How to be a presentation rock star

Things people don’t want to hear at the start of your slide presentation:

“Most of you will have seen this talk before …”

— Then why are you giving it? And why haven’t you tailored your talk to this audience? Academics — who are pretty good at wasting time on their own terms, by the way — get fractious when you start wasting it for them.

“I’m just going to skip through a few of these slides, because I know time is short … ” [this is then followed by going through every single slide, point by point, and running over time; people start looking at their watches]

— Actually, this one reminds me of the Marcel Achard quote: “When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.”

Beginnings like these can really lower people’s expectations — about you, and about future presentations in general. That might be me next week, standing up there — don’t make me clean up your mess!

“How to be a presentation rock star” was just a throwaway title I gave this post at the draft stage, until I actually started thinking about it, and then I realised it worked, albeit in a cheesy kind of a way.

1. Be mysterious. Don’t give your presentation. Instead, provide people with a document to read in their own time. Most of us read faster than you can talk, and we can do it at a time that’s convenient for us (I guess this is one reason that why email has been so successful). You may not experience their gratitude overtly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a fan-base.

2. Be controversial. If you absolutely must present, make it interactive; arrive armed with provocative examples to stimulate your weary audience, who have probably been told that they must come to this meeting and listen to you. (Obligation and motivation are usually not the keenest bedfellows.)

3. Find a catchy hook. If you’re selling something (most presentations are, and this includes teaching — ask anyone who teaches statistics to people who are taking it as a course requirement), pitch me two or three case studies of how people have benefited from it, so my mind starts freewheeling: “Wow, I wonder what I could do with this brilliant resource”. Presentations built around mundane procedures and structures will always be a tough sell. Hell, be bold: skip straight to the Q&A — mostly, people just want to know what’s in it for them.

4. Create rapport. Jim Morrison wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest musician, but what he did have in spades was charisma. Give your audience as much attention as you lavished on your slides; if you find yourself alone with the sound of your own voice, that’s great if you enjoy tumbleweeds or are steeling yourself for a difficult birth into the world of amateur stand-up comedy — but remember to ask yourself how much the audience paid to get in. If they’re not really present, don’t be afraid to cut it short and go off-road in order to hold their interest. If that means you end up missing a few things out, then that’s okay — just make sure people know where to reach you.

Often, it can be tempting to stick with your plan, however hostile or bored the audience (or perhaps because they’re bored and hostile; your plan is your security blanket). That’s okay: uncharted territory is scary, particularly when other people are involved. But if you want to be a presentation rock star, you need to be ready to do the unpredictable. I’m not suggesting that you crowd-surf or start handing out beer; just be willing to let go of your slides and give yourself up to the moment.

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