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Presentation Sin: A Practical Guide to Stop Offending (and Start Impressing) Your Audience. Author Alan Hoffler. Read description.

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What NOT to Say when public speaking Video Series (quick, two minute tips)


Listen to Alan Hoffler’s interview from the Rad Presenters Podcast, a podcast focused on helping speakers design and deliver great presentations. The interview covers a wide variety of topics including posture, logistics, opens, using notes, introductions, asking for questions, and examples of great and bad presentations. Listen to podcast.

Key5 Podcast — Listen to Alan’s interview on the topic: Everyone is in the speaking business, whether they realize it or not.

KEY5 Podcast — by speakers, for speakers.  Alan has a featured MillsWyck Minute speaking tip on each episode.

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PowerPoint:  What NOT to do

I overheard a presenter using PowerPoint recently say: “On this next slide, there’s a lot of information and it’s sort of complicated, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it.”  He was in complete command and knowledge of the content, but this still slips out.  And, sadly, I’ve heard it and its variants hundreds of times.

I often wonder what a presenter thinks the audience is supposed to do with a statement like this:

  • Ignore everything said/shown until the next slide pops up?
  • Try to figure out something of value from the slide?
  • Make my own conclusions about the data?
  • Cross my eyes and hallucinate until I dream it says something important?
  • Sleep?

Since the presenter doesn’t know what to do with the information, there is no way the audience will, either.  Let’s break down the statement and its problems phrase by phrase.

“On this next slide…”
I actually love this.  It’s a preview.  It let’s people know what’s coming.  Good beginning.

“…there’s a lot of information…”
The presenter’s goal should be to distill information into manageable chunks.  Every visual should have exactly one point.  Information/data is great, but there needs to be one conclusion (on each slide) from it.  I was focused and ready for “the next slide”, but now I have no idea what deserves my attention.

“…it’s sort of complicated…”

This again sets up a negative expectation.  Apparently I am too dumb to figure out what the data means.

“…I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this slide.”
Not only am I unable to understand it, but I don’t have time to figure it out.  That which is important is worth my time, so I can only assume this isn’t important. Thus I have to wonder what it’s doing in the presentation in the first place.

Bottom line:  Use data to draw conclusions.  Use visuals to help you make points.

Practice Good Posture

I was in a group of eleven people today.  All of them are used to standing and speaking in front of people (I’m guessing there was 200 years of collective training experience in the room).  They had no idea I was observing them.  At one point we were all standing and individuals were speaking to the group. I noted:

  • 3 people with arms crossed at chest (1 in thinker pose)
  • 3 with hands crossed behind their back
  • 2 people with hands crossed in front (fig leaf)
  • 2 with hands in their pockets
  • 1 with arms at their side (me)

Good posture — hands at side, feet evenly spaced, shoulders square — is not natural, feels funny, and is still the best way to present for so many reasons. But it takes a lot of practice to force the body to do it.

Bottom line:  Practice good posture.

Don’t tell them what you are going to tell them.

Don’t tell them what you’re going to tell them.  I read a post today in Communication Nation by Dave Gray.  I loved about 86% of what he had to say.  If folks would follow his simple advice, we could rid the world of sorry presentations in a hurry.  But I will take a minor issue with his point about starting strong.  Not that you shouldn’t start strong — you absolutely should.  But I’ve never subscribed to the tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, and tell them what you said philosophy.

I think the “today we’re going to talk about…” opening is not compelling.  They’ll find out soon enough.  Rather, get their attention with something else.   A story.  Analogy.  News event.  Anecdote.  Magic trick.  Something to spark their interest and serve notice up front that you are different.  Then you can turn the presentation into just about anything you want.  Same with a PowerPoint index slide.  Bad place to start.  Just tell them, don’t tell them you’re going to tell them.  Give them value.

Bottom line:  You can’t lose something that you don’t have. Grab their attention first, then give them content.

The Eyes Have it

I had a one-on-one meeting today with someone who refused to look at me.  Must have been something on the wall behind me of great interest.  I wasn’t necessarily offended, but it did make the conversation seem rather unimportant to them (it was very important to me).  I also noted it was hard for them to give smooth responses — there were lots of non-words and places for pauses that weren’t.  I’ve personally found that it’s much easier to work the eye contact in a crowd than when addressing only one person.  But perhaps the greatest tip in personal communication — maintain eye contact — is no less valid in a crowd of two.

Bottom line:  Look someone in the eye when speaking; don’t speak without looking someone in the eye.

Apology Excepted

Seth Godin brought to our attention the issue of people apologizing before their talks.  I’ll rate this a TTPP (Top Ten Pet Peeve), and generalize further.  It’s not just about egregious time overshoots, but any element that requires the perceived need to apologize:

  • I’m sorry I’m so scattered”
  • “I’m sorry you can’t read this”
  • “I’m sorry I don’t have handouts”
  • “I’m sorry you have to listen to this”
  • “I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to prepare”

Apologizing from the lectern should be restricted to elements that:

  • affect and are noticed by the entire audience,
  • are under the speaker’s control,
  • drive feeling and goodwill towards an acceptance for the issue and point at hand

The vast majority of apologies are self-centered, nervous, delaying tactics with no purpose or need whatsoever.  Unless the audience will likely refuse to hear a word spoken, a talk should never start with an apology.  And a phrase to strike from your arsenal is, “I apologize in advance…” which can be translated as “I really don’t care a bit about you as an audience and will do whatever I want.”  Another general rule for any recompense (including apology) is that it should match the crime.  Don’t apologize to an audience of 500 for a sin against one (and also don’t apologize to one when the sin was committed in front of 500).

Bottom line:  Make apologies brief, appropriate, and seldom when speaking publicly.

Eulogies and other Pick-me-ups

Just back from a funeral. I was there to support a friend; I never even met the deceased.  Since the last few funerals I’ve attended have required an intense emotional involvement — my own grandmother, a friend’s wife and dear friend — this one allowed me to see the communications rather removed from the impact.  It struck me that there is very little said in a funeral that is not scripted.  Most of what was said was quoted scripture, quoted family members, or prepared remarks (clearly read, word for word).  And we’ve probably heard it all before, yet when it’s us sitting on the front row or carrying the casket, somehow the words are exactly what we need to hear.

As word of a recent friend’s loss spread through the ranks of a circle of friends I belong to, the comment “I don’t know what to say” was uttered by virtually everyone.  And we all convinced ourselves that what we said wasn’t important, it was the fact that we were there, supporting our friend, and we would do anything to continue that support.  However, when I caught up with this dear friend later, he shared with me some of the thoughtless things people had said to him in the receiving line at the funeral home, and I changed my tune a little.  What is said is important.  But in this context, it’s probably what is not said that is key.  If there is little to no meat in a eulogy, no one will really care.  “I’m sorry” is never the wrong tack to take.  But if there’s one careless remark or slightly off-color remark (had a friend relate his attempt at presentation humor during a eulogy along the lines of “surveys rank the fear of public speaking as the #1 fear, ahead of death… ______ would rather be where she is than up here speaking” went over like a lead balloon), then people will remember it forever.  That’s why ministers at funerals are careful, and why they stay so close to the script.

Bottom line:  The more serious your message, the more prepared it (and you) should be.

Email Thoughts

Jared Richardson talks of why he hates email today.  Just had a similar conversation with a buddy, although the reasons differ.  I made the comment then that email has made us much less efficient with communication.  We send more information, but accomplish less with it.  Jared notes that email cannot communicate emotion, and I agree.  It should not be used as the means to communicate whenever emotion is part of the message (an alarming amount of the time, if you think about it).  You can’t convince people of much via email — people don’t change their minds much after reading them.  About the most emotional response you can get out of an email is an angry email… or a phone call.  Which leads us to believe that perhaps email wasn’t the needed medium to begin with.

There are lots of reasons why email is not the ideal communications forum.  I think the major issue in communication with email is that it’s one-way and asynchronous, and communication by it’s very definition is about EXCHANGE.  People don’t respond for the same reason that voice mails don’t get answered — it’s not an exchange, it’s a dump.  Second, most emails are one-and-done, or result in too many back-and-forth responses to be efficient, and people miss the entire point. Most are poorly constructed, and the action item and desired result are lost in a too-long discourse of details that hide the real issue.  My last reason and my personal passion: since there is really no delivery mechanism, there is little way to get and retain the attention of your audience.  Most people skim read emails to see if there’s a reason to pay attention.  If they listen that way, then the communicator is not doing their job.  It is a rare writer (or topic) that sends an email that is a compelling read.  But a presenter can make the difference with even the most drab subject, and the most alive subject dies at the hands of a lousy presenter.  Either way, it’s the presentation and it’s medium that makes or breaks the message.  Most emails are broken before the send button is ever pressed.

It’s an interesting exercise — imagine a day in your business life where you were not allowed to communicate via email.  How would that change how, how often, what, and why you communicated?  You’d value the time with others, and you’d practice/organize a message that brought impact to the situation.  In short, you’d probably communicate the way you should!

Bottom line:  Email has its place — don’t confuse that place with effective communication delivery and exchange of ideas.

Mixed Messages

I was reviewing a webcast the other day with some folks.  Interesting to see their reaction.  It was postulated that it appeared that the presenters were not in sync with the slides.  Since I had inside information on the preparation of the webcast, I know that that was exactly the case — one presenter had never seen the slides, and the other had changed them up until the last minute before going on the set.  Even people who were not trained presenters noted the problem.

Bottom line:  Practice pays off.  People notice.

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