The Presentation Skill No One is Talking About

There’s a lot of great content out there on presentation skills. For the most part, it focuses on two things: 1) Slide content and design or 2) Speaking skills like preparation, attitude, what to do with your hands and feet etc. What I rarely hear talked about is the intersection of slides and speaking – engaging the slides while you present. This matters, and someone needs to talk about it.

What the Presenter Does

The presenter is speaking away and at certain moments they click the remote and the slide changes, but little happens in their speech delivery to acknowledge or benefit from the slide. Usually this happens when they change to a new subtopic and the slide magically changes to reveal the next bulleted list which is promptly ignored by the speaker. (Of course, bulleted lists are evil so it doesn’t matter what you do with those.)

What the Audience Does

Here’s what typically happens for the audience…
You’re listening to the speaker, who may be quite good, and then the slide changes. Your reptilian brain detects an environmental change and instinctively diverts attention to the change to assess it as a possible threat. Now that you’re there, you begin to read and realize you’re no longer listening to the speaker and the words you’re reading may not be matching what they are saying anyway, so you send your attention back to the speaker wondering if you missed anything vital.

You’re Losing Them

Make no mistake. When the slide changes, you lose the audience for a moment. It’s instinctive so you can’t fight it. Rather than see it as an inconvenience, let’s use that instinctive impulse to our advantage.

Join Them at the Slide

Since their attention is going to the slide when you change it, why not invite them to look at it? Do it verbally or use a gesture to draw attention to the screen. As long as we’re all looking at it, describe what they are seeing. Their brain is trying to assess it, so help them rather than fight them. Tell them what it is they are seeing with a fairly literal description – “This is a customer frustrated with the check out experience at a local retailer.” If you’re using a hand to invite them to look at it, now drop your hand and invite all attention back to you. Now that you have them again, make your point which is supported by the slide. Be sure to tell them everything they’re seeing so they are satisfied there’s nothing left to see and are content to give their attention back to you. If there’s too much on the slide to do that in a few seconds, then there’s too much on the slide and you should at least be using animation to populate the slide a bit at at time – with a return of attention to the slide with every animation/addition.

Take Charge

You’re the presenter. You can and should be the one intentionally directing their attention where you want it to best serve the goals of the presentation. Be in charge of everything!


The world is filled with exceptions. Some presenters approach the interaction with slides as performance art. The slides change at exactly the right moment they utter some magical word or phrase and the audience naturally looks and understands the slide’s purpose in the moment. This is a great way to use slides. It requires a bit more design and delivery skill. If you’d like to see a great example of this, check out this TED Talk on procrastination. It doesn’t work as well on video, but live, the presenter is in front of a giant screen and his content relates to the slide very well. On video, you’re at the mercy of the director to show the screen.

Don’t Compete with Slides

If you don’t direct attention to and away from the slide, then you are competing with your slides rather than working as a team for a desired outcome. Why would you do that? (Answer: Because it’s modeled for you in most presentations you see).

The Magic Button

In addition to directing attention, PowerPoint has a magic button to divert all attention to you. Press the “B” key and the screen goes Black. This is of GREAT use. If you see people looking at your slide when they really need to be paying attention to you, click “B” (or most remotes have a “black” button) and get them back. Also good if you have to get between the projector and the screen. I have often given the majority of my presentation under blackout conditions because the screen was massive and centered in the room. DO NOT PLAY SUBORDINATE TO THE SCREEN. You’re in command. Just shut it down if it’s dominant and only turn it on when you want their attention on the screen.

Be Great

These are the sorts of nuances that separate the great presenters from the good ones. Go ahead, be great.

If PowerPoint Were a PowerSaw, Most Presenters Would Be Missing Fingers

“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” That astute observation is from our current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. As a result of this view, PowerPoint has been banned from many military conference rooms. Some academic institutions and corporations are following suit (Psychology Today).

They’re right – essentially. But PowerPoint itself is not the problem – exactly. Displays of appropriate visual support are powerful in their ability to drive meaning and retention.

The User, Not The Tool

It’s not PowerPoint; it’s how presenters are using PowerPoint that leads to “stupid-making.” A primary problem is the infamous bulleted list. What an evil, mind-numbing contraption it is. A list of words we are unsure if we are supposed to read or continue listening to the speaker (it’s impossible to do both). We usually ignore them making them of no value. Or we read them and miss what the speaker is saying making them of negative value. Or the speaker reads them to us making them of great value for insomniacs.

The Fault is in the De-fault

Bulleted lists show no relationships between the words/concepts presented, and that’s where the visual value would be. Where PowerPoint is to blame is in defaulting to bullets. The typical slide offers a content box with six content-type icons in the middle. Five of these are good selections. One of these is a bulleted list. If you don’t click one of them, and most don’t, the content box assumes you want a bulleted list so you make one.

Oops. There Goes A Finger

Defaulting to bulleted lists is the equivalent of a power saw having this instruction: “Place your free hand in the path of the saw blade – see appendix for other options.” Why default to the worst possible option? If it must default, I’d go with SmartArt.

Save Your Fingers – Save Your Audience

Next time you create a slide, don’t click in the box and start typing your words. Click the SmartArt icon:

Here are myriad options for showing words/concepts with visual indication of the relationships between them: Lists, hierarchies, cycles, processes and more. It’s pretty easy and forces you to encapsulate your concept/thought in 2-3 words rather than visually deadly sentences.

Of course, there are volumes more to say about making a really effective slide deck (if one is even necessary, and don’t assume that it is). But if you start by simply using SmartArt rather than bullets, you may save the IQ of your audience and your reputation as a presenter.


The Presentation That Killed a Sure Sale. Does Yours?

It was a frustrating experience. I assumed it was unusual, but I’m finding it wasn’t.
I was trying desperately to give someone my money, but they were more interested in giving their presentation than in taking my order. Some of the worst listening I’ve ever encountered.

I needed new windows in my house. I had done my research and knew the windows I wanted. I called the only distributor/installer of those windows and asked for an estimate. Within two minutes of walking in my door, the salesman started telling me how energy efficient they were. I said, “I don’t care. I know any decent window is energy efficient enough for me.”

He measured the windows and calculated the estimate.
Instead, he insisted on giving me his 25 minute presentation, mostly on energy efficiency. I told him I didn’t want it. He insisted. A few minutes in to his presentation I said, “This is all about energy, and that isn’t really what I care about.” As if I only imagined having spoken, he continued force-feeding me what I didn’t want.

After 25 minutes and some classic 1960’s pressure sales tactics, all he had gained was my ire.
I was an in-the-bank sure thing and rather than take my order, he just made me mad. He had no ability to adapt his presentation to his audience.

REAL Listening
Since then, I’ve worked with many sales people who have some good listening skills, but when it’s time for their presentation, they don’t adapt it. If you’re listening, the customer should see some evidence of it. Find out what is most important to the customer and start your presentation with that – spend most of your time there. If your customer isn’t interested in some feature, don’t talk about it. If you think they really need to know about it, give a quick explanation about its importance and see if they become interested. If they don’t, just move on.
Listen to your audience, and show them you were listening when it’s your turn to talk. If the only evidence of listening is your silence, they may be unconvinced you’re paying any attention.

Oh yeah, I was mad, but I bought the windows anyway because they were the ones I wanted. I wasn’t going to let a poor presenter force me into something else. But now I need siding. Guess who I’m not calling for an estimate?

The Great Deception: Only 7% of Your Message is Words.

How often have you heard the following ubiquitous citation from Albert Mehrabian’s research? “Only 7% of your message is from your words; 93% is from your nonverbals.”

It’s just not true.

Mehrabian’s experiment dealt with what people will believe when your words and your nonverbals don’t match – they will believe the nonverbals. Unless, as a communicator, you plan to be inauthentic most of the time, this number, 93%, does not apply to you.

Mehrabian himself has urged others to stop citing his findings in this inaccurate way (

It’s time for everyone, especially professional communicators and trainers to stop using this misleading statistic.

Words carry the bulk of your message. The words must be right. They must be well thought out. They must be compelling. They must be organized, clever, creative, and above all – authentic.

Let’s talk about what Mehrabian’s study does reveal. The best way to make your message compelling? Make it true. If you don’t believe what you’re selling, most likely your nonverbals will give you up. It’s called “leakage.” The reality of your content leaks through your nonverbals. The audience will find you out. They won’t buy what you’re selling, and they’ll resent you for it. When you are authentic, that leaks out too. Don’t pitch it if you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe it, why are you asking your audience to believe it? Find another way, another story, another approach.

Do nonverbals matter? Oh yes. The best presenters are excited to have a positive impact on their audience; it energizes them; their excitement leaks out. That energy engages the audience and they cling to your words. Your words – the biggest and best part of your message. Your words are now better positioned to have the impact they deserve. If you’re not excited about what you’re about to present to people – get a different message!

“Hey wait! Sometimes I have to present bad news!”

Fair enough. Sometimes bad news is the order of the day. The same rules apply. Authenticity wins the day. When you have to present bad news, authentic empathy for your audience will make a big difference in the delivery and reception of your message. We’ll have to wait for another post to delve into the details of the delivery of bad news.

Want to learn more about being authentic? You should check out the great work by Sage Presence

Stay true. Stay authentic. Stay connected to your audience. Be a good presenter.

This Takes Your Communication From Better to Best

Accomplish more than one thing

Last time, we talked about determining what you want to accomplish when you communicate (The One Thing That Makes You a Better Communicator). That applies to one-on-one conversations, writing, marketing pieces, public speaking or whatever. If it’s important, you should identify your desired outcome and plan your words and delivery accordingly.

Now let’s take it to the next level. A really great communicator usually has more than one goal in mind. There are often supporting or additional goals to your primary goal, and it serves you well to identify them. One primary consideration is the impact you want to have on the relationship; this is especially important if there’s some anticipated tension in the conversation.

Win a battle but lose the war

Imagine a coworker on whom you depend to deliver a report to you every Thursday in a certain format. You require this to complete a weekly task due on Friday mornings. Most of the time your coworker delivers, but it is formatted incorrectly. You have to send it back and specify, AGAIN, the proper format. The time has come for some communication to remedy this situation once and for all. You know intuitively that people remember things much better when they are attached to an emotional experience, so you choose to provide one. During the next department meeting you berate your coworker loudly and unkindly in front of the entire department. If your only goal is that he/she remember to format correctly, this will likely be an effective strategy. But surely you have at least one other goal – maintain a good working relationship.

Get it all

Communication theorist, Jesse Delia, suggests that really great communicators devise sophisticated message plans to achieve multiple goals. “Sophistication” includes the creation of “person-centered” messages and contingency plans dependent on how the conversation is progressing. (Sage eReference (Online, service), et al. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2009.)

Imagine having to confront your boss because you believe she has unreasonable expectations or in some other way makes things harder when they could be easier. Your primary desired outcome is a change in her behavior. But another very important outcome is the impact on the relationship. How do you want her to view your relationship after this conversation? Ideally, she would see you as someone dedicated to making the enterprise run more efficiently. She may see you as having sufficient confidence and strength of character to confront her, which she admires; she may even begin to see you as a strategic adviser. Or she could see you as a complainer or as confrontational. You need to plan this for a desired outcome.

From your experiences with her, her responses should have some predictability. You can begin to craft a person-centered message that appeals to her values, views, and communication style. You may even be able to anticipate a critical point in the conversation at which you have two different message plans dependent on her response. Now you’re communicating like a pro, and according to Jesse Delia you are exhibiting “cognitive complexity.”

When the communication is important, consider all the things you want to accomplish and plan for that. Your odds of successful communication and achieving your desired outcomes will increase greatly.



The One Thing That Makes You a Better Communicator

What are you trying to accomplish?

When every communication starts with an answer to that question, the odds of success are much higher. Think about it – without an answer to that question, how would you know if the communication was successful or not? This is the difference between “responding” and “reacting.” That flame-mail you sent was a reaction. If you had asked yourself, “What do I want to accomplish with this e-mail?” you likely would have done it differently.

A classic example

I was recently working with a great non-profit with a program to help people understand what it is like to live in poverty. They handed me their brochure for this event. Before I even looked at it I asked them, “What is your goal? What do you want the people who see this brochure to do?” The answer was simple enough, “We want them to attend the event.”

I then asked the follow up question, “What do you think makes people want to attend the event? What have past participants told you made it worthwhile?” We easily created a list of those motivations.

Now we were ready to examine the brochure which was a letter-sized trifold with lots of copy on every panel. I asked if there was anything in the brochure that talked about those motivations we had just listed. The answer was, “very little.” It was an information brochure that provided much detail on how the simulation worked, but apart from one testimonial sentence, had no motivational content and no calls to action.

It was immediately clear to them that the communication piece they had created was not remotely aligned with what it was supposed to accomplish.

We spent an hour putting together content aligned specifically to the motivations they had identified. Now they had a great start on a communication piece they could fully expect to succeed. They knew what success looked like; they knew what tactics could generate the desired outcome. Now they had a well-defined space into which they could launch their creativity and let it work for them for success.

Make it work

Knowing your goal helps in all communication contexts – whether one-to-one conversation or mass communication, whether coworkers, family members, bosses, direct reports, neighbors – anyone. Next time you have to have an important conversation (perhaps you have teenagers), or you’re creating a promotional or other mass communication piece etc., make sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Then ask yourself if you have good reason to think what you have created will accomplish that.

Connection and Credibility – One Aspect

When approaching a presentation, consider that there are three basic elements: Connection, Content, and Creative. Let’s look at one aspect of connection – credibility…

Are you credible? The question here is, “Are YOU credible?”, not your content. One blog post doesn’t allow enough space to discuss all the factors here, but lets cover one that may be more elusive than we think – eye contact.

Eye contact is a big deal in credibility. No one trusts someone who won’t look them in the eye. It’s tempting to say, “Yeah, everyone learned that in Speech 101.” But there’s a difference between not staring at the floor (or the slide!) and making “real” eye contact. Real eye contact connects you with the eyes you’re looking at. It’s not eye contact unless you “make contact.”

It’s common to see presenters scan the eyes of the audience. This is way better than staring at the screen or the floor. But if you want to take your presentation to the next level, and you do or you wouldn’t be reading this, pause on individuals and connect with them before you move on. Stay for at least a sentence – maybe two.
You and the person you’re connecting with may even feel something because it creates a certain level of intimacy – what academics call “immediacy.” You are “present” with them and they connect to you and what you are saying. They are no longer part of a crowd; they themselves are connecting with you.

You likely can’t make this connection with everyone in the room, but if you do so with the ones you look at, they will be so much more engaged that the atmosphere in the room can change. When you’re connected like that to the audience, your credibility goes way up. Your content will still be judged by it’s quality, but there will be a bias in your direction.

I must make one important caveat. If you are in a hostile environment trying to sway a hostile crowd, go the other direction and limit direct eye contact. In that environment, it could be interpreted as aggressiveness and elicit a defensive response.

Another Storytelling Post [YAWN]

Sometimes a concept becomes so ubiquitous it begins to lose the perception of value. Yet the value remains, hidden under tattered wear marks. For people that work with communication, I believe “storytelling” is at that point. Who wants to hear/read another storytelling post?

Come on. One more. This one may put a little shine back on storytelling for you…

Walter Fisher, in his “Narrative Paradigm” theory tells us that people, as storytelling animals, make sense of their world through story, not through reason/logic (the Rational Paradigm); therefore, story trumps reason/logic every time.

According to Fisher, rather than solid arguments, moving an audience requires two things:
1. The story being told must be coherent, holistic. It must be consistent within itself. The characters and context and action form a cohesive whole. Nothing is out of place.
2. The story must ring true to the person’s life experience. It can’t utterly violate things they already believe to be true.

Want proof? Look at political posts on Facebook. Rarely have you seen so many people cheering irrational statements because the stories make sense to them. We tend to just dismiss these people as not as enlightened as the rest of us, but there are too many for that.We do the same if it’s on our side of the political fence. They are the rest of us.

I am a strong, committed, passionate advocate for rationality. But when you’re preparing a presentation, if “storytelling” causes you to YAWN, remember,
Writing a

Stay rational, it does matter, but give great priority to the alignment of your story with the audience. Is it coherent TO THEM and does it align with their life experience? If so, you will move them.

The Purpose Driven Presentation

When working with people on presentations, I’m often surprised by the first questions asked: Which PowerPoint theme should I use? Should I use Prezi or PowerPoint? Should I have a handout?

There is only one first question to ask, and it’s the most critical question of the whole process:
Why are you doing the presentation?

Think about it. How do you want the world to be different, or at least the people in the room to be different, as a result of having experienced your presentation? Until that question is answered, every other decision will be rather arbitrary. When you know the purpose of the presentation, you can determine what strategies, tactics, and messaging will help accomplish the purpose.

Take some time with a piece of paper (physical or electronic) and try and capture an image of how things will be different because of your presentation. It may be as simple as informing a group of people about a recent development, but it rarely is. Most likely there is a particular emotional response you want them to have to the news. Usually, presentations are more overtly persuasive. There is a particular belief you want the people to embrace or some action you want them to take. What is it? With that answer in hand, you are properly equipped to start thinking about how you can craft the presentation to hit the mark.

Should I use a slide? Here’s a test.

I recently found myself using the following test to determine the value of a slide; I think it’s the new litmus test for me and anyone I’m helping on a presentation.
WomanDrawingBoardPretend the presentation space you’re using has no electronics. If you want to use a “slide” you’ll have to draw it by hand on poster board and it will take about an hour to do so. If the slide/visual has such great content that you would take the time to do that, then you should make a slide for it. If instead you say, “Nah, it’s not worth the trouble,” then let it go.
This is one of the ways Slideware hurts us. It’s just so easy to plop some stuff down and throw it on the screen that we don’t need to do any critical evaluation of its value to the presentation. If you’ve been in more than one business presentation, you have seen the evidence of this.
You’ve heard the expression, “If all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything looks like a nail.” Slideware is a tremendous tool and works great for the right job; just don’t be swinging it at everything in sight just because you have to give a presentation.