“That…was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen.”

Lea Pica - How to Lose Presentation Audience - Horrified CatThe words you’ve just read could strike terror into the hearts of the most seasoned professional presenter. A statement so sweeping, so final, it seems almost improbable. And yet, I overheard that exact remark at a recent conference I presented at. I was scheduled to go on stage within the hour. I was terrified.

After observing this presenter’s descent into oblivion, I pondered the missteps presenters often make most (including yours truly) that can turn an audience off. But first, a bit of perspective.

I see presenting as a harmonious blend of passion, storytelling, and showmanship. It has the uncanny ability to change minds and hearts in a few brief moments. And it’s a practice that challenges and terrifies me, but I find tremendously rewarding when done right.

But for many of my digital marketing  and web analytics peers, presenting is a necessary evil they must accept as part of the job. Once done with, one can return to their desks and do their real jobs of number crunching and dashboard updating.

If this sounds like you, today is your chance to change your perspective in a way that will turn your audience into raving fans. I offer you five simple ways to lose an audience fast, in the hope that you’ll do the exact opposite.

Alrighty, let’s get losing!

Setting the Stage

For demonstration purposes, I’m going to flesh out a persona for our unfortunate presenter; let’s call him Stan. Stan has occupied a web analyst role at his e-commerce startup for 3 years. He likes what he does, but is looking for ways to grow his personal brand.

When asked to present a case study at an industry conference came along, he jumped at the opportunity. Until now, his presentation experience was limited to internal presentations. His process for this consisted of throwing a few slides and charts together and speaking off the cuff. This approach worked OK for him with internal audiences of colleagues who knew him well.

If You Want to Lose Your Presentation Audience Fast, Do This #presenting Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, his conference audience isn’t familiar with his natural charm. When he climbs on stage and rambles through a mess of incoherent, text-laden slides and charts, they aren’t impressed. His nerves kick into overdrive when noticing his audience’s stone-faced stares.

Predictably, he doesn’t exactly kill it. He murders it. As in DOA, over-dramatic CSI music, murder. Let’s break down the five things Stan did oh-so-very wrong.

BONUS: Don’t forget to download a free Presentation Technical A/V Sanity Checklist at the end of this post.

Lea Pica - Decide Not to Prepare or Rehearse

#1: Decide not to prepare or rehearse

I am a real food Paleo convert and amateur homesteader, which means I cook three meals a day for my family. Every day. This requires a lot of advance planning, and sometimes the assistance of my husband for preparing dinner while I’m in the office. I’m also pretty Type A in the kitchen and like to know what I’m having for dinner. So when I send a recipe to my hubby, there’s one response that instantly spikes my cortisol:

“Nah, I’ll just wing it”.

Now, my husband has many talents, but Bobby Flay he is not. I’ve come home ready to chew my arm off, only to be greeted by steamed blocks of ground meat, sadly undercooked Pad Thai noodles and an emergency dial for takeout. Who’s coming over for dinner?

The same idea goes for presentations. There are a select few people on this planet that can step onto a stage and captivate an audience without any preparation. Even storytelling luminary Steve Jobs spent months planning and rehearsing his Apple keynotes.

If you think your audience won’t notice you haven’t prepared, think again. The human brain is adept at detecting this, and it won’t hesitate to mentally check out. According to the National Center for Biology Information, you have exactly 8 seconds to grab your audience’s attention. 8. Seconds. That is a shorter attention span than that of a Shubunkin goldfish. (And yes I said Shubunkin to see if you were still paying attention.)

Lea Pica - How to Lose Presentation Audience - Goldfish Attention Span

And despite what some may say, this doesn’t change depending on your audience demographics. Every audience is composed of human beings with human brains. The stodgiest of C-Suites is going home after your meeting to catch up on Breaking Bad. Why? Because every human being loves great storytelling. Use that to your advantage.

What this means for you is, yes, more preparation. No more slapping piles of bullet points and pie charts together and expecting miracles. Nope, this means:

  • writing down your talking points to support your key message on each slide and
  • reviewing and practicing these notes before the presentation. More than once. Like, at least 3-5 times. I’m serious. Time to man up.

Am I saying you need to memorize a 2000-word speech every time? Absolutely not (unless that works for you.) Don’t bite off more than you can chew by over-memorizing; this is something I’m frequently guilty of. One of the most illuminating presentation articles I’ve read was by Chris Anderson, a curator of TED Talks. (If you haven’t watched a TED talk yet, go there right now. Git.).  Heavy memorization can trap you in what he calls “the valley of awkwardness”:

“If they give the talk while stuck in that valley, the audience will sense it. Their words will sound recited, or there will be painful moments where they stare into the middle distance, or cast their eyes upward, as they struggle to remember their lines. This creates distance between the speaker and the audience.”

I’ve learned from experience that strict memorizing can sound wooden and limits impromptu commentary.

BOTTOM LINE: Rehearse your presentation at least 3 times out loud, bonus points with a colleague. But don’t memorize to the point where you sound like a voicemail recording.

Lea Pica - How to Lose Presentation Audience - Read Directly from your Slides

#2: Read Directly from Your Slides

The vast majority of presentation slides I see are laden with bullet point text and wordy paragraph sentences.

STOP IT.

I will discuss this issue at length in future posts, but let me sum it up for you right now: as a population of business professionals, we are not using our presentation tools correctly.

And I say tools (plural) because this isn’t just a PowerPoint problem. Or a Keynote problem. And Prezi won’t solve the problem for you either.

These are only tools, and we are the architect. Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen explains:

“There is some truth to the idea that the templates and all the bells and whistles added to PowerPoint through the years have contributed to some of the “really bad PowerPoint”. But PowerPoint (or Keynote, etc.) is not a method, it is a a tool that can be used effectively with appropriate design methods or ineffectively with inappropriate methods.”

One of the most important mantras I drop on my audience during my signature “Get Their Attention” session is this:

Your slides are for your audience. Not you.

They are not a crutch. They are a vehicle to help deliver your message into your audience’s brain.

Your audience doesn’t want you to read them a bedtime story (and if you do, it will have the same effect). No, they want you to talk to them. And guess what? They will read that entire slide to themselves and completely tune you out.

Don’t let your presentation drown you out!

Now, what happens when you take out the bullet points, and you don’t know what to do with all that white space? This is where learning some basic design principles can elevate your work.

Principles like communicating one idea per slide, the rule of thirds, and creative typography treatments. All of these will be the subject of a future post, so stay tuned!

BOTTOM LINE: After all the hard work you put into finding your insights, don’t let them drown in a sea of bullet-laden slides. Throw them a life preserver and pick up a book or two on presentation design; you’ll find my top choices on my resources page. And of course, keep following me here and I’ll be dropping tips left and right!

And, if you’re interested in reading about a simple alternative to bullet points, check out my Better Bullet Points Solution post.

Lea Pica - Act Like You Don't Care About the Audience

#3: Act Like You Don’t Care About Your Audience

I once worked with someone who was quite intelligent, but a tad overconfident. While talking about presenting, I mentioned my severe stage fright despite my love of performance. He casually boasted that he never practices or gets nervous speaking because he always “rocks” it. Aw, cute! Guess what, son? Your audience hates you. Chris Andersen of Ted agrees here:

“If a successful talk is a journey, make sure you don’t start to annoy your travel companions along the way. Some speakers project too much ego. They sound condescending or full of themselves, and the audience shuts down. Don’t let that happen.”

In Stan’s case, his lack of connection with the audience was painfully obvious. Watching him stalk around the stage in an imperious manner felt more like a parental lecture than a constructive dialogue. I could see he was either unaware of or did not care about how the audience felt about him. Learning to read your audience is an essential presenting skill, and something I’ll be discussing at length in a future post.

More often though, presenting scares the bejeebers out of us. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, there are two reasons why well-managed nerves can be your best friend:

  1. When you’re nervous, it shows your audience that you care about what they think.
  2. A healthy nervous response causes a temporary spike in adrenaline, which improves mental clarity and focus. These are two essential ingredients for calm and collected presenter.
5 Simple Ways to Lose Your Presentation Audience FAST #presenting Click To Tweet

BOTTOM LINE: Overconfidence is an unattractive quality to an audience, so act like you care (even if you don’t). Conversely, channeling your stage fright into enthusiastic energy is more effective than a Red Bull and enables a deeper connection with your audience. Just make sure that your nerves aren’t on the fritz because you didn’t prepare. Naughty naughty.

Lea Pica - Dress Like You Don't Care About the Audience

#4: Dress Like You Don’t Care About Your Audience

Many conferences in the digital arena are relaxing the dress code from business casual, to just plain ol’ casual. If you’re an attendee, great! It can be a nice chance to chill out and dress it down.

If you are a speaker, THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU. Going on stage dressed like you got mugged by The Gap clearance rack could negatively affect your audience’s perception of you. Neil Patel (internet marketer extraordinaire) recently wrote about how spending over $150,000 in clothes propelled his business. Was he shamelessly bragging?

Surprisingly, no. Neil dislikes flaunting his wealth (he doesn’t even have furniture in his loft). But he is acutely aware that dressing for success results in success. Why? Because your potential customers want to be like you.

I’ve learned this can apply to presenting: when you dress to impress, you appear successful to the audience. It also shows them respect because you are there for them, not the other way around.

BOTTOM LINE: Like it or not,  appearance does matter during a presentation. Plan your outfit and accessories well in advance. Gentlemen, get that nice gray suit pressed and your shoes shined. Splurge on a classic hot shave. This is the time to unleash your inner Mad Men. Ladies, treat yourself to a blowout and manicure. Bonus: it will give you a chance to decompress and you won’t be nursing any curling iron burns (ahem).

Lea Pica - Your Technical Details are a Hot Mess

#5: Your technical and audio / visual details are a hot mess

Getting audio/visual logistics right is a task fraught with peril, and I have yet to master it. It is Murphy’s Law personified. My explanation for this phenomenon is quite simple: our presentations are plagued by tiny technology trolls whose singular purpose in life is to screw with you.

Although it happens to the best of us, messy logistics do cause a rift with our audience. They have a cascade effect of triggering our nerves, which creates audience friction, and…you get the idea.

With enough planning (and a broad sense of humor) you can avoid most of these pitfalls. Planning that takes into account things like:

  • Reviewing the logistics in advance (not 5 minutes before!!)
  • Downloading necessary presentation files, fonts and software if you’re using your laptop
  • Turning off instant messenger apps and email notifications

After encountering every technical glitch in the book myself, I developed a Presentation Audio / Visual Sanity Checklist to avoid conference room calamities. I’m offering that checklist to you as a free gift, so click here to grab it.

Final Thoughts

Going the extra mile to prepare for your audience will reap many benefits. Treat them right, and there’s an good chance that by the end, they’ll be your raving fans.

Here’s Your Next Step:

Click the image below to download your free Presentation Audio / Visual Sanity Checklist so you don’t lose your audience:

Lea Pica - Download a Free Presentation Technical A/V Checklist

What are your best tips for connecting with your audience?

This post was originally featured on LinkedIn Pulse.

Photo Credits:
Cat: Flickr / dat’ / Scared cat is really scared
Fish: Flickr/ Floccinaucinihilipilification / Orangina

Lea is a digital analyst and marketer turned Data Storytelling Evangelist. She trains thousands of digital practitioners and consultants in the art and science of impactful data presentation through her blog and podcast, The Present Beyond Measure Show. Lea is also the creator of The PICA Protocol™, her practical prescription for healthy, actionable data stories that inform decisions, spark ideas, inspire action, and make YOU indispensable.