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5 Ways to Turn Presentations into Conversations

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 - 11:30
Presentation Conversation

Presentations in the business world can make or break a sale, partnership or relationship. But experienced professionals turn the odds by turning presentations into conversations.

In his regular post to LinkedIn Pulse, communications coach John C. Millen tells this story about a recent meeting he observed:

“The CEO started to speak. He was smiling, charming and spontaneous. He used the names of people in the crowd and joked with them. People were laughing and super engage. Then, he cleared his throat. He looked down at his speech. Up came the PowerPoint slides. I watched as people who a moment before were laughing and watching their leader, suddenly turned to their smartphones.”

As soon as the CEO in the story went into what Millen calls “PRESENTATION MODE,” he lost his audience.

“In presentation mode, we think people are judging us: our knowledge, our appearance, our eloquence,” Millen explains. “What they really want is to interact with you. Have a conversation with a normal human being—an authentic person.”

And there’s plenty of evidence indicating this yearning for normalcy and authenticity in presentations is palpable. For example, leadership consultant Karin Hurt Googled the popular expression “Death by PowerPoint” and received 12.6 million hits.

O.K., so many presentations are so boring that millions of people liken the experience to a tortuous death? Wow. There’s a serious emotional driver out there. And maybe that driver is fear.

In her InterCall blog post “3 Pointers for Quelling Public-Speaking Jitters,” Jill Huselton cites a report by The Washington Post featuring stats that prove public speaking is “America’s biggest phobia.” So much so that fear of public speaking outranks such favorites as spiders, heights and flying. Nevertheless, a certain form of public speaking, i.e., presenting, remains a critical aspect of most business meetings—whether in person, on the phone or online.

“Let's be honest,” writes Matt Spaulding, an instructor of business communication, in his recent column for MarketingProfs. “Delivering a great presentation is not only hard but also critically important to your business.”

Indeed, anyone who attends business meetings of any kind knows that presentations can make the difference between winning a customer, winning a promotion, winning an argument… or losing confidence and support in any of those cases and more. Yet, if presenting makes such a big difference in our careers, why do so few of us seek to differentiate the way we present?

Blogger Greg Roth speculates that the reason is that many of us see a lot of bad presentations by important people—such as the situation depicted by Millen—so we mimic what we experienced, thinking that’s acceptable. And a good first step toward breaking this cycle, he writes on his blog, is to clean up our slides.


5 Tips for Converting Presentations into Conversations

1. You Are the Show

Who really prefers to converse with a big screen in a conference room? Or a little one on a laptop? Or, worse, a tiny one on a phone? Or, maybe worse yet, a speakerphone? Most people would rather work with an actual person. So, the more you can make your presence feel real, the better—even if the audience can’t see you. “Instead of writing a PowerPoint, you should write talking points. You then design your PowerPoint to provide cues, for you and for the audience,” Roth writes. “Your PowerPoint is a tool for you to deliver a message. And that message is NOW… It is NOT later as a handout.”

2. One Point per Slide

Building on Roth’s first point, if the audience came to hear and/or see you, why force them to read details from your slides? Slides should set context, not deliver content. That’s your job. As Roth advises: “If the choice is between 6 words or 6 lines, keep it closer to 6 words.”

3. Think of Slides as Dessert

How many great conversations happen over a good meal? And what is the favorite course? Dessert. So, give your audience something sweet to enjoy on your slides. Bold images that set the tone for your remarks are more nourishing than text. Says Roth, “Your slides are meant to evoke emotion, not serve as a stand-alone document. Give your audience something to enjoy… Photography and illustration are best, graphs are OK, words by themselves are the least effective.” Still, make sure the colors onscreen have enough contrast for any text to be legible and every image to be discernible.

4. A Few Good Stats

Roth suggests trimming numbers and statistics to the “bare essentials.” For example, he writes, “if you are comparing numbers from two different years, don’t put up a slide showing the last 10 years.”

5. Limit Your Tech to Your Level of Support

When was the last conversation you augmented with animation and streaming video? Yes, this type of sizzle is powerful and has its place. Just make sure that place in your presentation doesn’t come before yours. If you want bells and whistles with your slides, be sure either you know how to ring those bells and whistle those tunes—or bring someone to run your laptop who does know how. As Roth cautions: “You don't want to be doing IT consulting when you should be presenting.”

Apple founder Steve Jobs once cracked: “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” Someday, with grit and good fortune, perhaps each of us will have a Jobs-like track record to justify a similar boast. Until then, maybe we should just work on better slides.

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