People attend presentations to learn and gain useful insight. But way too often, we see the audience yawn, scroll on their phones or check their watch, wishing that the time would go faster.
Is it that the content of the presentation isn’t interesting enough, or that the speaker doesn’t know how to engage the audience?
Whatever the reason, delivering an engaging presentation is an art that takes some time to master.
Based on my own experience from the stage, and from observing other speakers at industry-leading conferences, I’ve collected these 18 top tips. May they help you give a presentation that will wow your audience:
- Plan your storyline
- Use the rule of three
- Simplify your slides
- Include numbers
- Use the power of visuals
- Practice relentlessly
- Greet the audience in their local language
- Break the ice at the start
- Engage your audience with live polls
- Move around the stage and make gestures
- Smile and make eye contact
- Consider using props
- Go among the audience
- Give rewards for participation
- Prompt a discussion in the audience
- Build in time for Q&A
- Crowdsource questions from the audience
- Gather feedback
1. Plan your storyline
A powerful story can make your whole presentation. Take TED talks, for instance. They’re all based on captivating stories that support the main argument or line of thought of each speech.
Give your presentation a concept. Use a classic narrative structure, from a gripping outset to an impressive end. A presentation designer Nancy Duarte advises presenters to spend twice as much time on framing the storyline than creating the actual slides.
Also, don’t forget to add emotional details and power words. These will make your audience feel much more connected to you. People will eventually forget your slides and your presentation, but they will not forget how you made them feel.
2. Use the rule of three
People can usually remember only three main points from presentations, so take advantage of this psychological phenomenon.
While creating your storyline, think of three key messages that you want your audience to walk out of the room with. To make these three key points stick, you need to make them short, memorable and attention-grabbing.
On the other hand, if your presentation revolves around one main argument, make use of the Aristotelian “triptych” method: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” In a nutshell, you should properly introduce the point you will be making, then make your point, and then wrap up with summarizing the main point.
3. Simplify your slides
No matter how rich in content your slides are, if they’re too crowded, nobody is going to read them. Too much text on slides actually takes your audience’s attention away from your presentation, which hinders the learning process.
Make your slides as simple as possible and try to present only one idea per slide. Sometimes, one powerful sentence, a number, or even one word, can say more than a slide full of bullet points.
4. Include numbers
When used sensibly, numbers can strengthen your point and back up your arguments. To make data easy for your audience to digest, you need to make it specific, relevant and contextual.
When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod, he did not emphasize its 5GB storage and 185g weight. Instead, he repeatedly said that it could hold 1,000 songs and physically manifested that he could fit it into his pocket. This number was easy for the audience to remember, and called even more attention to its tiny size.
5. Use the power of visuals
Videos or images not only engage the audience but also help to evoke emotions that are otherwise super difficult for speakers to elicit by themselves.
Make sure that the visuals you use support the main point of your presentation, or demonstrate what you’re talking about. This works very well in the creative industry, where visual aids are often necessary to complement the main content.
However, if you’re going to use video, be cautious. A too lengthy or unengaging video may put people to sleep rather than keep them attentive.
6. Practice relentlessly
Attending a presentation where the speaker keeps looking down at his notes is painful so don’t underestimate this point. For instance, Winston Churchill rehearsed for hours, even days, to deliver a 10-minute long speech.
Memorize your presentation flow by heart if need be. Do it to the extent that you won’t need the notes.
During your rehearsals, use a video camera to record yourself in order to see where you stutter, where you seem nervous and how you work with your body language. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend to give you feedback.
Tim Ferris, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, follows a Spartan’s preparation for his public speeches. He splits his presentation into several segments and he goes through each one of them up to ten times.
7. Greet your audience in their local language
As a speaker, you often find yourself addressing an international audience, whether it is at a big conference or an internal company meeting joined by remote teams.
Greeting international participants in their local language gives a nice personal touch to the offset of your presentation. It helps you create a connection and the feeling of intimacy with the people sitting before you.
I always memorize how to say “Hello” and “How are you?” in the local language, and use them as soon as I come onstage. You can even take it a step further and adjust your presentation ad hoc to the audience, by making local references.
For example, Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist, Avinash Kaushik, started his talk at the Marketing festival by showing pictures from his tour around the hosting city of Brno, Czech Republic. Moreover, he used the Czech websites that the audience was closely familiar with, instead of international ones, to get his point across.
8. Break the ice at the start
Hook your audience right off the bat. Using an effective icebreaker will help you set the stage and energize your attendees.
Here’s an inspiration for you: At the 2018 World Education Congress (WEC), I asked people to close their eyes and think of a presentation session that had recently impressed them. After 30 seconds, I invited them to share their dream session with their neighbor and describe it using one word, before submitting it to a Slido word cloud poll.
Next, I asked them to picture the usual experience of attending a presentation and describe it again, using a single word. Seeing the differences in the two consequent word cloud polls was very thought-provoking and sparked up a discussion among the attendees.
Other than using technology, you can liven up your audience with a classic show of hands or other brisk icebreaking activities, such as rock, paper, scissors or live barometer.
9. Engage your audience with live polls
Once you win your audience over, keep up the pace by creating enough interaction points throughout your presentation.
Live polling is your best bet here. When smartly used, live polls will keep your attendees engaged during the whole length of your presentation. They also help you to effectively collect your audience’s insights, which you can then showcase on screen. This multiplies the learning element of your presentation.
In general, I follow the human attention span and use a poll every 8-10 minutes, which is 5-6 polls for a 60-minute talk, maximum.
To give you an example, during the latest webinar I led, I asked the participants a simple rating poll: “How would you rate interaction in the classroom today?”
The results set a good ground for the main argument I was going to make about insufficient interactivity in education, and really helped me make my point.
On top of that, this strategy allows me to break the long content deliveries into more digestible chunks, regain the audience’s attention, and ignite conversations based on the results.
The last point is particularly important. Live polls make sense only when you facilitate their use. So make sure to always follow up on the results, share your thoughts on them, or get the audience to share why they voted the way they did.
10. Move around the stage and make gestures
If you stand rigidly in one spot or behind a speaker’s stand, you will only appear unconfident and nervous. Think of yourself as an actor on stage, and your presentation as your performance. Use open, big gestures, point in the direction of the audience, or slowly walk about the stage.
At this year’s Festival of Marketing, Mark Ritson – who was opening the event – reminded me of the importance of using body language. He kept pacing the stage in a natural way and was gesturing throughout the entire length of his speech. It was definitely one of the most engaging sessions I’ve attended this year.
11. Smile and make eye contact
The way you communicate with your audience through your facial expressions makes a huge difference. So don’t look down at your notes, don’t look at your slides, but keep your eyes set on your audience.
Lisa Wentz, a public speaking expert, advises to pick 3 people in the audience that you like, each one at a different corner of the auditorium, and make eye contact with them throughout your presentation. However, avoid staring at one person for too long. Use the selected people only as navigation points that will help you scan the room.
12. Consider using props
Demonstrating the point with the use of props is a powerful way to help the attendees visualize what is being described verbally. Showing a prop at the right moment can help you catch your audience’s attention and enforce your story.
Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor brought a real human brain on stage during her emotional TED talk to explain what had happened to her when she had a stroke. She touched the audience with this demonstration and left them in complete awe.
13. Go among the audience
Asking people questions may feel impersonal if you stand onstage. On top of that, large auditoriums often make it difficult to create intimacy with your audience.
Draw inspiration from rock singers here and “jump” off the stage. Going among the audience will help you build a stronger bond with them and your presentation will feel more personal.
This approach is invaluable if you hope to collect impromptu answers after you have asked your question. Move slowly around the room, and when someone shuffles or raises a hand, approach them with a mic and elicit an answer.
When another hand shoots up, move to that corner of the room, and so on. The point here is to be as close to your audience as possible.
If possible, check the room advance to get used to the space arrangements. This will help you move around more naturally and with more confidence.
14. Give rewards for participation
Despite all your efforts, the audience might need a bit of a nudge. Giving out small rewards can bring another interactive element to your presentation. You can go with the event merchandise or small treats, like chocolates and candy.
To give you another idea, at the Jam London conference, the organizers decided to give away books to those attendees who were the most active in asking questions via Slido. This really helped incentivize the audience to participate and improved the dialogue in the room.
15. Prompt a discussion in the audience
You can give audience engagement another spin by giving your attendees an activity that they can participate in.
For example, you can present a statement for the participants to discuss, or give them a task to solve in groups. Where appropriate, walk around the room, join the conversations, and encourage people to talk to each other.
At the Conventa Crossover conference in Slovenia, moderator Jan-Jaap In der Maur put people in small groups and asked them to share the technological trends that they believed will have the biggest impact on the industry in the near future.
Then he collected a few comments from the floor to open a discussion with the whole room.
Simple. Engaging. Useful.
If facilitated properly, activities like these can work equally well with an audience of 20 people as they can with 2,000.
Related story: 5 Essential Pieces of The Audience Engagement Puzzle
16. Build in time for the Q&A
Even if you incorporate interactive elements to your presentation, your audience will surely have additional questions.
For that reason, don’t be scared to allocate as much as 10-20 minutes to the Q&A, depending on the length of your presentation slot.
After I finish my talk, instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” (which typically leads to silence), I like to ask, “What are your questions?”, or say, “Now, let’s get to your questions.” In case I don’t get an instant reaction from the audience, I get off the stage and walk among the audience to encourage the discussion.
In rare moments when no questions come up, I kick off the Q&A by saying: “What people usually ask me is…” and then give an answer. In 9/10 times, the discussion catches on.
17. Crowdsource questions from the audience
Lack of audience questions doesn’t necessarily mean that your audience doesn’t have questions. They may just be uncomfortable with speaking up in public.
Live Q&A tools like Slido allow you to effortlessly crowdsource questions from your audience throughout your presentation via an app.
Compared to passing the mic amongst the people in the audience, you will give everyone an equal chance to ask questions, regardless of their level of shyness.
If you’re using a Q&A app, it’s important that you introduce and facilitate it properly. I often say something like: “Take a minute and think about what you’ve just heard. Come up with a question that you have, and submit it to Slido.” It works every single time.
Then, just take a look at the screen, or a confidence monitor, and address the questions that have the most upvotes.
If you display the crowdsourced questions on the screen, read each question out loud when addressing it. It will help your audience – even the ones sitting at the back – to know which question you are answering.
Extra tip: Sometimes, you get way more questions from your audience than you can answer during your time-limited Q&A slot. Don’t leave them hanging in the air. Here you’ll find 5 tips on what to do with unanswered questions after your Q&A.
18. Gather feedback
Feedback is priceless for improving your presentation skills. There’s never enough of it. You can collect feedback easily via Slido feedback survey. Combine rating polls for quick assessment and open text polls to give your participants space for more in-depth comments.
Your feedback survey could look something like this:
- How would you rate this presentation? (rating poll)
- What is your main takeaway from this session? (open text poll)
- What would you improve? (open text poll)
To boost the response rate, make sure that you ask your attendees to fill out the survey while they’re still in the room.
With the tips I’ve listed above, you’ll be able to turn your presentation or lecture from a one-way content broadcast into an exciting conversation between you and your attendees.
Engage your attendees with Slido live Q&A and polls.