For any Power Point slide presented, a speaker should have a minimum of 30 additional minutes of material which he or she could speak on if asked questions. On the topic of questions for each presentation you give, prepare 10 questions which the audience might ask (and probably will), and then prepare the answers! Then you will be well prepared! Even if no one actually asks you these questions, then you can when appropriate, raise some of these questions yourself!

After your outline is built, practice! Practice standing with your materials. Record your talk. Then you can listen back. If necessary, record your talk into any of a number of free conferencing services which you can listen after. When you listen to yourself talk, you take on the perspective of the audience which is good. In all your available free moments such as in the shower, when jogging, drifting off to sleep, you can practice your outline and sub-parts. As a result of practice, you will know your material well and your confidence and self-esteem will increase.

Finally, it is critical to gain rapport with your audience. On the day of your event, arrive early. Check out your audience, talk to them, and observe them. Try and take on their perspective. This will help you to relax and speak to them as if you were speaking to yourself!

Better results for all

You can avoid the most common mistakes which professionals make when giving presentations if you incorporate these ideas. As a result, your presentations will be remembered and people will find value in your speaking. Meaningful presentations will also encourage people to follow your advice and message that you have presented. Can you improve your presentations skills? The answer is yes, with deeper thought, practice, and a more disciplined process when planning and presenting.

l’ll be cheering you on as you go!

Craig Nathanson

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