How to be a great communicator

5 tips for improving your presentations

Author: Wallis C Metts, Jr., Ph.D.
Director of Graduate Studies in Communication
Spring Arbor University

Presentations we make are important, necessary, and, well, boring.  They often consist of too many slides and too much data.  It is estimated that several million people a day are viewing Powerpoint presentations—almost all of them mind-numbing.

But the problem is not the technology, although it tempts us to imagine that we understand.  The problem is that we really don’t understand what we are trying to say.  Or care about it.  So no one else understands or cares either. Here are five ways to make your presentations more effective.  And more interesting.

Listen more

Listen to more people.  Make sure you understand what they need to know.   Talk to colleagues or customers or even bosses.  You need to understand who will be impacted by your presentation, even if they are not in the room, and the more you listen the more you understand.  You will have more insight and better examples if you invest this time in people rather than spreadsheets.  So ask yourself, every time you have a presentation to make, have I talked to—and listened to—enough people to get this right.

Define your terms

Keep in mind too that the same terms may have slightly different meaning for everyone in the room.  Or even radically different meaning.  Make sure to define key terms clearly.  Make sure you call it the right thing.  What you talking about?  What are you not talking about?  Why is it important?  Each term does not necessarily need its own slide and its own definition.  But it does need a shared meaning, perhaps illustrated by an example or anecdote.  Take the time to make sure everybody is talking about and thinking about the same thing.

Find your metaphor

While you are listening to others and reading memos or articles or whitepapers, be alert to motifs and metaphors that will engage people.  Data is nice and important, but it seldom creates emotional resonance. Connections to popular movies or key life transitions can do this, however.  Stories and quotes by well-known thinkers and doers can do this too. All these come to stand for the thing you are trying to say, connecting us quickly and emotionally to the “so-what” of your presentation.  But don’t overwhelm your audience with this.  This is one place where less is more.  Two or three examples wrapped around one centralizing motif is just about right.

Visualize your data

Data is likely needed and even required.  But you should think about whether you need a slide or graph at all.  Data often works better as a handout.  What you may need is an image that summarizes or emphasizes the point being made by the data.  Perhaps it is a cartoon or photograph.  Internet guru Seth Godin says, “Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not read me the stats but show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds.”

Have a point

Finally, make sure you have something to say.  A clear, single thing.  Tell me what it is before you start.  Show it to me.  Tell it to me at the end.  It could be a call to action.  It could be a key insight.  But most presentations fail when we use too many slides to say too many things.  This often feels like we have said nothing at all.  All great presentations succeed when we walk away thinking about one thing.  We may remember different or even multiple metaphors or stories or images, but they were all about the one thing.

Creating simple, powerful and memorable presentations is not easy.  You have to listen to people, find the best illustrations, discover the one thing you need to say.  But in doing this you find out what matters and you will start to care about it more deeply than you did.  At some level, this is the key thing.  When you find this point where you connect to the data, you are finally ready to connect others to it as well.

You just have to find the right picture of a dead bird.

 

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