Give great presentations by ignoring the conventional wisdom.
7 min read
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Back when I was in seventh grade, I ran for class president. And, as a candidate, I was required to give a speech at a school assembly to about 500 of my fellow students. I did so, with a level of enthusiasm that surprised even myself.
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In fact, as I delivered that rousing, long-ago speech, I realized that I loved speaking in front of an audience. So, that’s what I worked on in the years that followed. Through the long, winding trail of my career, I polished my skills to become the professional speaker I am today.
According to PowerPoint statistics, Americans spend approximately 15 million person-hours per day viewing presentations. But here’s what I’ve come to realize as a speaker myself: There are common beliefs,about speaking which people refer to all the time. Yet the irony is that these beliefs are completely wrong — they’re myths, really — myths that have become part of the conventional wisdom about presenting.
As Walmart founder Sam Walton once said, “Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom.”
Here are some myths about presenting that we all need to turn away from. If you do that, you’ll realize that the truth can help you become a much more effective presenter and dramatically increase your impact.
Related: 6 Easy Tips for Conquering Your Fear of Public Speaking (Infographic)
Myth 1: I must use a lectern and stand behind it.
In conducting hundreds of presentation skills classes, I’ve heard many participants in my classes say: “I have to stand behind the lectern!” When I ask why, they offer one of the following responses:
• “That is where I am supposed to stand.”
• “That is where I feel comfortable.”
• “I need to stand here because this is where my notes are.”
• “That is where my microphone is located.”
• “ It’s where the audience can see me.”
Yes, in the old days, people stood at lecterns. Those were the rules back then, but those days are over. In today’s world where people are entertained continuously, we need to make sure our presentations are content rich and highly entertaining.
News flash: It is not entertaining for your audience to see you standing behind a block of wood. Instead, a lectern is a barrier, a large object between you and the audience. If you have notes, you can carry them, and every room where I’ve ever presented has portable microphones.
If you watch clergymen and women, and professional speakers, my estimate is that 99 percent of them come out from behind the lectern because they know it is essential to connect with the audience.
Myth: I “must” use PowerPoint.
According to research reported on the PollEverywhere blog, there are more than 35 million PowerPoint presentations made each day. That is mind-boggling. Everyone uses PowerPoint. Some clients we work with tell us their company requires every presentation have a deck. That way people who can’t make it to the presentation can read the deck.
In my opinion, though, there are some serious issues with PowerPoint. For many presenters, the tool becomes their presentation; instead of using PowerPoint to support their essential points it becomes the script for the presentation, and to make matters worse, it’s read to the audience.
Big mistake: Reading to the audience is a guaranteed prescription for boredom. The audience is comprised of adults, and they can read the screen themselves. So, reading to them will insult their intelligence and they will check out mentally and, sadly, not come back.
If you must use PowerPoint, use it only to reinforce key points, not all points. I have seen many presentations with over 90 slides, which can be overwhelming. If you can avoid PowerPoint, use a handout instead and transform your presentation into a conversation.
Myth 3: I must start my presentation with a joke.
Terrible advice, and by far one of the worst myths about presenting I have heard. In my career, I have seen many people try this and fail miserably. Let’s face it; comedy is an art. It is something that professional comedians work on for years. If you are not a professional comedian, please don’t try telling a joke to start your presentation.
If your joke does not go over well or isn’t funny, you have begun your presentation on a weak note. As professional comedian Steven Wright said, “Only one in four jokes ever works, and I still can’t predict what people will laugh at.”
It is hard to recover from the bad joke once you bomb. The other risk about a joke is you may also offend someone. You are better off starting with a real story about something that has happened to you that is cute or funny, and one that is related to your topic. The story may not make people laugh out loud, but maybe they will be amused and smile. It is lower risk and has a better chance of being impactful.
Myth 4: I have a dry topic, and I can’t make it interesting.
Saying this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you decide in advance your topic is dry, then guess what? It will be! I believe you can make any subject interesting. The key is to find out why it matters to you, why it matters to them (the audience) and what you can be passionate about on this subject.
As Seth Godin once said “Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited. If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.”
Even if your presentation is highly technical, it can be interesting. I recently had the experience of seeing this in action: I was doing training for a client, but right after my presentation, an IT person was going to give a brief presentation on the topic of safe internet passwords for security. I hung around to watch.
And his speech was amazing! The presenter used stories and a funny cartoon, displayed energy and was funny. He made everyone care about passwords, which was not easy to do. He helped them understand why his topic was important. I even heard someone say after he was done, “Well, I hate to admit, it but that wasn’t boring, and it was great!”
Myth 5: I should hold all questions to the end of my presentation.
Here is the reality. If people have questions, they would like to ask them when they think of them. The other advantage of this approach is you can get more engagement from the audience earlier.
Why do people ask that questions be held? We are afraid to lose control, but we can control how many questions are asked and can watch our overall time. If you wait until the end of your presentation, most people won’t even remember what they wanted to ask. Let people ask questions as you go.
Related: Wringing the Fear out of Public Speaking
Want more help? I have an entire season of my podcast Winning Edge At Work dedicated to improving your presentation skills.
If you watch, you’ll hear me say that with some practice and hard work, you can be the kind of presenter that people want to watch.