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Presto! 5 Steps to Magically Fix a Boring Presentation

by Paul Barsch  |  
February 18, 2011

Not every presentation is chock full of interesting content. Sometimes, the subject matter is either too technical, hard to comprehend, or just of passing interest to your audience. And though one solution might be to not present such content in the first place, in other instances, the “show must go on.” And for those circumstances, here are five steps to add a pinch of spice to an otherwise dull presentation.

1. Add Vocal Variety.
Even the most boring presentation in the world can come to life when a presenter employs vocal variety techniques. Specifically, changing how phrases are sounded out, raising your voice for important statements, or even lowering your voice for effect can make unexciting content much more interesting. Changing from a monotone to a lively delivery can help your audience perk up and listen.

2. Add Passion.
Take the most uninteresting topic in the world, add a passionate presenter, and---like magic---you have something worth listening to! Audiences are very smart and can instantly discern whether a presenter truly believes what he/she is saying. When a topic is presented with genuine excitement and passion, even the most technical fare can come to life.

3. Make It Real.
One of the biggest challenges for presenters of technical content is creating relevance, especially for a group that may only have light familiarity with a topic. For example, not every person is interested in data warehousing and analytics. However, if a presenter can show how analytics works using “day in the life” scenarios for a retailer, suddenly that content becomes applicable. Approved case studies work even better as audiences discern that the presentation is more than “vaporware” and, in fact, touches the daily decision-making of consumers. By making the information real with examples and case studies, a presenter answers the inherent question of a listener, “What’s in this presentation for me?”

4. Bring on the Visuals.
Most presenters understand that audience members absorb information in different ways. Some prefer an auditory approach, others prefer handouts, and there are plenty of people who would rather watch a multimedia video than listen to a one-hour lecture. That’s why an interesting presentation uses most/all of these devices---and often! Bring pictures, videos, charts, handouts, and more to your presentation. Employing two or more visual aids helps keep audiences interested in your subject matter.

5. Slow Down and Breathe.
There’s no rule of thumb that says a presentation must be delivered with breathless abandon. In fact, use of elongated or pregnant pauses in a presentation can give an audience time to mentally catch up, especially if the presentation is overflowing with facts and figures. Take time to breathe, look around, and make sure people are engaged. A rapid fire presentation with slides rolling every minute or two is usually disconcerting, and it may leave an audience with only a small fraction the information you intended to convey.

These are just five steps to fix a boring presentation—there are certainly more tips. Please contribute to the conversation by adding the best and worst practices you’ve observed!

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Carole Lotito Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Love it! So simple!

    My three favorite design worsts:

    1) Crazy slide animations.
    Yay! You learned how to make a slide cartwheel into the deck! Good for you! Now can we have our fade-from-black back please?

    2) Too many words
    If we're all reading the slide together, what do we need an actual presenter for? Use the notes section for your reference and make that your leave-behind.

    3) So many fonts!
    So many sizes, styles, colors... my head hurts a little

    How about we keep it to two colors, one font family (love that Arial), two sizes? And keep it consistent from slide to slide.

  • by Kevin Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Nice ones Paul! You asked for others, so here goes.

    Best: "Lock on" eye contact (hard to do with large audiences, of course)

    Worst: Overdoing the animation on the PowerPoint slides

  • by Paul Barsch Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Kevin, thank you for commenting! Eye contact definitely helps keep an audience interested and too much animation can cause an audience to tune out. As always, I appreciate your additions!

  • by Pravin Mirchandani Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Speak to the audience not the slides - this to me is the no 1 mistake that presenters make in that they use the slides as tele-prompts rather than message summaries and visual illustrations. Your other points are all good - I would also add that adding a little extra pace at strategic points in a generally slowed down presentation is a useful vocal variation technique.

  • by Brian Massey Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    The analog to the "pregnant pause" is a blank slide in the presentation. Give it a try when transitioning to a new topic.

  • by Kirsten Wright Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Great suggestions - the "breathe" one is hard for me sometimes, even as often as I present. I get caught up in what I am saying and all of a sudden I notice I am talking double time and haven't taken a breath in a while.

    As for other suggestions - engage - ask questions while you're presenting, or at least rhetorical ones that get the audience thinking if they can't answer back.

  • by Patrick Zuluaga Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Depending on the size of the audience and familiarity I try to include some examples using an attendee's situation (with their prior permission of course) to get some interaction with the audience.

  • by Paul Barsch Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Kirsten, love the suggestions to ask questions! It helps presenters gauge whether an audience is following the content. Another technique is to allow questions throughout the presentation. Some presenters prefer questions only at the end, but opening the floor to questions throughout a talk can make it much more lively!

  • by Paul Barsch Fri Feb 18, 2011 via blog

    Patrick, examples --especially those of audience members-- are great and they really help make the topic more tangible and real. And there are few things more powerful than a testimonial! Thank you for commenting!

  • by Claire Ratushny Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    Hi Paul,

    Nice post. You know, it occurs to me that when presentations are more technical in nature, it's not a bad idea to give the audience hand-outs beforehand. Invite them to get back to you afterward with questions they might have at your email address. . .and I'd also suggest inviting them to visit your blog to read more about the topic and engage in conversation. It's less intimidating and we're all after one-on-one engagement as a result of presentations and our marketing outreach. Doing this might lead to solid business relationships, and even personal ones over time!

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    Pravin, thank you for commenting and the tip to speak to audiences instead of the slides. I must confess, when I give an hour lecture I probably use slide content more than I should to prompt discussion points, so this is a good reminder.

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    Brian, regarding your suggestion, it's definitely a worth a try. Thank you for commenting!

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    But Carole, I love my crazy fonts and multiple colors. Plus you cannot have too much animation can you? That was all tongue in cheek of course! Thanks for your contributions to this discussion, your comments are spot on!

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    Claire, thank you for commenting. What terrific suggestions - especially the idea to use a technical presentation as an opportunity to build an ongoing relationship via handouts, email address exchange and blog pointers. It's ideas like these that make these columns all the richer!

  • by Patrick Schaber Sat Feb 19, 2011 via blog

    Nice post, Paul. I often find that people don't spend enough time on the delivery of a presentation. You can spend hours perfecting the look, feel, and content then blow it by how you verbally give it.

  • by jim diaz Sun Feb 20, 2011 via blog

    Audience interaction during presentation is ok, you can read your audience if they are still with you, but giving them handouts(technical or not) is a disadvantage per my experience because instead of their being all ears while you're presenting, they read your handouts and may distract their full attention to what you're presenting..(been doing this for the last ten years)

  • by Paul Barsch Sun Feb 20, 2011 via blog

    Patrick: Amen. All the content in the world can fall flat if it's not delivered effectively. That's why I often counsel, practice, practice and practice again. Especially the transitioning of topics or ideas. Thank you for commenting!

  • by Paul Barsch Sun Feb 20, 2011 via blog

    Jim, regarding the handouts, I've seen it go both ways. Most of the time, a presenter is well served to use handouts as a leave behind or towards the end of the presentation, because as you've pointed out, when offered at the beginning of a presentation, there is a chance to lose an audience. That said, there are also occasions where a presenter gives a talk in a big room where the screen may not be easily viewed, or where a diagram is better pictured in a handout vs overhead/PPT slide. A presenter will have to discern which is the best approach considering the subject matter and/or room set up. I appreciate that you've lent your experience and I thank you for commenting!

  • by Bill Hoelzel Thu Feb 24, 2011 via blog

    I especially like No. 3 -- "Make It Real." Speakers who make vague generalizations leave me cold.

    I often try to talk with people who will attend my presentation so they can identify real problems they're having. Then I can talk about those specific problems in my address.

    Now I know that I risk doing "unpaid consulting," a risk that sales training guru David Sandler warns us about in his books ("You Can't Teach A Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar" and "Sandler's 49 Rules").

    But I find that the more I understand a client's problems (or an audience's concerns), the more likely they will listen to me and believe what I tell them -- whether I'm presenting a product or a service or an idea. And if I misunderstand what they've told me, they quickly become engaged in correcting me, and I benefit from their engagement.

    Specific is terrific!

  • by Paul Barsch Thu Feb 24, 2011 via blog

    Bill - love your phrase "specific is terrific"! It all falls under knowing your audience and delivering on their expectations! Thank you for commenting!

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