10 secrets of great presentations or how to wow your audience and keep them engaged

In my first speech in Toastmasters, I talked about my career trajectory and my previous jobs. I had detailed speech notes that I read word for word and I had a pen in my head. Oh god the pen. It was a click-y pen and every single time I was nervous (basically for the whole speech), I clicked the pen. I didn’t notice my own nerves but the audience certainly did and what was supposed to be a good first speech ended up being a speech full of click-y pen noises.

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I’ll never forget the feedback I got on my first speech. “Put down the pen”. Looking back at it now, I should have been more embarrassed but I wasn’t – I was hungry to grow and improve. I have done hundreds of speeches since and many more speech evaluations as a Toastmaster and I have learned what I call the 10 secrets of great presentations.

a. Have a great opener

This is something I learned from the Distinguished Toastmaster and my unofficial mentor, Peter Kossowan – he says that there are three great ways to open a speech: use a quote, ask a question or provide a powerful statement / phrase. Why do these ways work? They instantly engage the audience, they are instantly memorable and they provide that powerful punch needed to get your audience thinking along your wavelengths.

b. Use stories

Stories are one of the best ways to communicate messages and they have been used to pass along information even in ancient days. Think about the story of the boy who cried wolf or the tortoise and the hare – how do we still know these stories and the morals of these stories? And why can’t we remember what we had for breakfast yesterday? If you have the option to tell a story vs. a mash of statements and quotes, opt for the story.

c. Add humour

Nothing helps the audience remember something as clearly as humour, especially well placed and relevant jokes. Do you know what the best way to remember your wife’s birthday is? The best way is to forget it once. Humour deserves a separate post but here are a few tactics to add humour to your presentation:

  • Comparisons like similes or metaphors – his first date was like peanut butter, smooth and natural; he was as heavy as a rock, and sat around like one too
  • Hyperboles – he was so intelligent that Einstein asked him to review his theory of relativity
  • Irony – it was the worst sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not going to tell you what restaurant I ate at but I remember throwing away that Big Mac almost right away.
  • Self-deprecating jokes – I love all kinds of nuts, peanuts, pine nuts, donuts
  • Puns – “Hot dog! When I saw the girl, I knew I would relish the opportunity to go on a date with her so I mustard up the courage to ask her out”

d. Watch your body language

Most of communication is non-verbal; statistics are often thrown around but I’ve heard anywhere from 10% to 30% of communication is verbal, which is to say that the majority of what you communicate comes from your face and body. First, do a quick assessment of what your natural body language is – do you talk with your hands? Move around from side to side? Smile or frown as you are telling stories? Use that to your advantage. Next, once you know what you want to talk about, practice in front of a mirror and watch what you are doing with your face and body. Finally, note down the areas of your speech where you found your body language to be awkward or where you think that adding a hand gesture or two may help communicate a key point.

e. Structure your speech for the audience’s understanding

Whatever topic you are talking about, it can probably be improved by using a concept called ‘signposting’. Tell them what you’re going to tell the audience. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them. Remember that the audience has a short attention span and let’s face it, thinking is hard, and anything you can do to help the audience follow along will help keep the audience engaged.

f. Bordering on creepy eye contact

I see a lot of speakers who know that eye contact is great for presentations but do not know how to do it. They look at people’s eyes, swing their heads around constantly and their eyes dart back and forth as they try to look at every body in the audience. Great eye contact is purposeful, lingers for a bit (and borders on creepy) and if you do not feel comfortable looking at the eyes, look at people’s noses or foreheads. My rule of thumb is to maintain enough eye contact for a spoken sentence or phrase and then move on to the next person.

g. If you are presenting slides, follow¬†Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule.

10 slides. 20 minutes. 30 point font size. You certainly don’t have to follow the rule exactly, especially if you have more than 10 slides or shorter than 20 minutes to present but this is a good rule of thumb to remember – you do not want to present too many slides, you will want to spend a short amount of time on each slide, and you will want large font so that the audience can read what you have on the slide (and so large that you cannot put essays on each slide). One of the ways that I like presenting slides is using images and single words, quotes or phrases on them. Remember, the focus of the presentation should be on you, the speaker, and not on your slides, and you should try as much as possible not to read the slides word for word.

h. Variety is the spice of life

Vocal variety that is. Do you really want to present your speech in a monotone voice like a robot? (Please don’t, the audience will thank you). Add some variety to your voice. Speed up during exciting climaxes. Slow down during key moments of growth or learning. Use high pitches, low bass and everything in between. Experiment with volume. Your voice is an instrument so keep it interesting for your audience.

i. Respond to feedback from the audience

Is your audience about to fall asleep? Tell them an exciting story or get them standing up and moving. Is your audience looking at you with blank faces? Make sure to repeat your last statement and check for understanding. Is your audience crossing their arms and generally not paying attention? Try to level set with the audience to make sure that you are coming from a common place of understanding before moving on. By responding to your audience and adapting your presentation to them, you can turn a presentation from something that would otherwise be dull and boring, into a tailored experience for your audience.

j. Conclude with a key takeaway

The audience is always looking for things that they do not have to think hard about (see the secret about structuring your speech). When you conclude, the audience is looking for something simple and practical that they can take away. Maybe it’s the first step that they can take towards leading a more active lifestyle. Or it’s socking away 10% of their pay into a savings account. Or it’s installing Honey so that they can save on their next online purchase. Find something that the audience can easily do in a minute or less and leave that as a takeaway for the audience.

k. Practice, practice, practice

And here’s a bonus secret to tie everything together. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to get the timing right, if you want to make sure that your body language matches the rhythm and pace of your speech, if you want to make sure that the structure is understandable and easy to follow, practice it!

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