One of the most important keys to a successful presentation is forward momentum. Few things are more frustrating than listening to a speaker who zigs and zags, stops and starts and takes forever to get anywhere.
I tell my clients to think of their presentation as a train, not a car. You have to drive it ever-forward, pushing, pushing, pushing along the track. It should not resemble a breezy, extemporaneous road trip where you’re constantly stopping for snacks or bathroom breaks or exiting the expressway to take the scenic route.
Here are five things you can do to keep your presentation from going off the proverbial rails:
1. Keep Your Energy Up
When your energy is flagging, it’s easy to digress, stumble and slow down. So it’s important to fully focus yourself — mentally, physically and emotionally — in order to stay sharp and keep moving ahead. Here’s how to keep your energy up.
2. Avoid the Tangents
Making connections is the sign of an engaged mind. You draw parallels, you tap into past experiences, you provide examples. But that can lead to tangents and dead ends where you risk frustrating your audience, Abe Simpson-style.
Keep your content as tight as possible. Subject every example, anecdote and aside to the strictest scrutiny. Separate the “interesting for the sake of interesting” from the truly mission critical — the points that propel your narrative forward.
I find it helpful to think of my content as a tree.
3. Don’t Get Sucked in by Your Audience’s Response
It’s important to be in the moment, of course, feeding off the energy and reactions of your audience and engaging with them. That’s why we do live presentations, as opposed to sending memos.
But there’s a serious hazard here, and I’ve seen it time and again. An executive will plan out a tight 20-minute talk that turns into a 40-minute slog on stage. Why? Because when the audience laughs, claps and otherwise responds positively, it can be intoxicating, and the speaker is tempted to strive for more by milking every moment.
So find the balance between improvisation and discipline. And remember the old show business adage: leave them wanting more!
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
There’s no substitute for practice. Practice out loud and on your feet, practice in your head, practice in the shower and in the car. Practice, practice, practice. And when you’re done, practice some more.
Knowing your material is the key to eliminating the pauses, filling in the gaps, and achieving the fluidity — the true mastery of your content — that makes your time at the podium seem easy and effortless to the audience.
But we know better. It’s actually the result of a lot of hard work. Maybe not the full 30 hours one expert recommends, but as much as humanly possible. Here are some tips on how to practice your presentation.
5. Think in Soundbites
When I started speaking professionally I needed video to demonstrate my skills to people who wanted to hire me. So I began videotaping my speeches and creating short clips for my website and YouTube.
That’s when I became especially conscious of the need to sharpen and focus my content. Just as I’d get on a roll, I’d slow things down with a witty (to me, at least) aside or impromptu comment or full-fledged tangent. With the material I had, it was really hard to create a tight one- or two-minute video without a lot of editing.
For instance, I’d be talking about a storytelling challenge and suddenly remark on how the stock photo on my slide reminds me of Milo Ventimiglia — which got a few chuckles but had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Sprinkle a half dozen asides, anecdotes and parentheticals into 10 minutes and you start to have a real problem.
So try recording yourself while you practice and look for the zigs and zags that can derail your content.
It’s All About the Audience
Sustaining the momentum in your presentation is about focus, discipline and practice. It’s also about putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and asking the question, “Why am I saying this? Is it for them or for me?”
It’s about letting go of your ego and remembering why you’re up there, which is presumably to help the audience and solve their problems. If it’s not, then you have another issue altogether!
Photo Credit: me