Here’s a harsh truth. People aren’t paying attention to your presentation. I know, I knowwe’ve been talking about engagement numbers dropping through the floor over the course of our pandemic-mandated virtual meetingverse. But the truth is, audiences were tuning out long before we ever started upgrading our work from home setups.

I have witnessed this firsthand, creating presentations for the better part of 25 years. I’ve interviewed enough people to know that corporate presentations are too often bloated, meandering content dumps on our audiences.

Like I said—harsh truth.

There is good news though. Virtual has forced us to think differently about our messaging, and that’s changing the way we present, and more importantly, it’s changing how effective our presentations can be. I often get asked what the fastest fixes are when it comes to building better, more effective presentations. This is the advice I give.

Clarity: Have a reason to present.

We know shorter presentations are more effective, but how do you cut down the CEO’s annual state of the union address from 60 minutes to 15?

You don’t. Instead, you rethink the message to understand what is most effective to educate and activate your audience. Actually think about why you’re presenting and what you want to accomplish before considering what you want to say. This can drastically reduce the amount of time you spend on unnecessary items in your presentation.

📍 Real World Skill

Ask what moves your audience to action and build your presentation around that.

Relevance: It’s about me, me, me.

The fastest way to improve any presentation is to stop making it about you and your content, and start making it about your audience and their needs. I think about presentations as gifts. The best gifts I give are the ones that are special to the recipient, not special to me. When it comes to your presentation, give the gift of meaningful skills, processes and insights. Hand that gift to your audience and make it valuable to them.

📍 Real World Skill

Tell stories about your audience. Use personal pronouns. Describe specific ways they can apply your content to their daily personal and professional lives.

Engagement: Please put down the polls.

If you want your audience to pay attention, don’t be boring. Too many presentations offer long segments of numbers and information, segmented by polling or interactive exercises designed to get the audience re-dialed in.

When you are an engaging speaker throughout your presentation, polling becomes one of many effective tools. Relevance and empathy go a long way to maintaining attention, as are tools like storytelling, analogy, surprise, triggering, questions, associations and visual language like white space and tripwire words. In total, these tools surround the key elements of your presentation to snatch and hold your audience between those moments of interactivity.

📍 Real World Skill

Get great at effective storytelling by thinking of your audience as a bystander in the actual story. Paint a picture, add strong detail, and make them see the moment. The emotional connection you make breaks through the audience mindset. It’s easy to remember, too. Try this—think about a favorite story you were once told and see how much you can recall. You’ll be amazed at the vibrancy of the detail.

Scanability: Give your audience a GPS.

Audiences don’t listen…they scan—then decide how deeply they listen. In a 20-minute presentation, a presenter will deliver in the neighbourhood of 3,500 words. That’s a lot of content to absorb and understand. You can make this easier by embedding scanning and navigational cues throughout. Listicles, repetition, meta cognition and cold opens provide a roadmap to your presentation, and helps your audience know where they should listen hardest.

📍 Real World Skill

For my money, the #1 skill I’d teach anyone in communications is this scanning skill—write epic headlines. Our world is crammed full of headline opportunities these days—from the subject line of an email to the subheads you scanned through in this article. That goes for presentations too, where you can deliver headlines that bring context to what you’re about to present. Create one key headline during your first minute to describe the key point of your presentation, then support that point with headlines that begin each section or chapter.

There is a whole lot more to your presentation than the delivery of content. You have a message that needs delivery and an audience that is distracted, easily bored and hungry for information that is useful to them right now. Take the time to build content that is clear, relevant, engaging and scannable, and you have a block of time that achieves objectives and makes the difference.

Jason Thomson is an events content and creative director who coaches and trains on improving your presentations and communications. He’s covering some of the engagement tools in the article at his latest free Instant Fix Webinar. Register at speakupgetresults.com/instantfix.

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