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Are They Snoring in the Back Row? How to Create Engaging, Dynamic Presentations

By: Laurie Brown
Last updated 12/14/2010

Why Reading to Your Audience Is a Bad Idea
Imagine that you have spent the better part of two weeks working on an important speech you plan to give to your company. You think you have done everything right. You have created a PowerPoint presentation packed with pertinent information and flashy animation. You have printed out handouts of the slides so that your audience can follow along. Although you haven't had time to rehearse the presentation, you are not worried, because you have the entire speech typed out. You plan to read it while you blow their socks off with the dynamic PowerPoint slides. Everything should go perfectly, right? Well, maybe not.

If you were to look at your audience (which you can’t do, because you’re too busy reading your script), you would see that they aren’t paying attention to you or the screen. Some are reading the handout. Others, bleary-eyed from all the information you have packed into the slides, may have closed their eyes.

What went wrong? Experienced speakers know that to engage an audience they must build rapport with them. Reading from a script makes this difficult, if not impossible, since connecting with people requires direct eye contact. No matter how well-written your speech, if you read your presentation to an audience, you will lose them.

Reading to your audience also makes you appear less authoritative. People wonder, "If you know so much about the topic, why can't you just talk about it? Why are you reading?"

Strategies to Get and Keep Your Audience’s Attention
  • Free yourself from the written page, using:
  1. Memorization. If you want to memorize your speech, it is helpful to rehearse it out loud just before you go to sleep and when you first wake up.
  2. Outline. If you use an outline to create your script, you can simply use it during the presentation. If you don't have an outline, create one using your major points.
  3. Key words. Select key words from your script that represent a paragraph or two of information. These key words should jog your memory so that you can speak extemporaneously. You can use a single page of key words or place them on 3x5 cards (always number the cards). If you are a visually oriented person, find an image that represents the key word and create a pictogram.
  4. Teleprompter. Nothing helps you maintain good eye contact without memorization like the teleprompter.
  • Make eye contact

When speaking to an audience, your goal is to make each individual feel  that your message is being directed to him or her personally. If you feel uncomfortable looking into people’s eyes, look at the tops of their heads, which creates the illusion that you are speaking directly to them. Use a "Z" pattern in order to include the entire audience—start by looking at the front left section of the audience. Finish your thought, then turn your gaze to the front right section. Next move on to the center section, then to the rear left section and finally, to the rear right section.

  • Know your audience

Never prepare a generic speech. Take the time to learn about your audience’s needs and level of understanding. Make sure that you are using words and ideas that are easily grasped by your audience. This doesn't mean you have to "dumb down" your speech, but it does mean checking to make sure that you are not using jargon or acronyms that are known only by a few.

Your audience is always thinking, "What's in this for me?" Keep this question in mind when you craft your speech.

  • Throw away your PowerPoint

Am I serious? Yes. There is no other element of a presentation that can bore an audience more quickly than PowerPoint slides. If you do choose to use PowerPoint, follow these simple rules:

  1. Choose a font that is easy to read, such as Arial or Times Roman.
  2. Font size should be at least 28 pt; bulleted items at least 22 pt.
  3. Choose colors carefully. (It’s hard to focus on reds and oranges.)
  4. Don't crowd too many words on the screen. (Three lines of type is more than enough.)
  5. Preview the PowerPoint presentation on the screen prior to your presentation. The slides really do look different on the screen than on paper.
  6. Don't read the slides verbatim. Your audience already knows how to read!

The most powerful PowerPoint presentations use only pictures, a key word or phrase or graphics. There is no reason to use a slide that simply repeats what you have said. Instead, use a visual aid to reinforce your point. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Direct your audience’s attention to the screen and then back to you.  Simply turn your gaze to the screen for a moment or two and then look back to your audience. These subtle cues allow your audiences attention to move from the screen then back to you.

  • Distribute hand-outs after your presentation

If your presentation includes a lot of complex or technical information, a hand-out makes sense, but only after the presentation, as a reinforcement. If people can read while you are speaking, they tend to either read ahead or stay glued to the hand-out and not to you.

  • Rehearse

I know people hate to rehearse. It is hard not to feel silly when practicing your speech, but there is nothing that helps a speaker more than to become familiar with the material ahead of time. Saying the words aloud really does make a difference. I practice when I am driving or while on the treadmill. And the shower is also a great place to practice.

I hope you’ll try these ideas when faced with your next presentation. Even if you only use one or two of these tips, you will have taken a huge step toward being a dynamic speaker who grabs your audience’s attention. I guarantee—no one will be snoring in the back row.

About the Author(s)

Laurie Brown is an international speaker, trainer, and consultant. She is the author of The Teleprompter Manual for Executives, Politicians, Broadcasters and Speakers. Contact information:  lauriebrown@thedifference.net or www.thedifference.net