Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to give a killer presentation: My #AF4Q session notes

Slam the door. Take those ornaments off the Christmas tree. Stop the throat-clearing. Omit the NASCAR slides. Those were my shorthand, colorful ways of describing what you should put in--and leave out--of a "killer presentation," for the national meeting of Aligning Forces for Quality (#AF4Q), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in San Diego last week. AF4Q is focused on improving health and health care in communities, and the coalitions at this meeting included doctors and nurses, social scientists, consumers and more.

My focus was prompted by the trend toward short, five-minute talks (think Ignite! or Shark Tank) and TED talks, based on my experience coaching TEDMED and TEDx speakers. Nearly every speaker I've encountered in coaching struggles with what to leave out and what to put in, with those short time limits in mind. This was a lively, interested group, and while much of the time was given over to answering their questions and group exercises in messaging, here are the six things I told the group to omit or include:
  1. Omit the throat-clearing and put in a strong start: Lots of speakers fritter away the strong audience attention span that's highest when you start talking. They do that with what's known as "throat-clearing:" Cartoons unrelated to the topic, jokes, trite observations about the beauty of the day/campus/conference setting, thank-yous, more on their bio, and how pleased they are to be there. My guess is that speakers do that to buy themselves time to get comfortable, make sure they have a laughing audience, and to get over initial nerves, but it's a waste of precious attention. Go here to find out more on why speakers need a strong, fast start, along with more ideas on what to use instead of the throat-clearing.
  2. Start with questions: There are two ways to start with questions, and both of them are the keys to audience engagement, something I want you to put into every presentation. You can "start with questions" by planning your Q&A time before you plan your presentation, so you know what to leave out of the formal part. Read more about that in Got lots to say? Save it for the Q&A. You also can simply begin your presentation by asking the audience what it wants to know, on the spot. It's one of 5 ways speakers can find out about the audience, with a special advantage: It ensures high attention and engagement from the get-go.
  3. Lose the armor: Truly killer presentations get the speaker off the platform and out from behind the lectern. But in addition to losing barriers, think about whether you really need those slides, pointers, remotes and other "armor," since many speakers like to hide behind those, too. The price is less interaction and connection with the audience. I know this is tough for speakers to do, so as with any new tactic, start small. Stand next to the lectern at first, or move behind and away from it. Stand down in front of the audience, then work your way up to moving through the crowd. And yes, as one participant wanted to know, you can do this in a boardroom setting or meeting room--just be sure you're not doing the back-and-forth movement in a straight line. Don't feel as if you need to move the entire time, either: Stopping your movement can be an effective way to emphasize what you are saying at that moment.
  4. Cut down the Christmas tree and stop the NASCAR race: Loading your speech up like it's a Christmas tree groaning with ornaments is not the path to a killer presentation, even if you're the President of the United States. Watch out for that long list of things your colleagues think you have to mention, or the shiny objects like animation, video and other things you may think you need to make the presentation sparkle. Too many of them get annoying. I use the Coco Chanel method to gauge what's "too much" in a presentation I'm preparing. The same problem can befall a single slide, particularly those that get loaded up with logos of your partners, funders or other people you want to thank. They're called "NASCAR slides" in my line of work, and there are more appropriate, authentic ways to thank people in context throughout your presentation. Find out more in From NASCAR slides to "Any questions?" 8 slides to delete right now.
  5. Slam the door shut: Equally important to a strong start is a strong close. Instead of "any questions?" think of what you want that audience to do--or remember--when they walk out the door. It's the place you put your call to action, the question that will leave them thinking, or the enticement for your next speech.
  6. Structure your message: I advocate the time-honored use of the rule of three, structuring anything from an elevator speech to a long speech in three parts. It comes out of the oral storytelling tradition and you're familiar with it in many context, most often fairy tales. And it works, otherwise we wouldn't still be using it. One version of the rule of three is the easy structure of What? So what? Now what? Using the rule of three will help you fly without slides, as it's the easiest way for you (and your audience) to remember what you want to get across. We practiced using alliteration and analogies to make the three points even more memorable, using them to create versions of one participant's message. For persuading an audience, use the equally well-established Monroe's motivated sequence, which sandwiches three key points about need and solutions in between a dramatic start and a call to action. And if you're a technical expert, physician or researcher of any kind, just flip the usual order of your reports to get something easier to follow for non-expert audiences, as in the diagram below:

Participants in this session asked some great questions, so here are more resources to answer them:
  • What should I do if I talk too fast? Read Hit the brakes: When you're a speedy speaker, and remember that your spoken presentations must be slower than your lively conversation if you want us to follow you.
  • You said not to use your kid's pictures, but my talk is personal. Many participants at this meeting are health care consumers, and I enjoyed spending a day with them in a storytelling workshop. In that context, relevant pictures of your family members are absolutely appropriate and can add layers of meaning to your talk. I've also talked some TEDMED speakers into using photos of their younger selves when those photos put the audience back in time, where the story was set. But you also can succeed by creating what I call "the invisible visual," that word-picture which you speak, but which can be seen in the mind's eye so vividly that it will stay with your audience longer than any slide. Here are some fantastic examples of using the invisible visual to good effect. Just remember, when it comes to using pictures, "relevant" is the key word.
  • What if I use all pictures? I have a post forthcoming on this very topic, but in short: Too many pictures, pictures used as visual cue cards for the speaker, or gratuitous pictures will not save your presentation. Make sure they have a role. You don't need one slide per point, even if it's a picture.
  • What about that recommendation to tell them what you're gonna tell them/tell them/tell them what you told them? While this is itself a nice three-point structure, which is why you can recall it easily, it was designed for military instructions in the field, where the repetition is needed for quick recall in a setting where nobody's taking notes. Repetition can be useful, but not this much when you're doing a presentation.
  • What do you think of Prezi versus PowerPoint? I use both of these slide-creation programs, but if you are thinking one or the other will solve all your problems, keep in mind that a bad structure will undermine any slide-creation program's effectiveness. You can load up a Christmas tree on Prezi just as easily as you can on PowerPoint. Trust me, I've seen them!
  • What do you do if you have a crippling fear of presenting? The good news: Anyone who can raise her hand and ask that question in a group of dozens of people does not, apparently, have the kind of social phobia that would keep her off the stage for sure. But she might be an introvert who needs more time to prepare, as well as quiet time before and after speaking; if that's the case for you, consult my 6 resources for public-speaking introverts. Nerves get calmer with practice, and you can start small with my 4 stepping stones to public speaking. Still lacking confidence? Social psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends two minutes of "power posing" (so I recommend 10 minutes, in hopes you will actually do two minutes). You can see the group power posing in Alicia Aebersold's photo above.  It's a great way to use your body to trick your mind, and all you need is a quiet hallway or handy stairwell. For inspiration, watch Susan Cain's TED talk on the power of introverts--one she prepared for over the course of a year. 
My thanks to Aebersold and the national program staff of AF4Q, who made this meeting run like a top--and made it easy for me to succeed as a speaker. They excel at live-tweeting, and you can find more about all the speakers and sessions in the meeting Twitterstream.

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