9 words you need to know for a more effective presentation (1)

Effective presentations, whether they are lectures to nursing students, workshops for physicians or presentations to senior leaders are really about effectively communicating your message or your idea …  But the problem is, as Guy Kawasaki put it "99% of our presentations suck". They tend to be a one way transmission of information, that does not engage the hearts or minds using a technology (PowerPoint) that is completely misplaced.

I went to medical school with 251 fellow students and my first 2 years were spent in large lecture halls listening to basic scientists and some clinician scientists lecturing to me and showing me life altering visuals of histolgy slides of cells.  I spent most of those two years either at the back of the class talking or skipping the classes completely.  Because what I knew at the time was that I was bored, not engaged and could use my time better.  We can all think of many things to do instead of sitting through a boring presentation.  In spite of skipping my medical school lectures, I graduated as a doctor.  But I knew something was wrong … If 99% of our presentations suck … what are the 1% doing for success?



The 9 words you need to know for a more effective presentation are:

Tell a story  -   Keep it simple  -   Manage your flow

Tell a story (1-2-3)

We are wired to tell and receive stories from an early age.  We do it starting in kindergarten with show and tell.  But for some reason storytelling has come to be equated with fiction or non-truth.  We have been telling stories for thousands of years, passing the oral tradition from clan to tribe to family.  Even the concept of the “lecture” is relatively new.  If we go back to the 14th century – prior to the invention of the printing press, books were scarce, and so the practice in the medieval university was for the instructor to literally read from the original source.  In fact the word "lecture" comes from Latin and means “that which is read”.  Unfortunately, presentations have been steadily decling since the 14th century.  With the advent of Power Point in the late 20th century, the impact on the quality of presentations took another significant hit.

Story telling is also a metaphor for your presentation.  Your presentation should be structured like a story.  It should have a strong opening, an interesting middle with some conflict, and then resolution with a powerful finish.

Why is story telling so powerful?  What is the power of the narrative?  We know that a story can send a chill down your spine, cause your heart to race or your eyes to well up.  Stories engage the audience and allow them to activate prior knowledge and prior experience.  What I know from teaching and learning is that if you want adults to learn, they need to be actively involved and actively participating.  Interactivity is a pre-requisite for learning.  This interactivity should extend to your presentations also.

Interactive presentations require active participation and active involvement of the audience.  It can be interactivity between the presenter and audience, interactivity between the audience and the material and interactivity between audience and other audience members.  The interactivity does not need to be overt.  Think of the last time that you watched a Broadway musical?  You might have been familar with the songs and singing in your head or tapping your toes.  You were engaged (and interactive) with the material.  But I don't think that you were tempted to get up on stage and join the troupe.  We know from the literature on interactive lecturing, that interactive presentations; promote active involvement of the learner, increase attention and motivation of the learner, allow for a higher level of learning and retention, and allow for real time feedback for the audience (and the presenter).  Not only are learners more satisfied, but faculty untilizing these techniques like it better.  Once you try it, you likely will not go back to a traditional lecture.

There are many different techniques to enhance interactivity in a presentation.  These techniques can be used on audiences of 10 to 1000.

Interactivity between presenter and audience

  • Direct questioning
  • Brainstorming
  • Rhetorical questioning
  • Surveying the audience
  • Audience response systems

Interactivity between audinece and audience

  • Breaking up into smaller groups
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Buzz groups
  • Debates
  • Panels

Interactivity between audience and the material

  • Role playing/simulation
  • Use of patients
  • Case presentations
  • Storytelling
  • Videos
  • Live interviews
  • Writing
  • Handouts

Keep it simple (4-5-6)

Keeping it simple applies to your PowerPoint and your message.  Simplicity from an engineering concept is about maximum effect with minimal means.  Though simple is not stupid.  Keeping things simple require a great degree of sophistication.

When I refer to PowerPoint, we can interchange "Keynote", "Prezi" or any other types of presentation software.  They are all the same.  The concepts on how to use them and misuse them are all the same.  There are many reasons why we use PowerPoint for our presentations;  it hides our inadequate presentations, it makes us look smart, it is expected of us, it provides a structure for us to develop a presentation, it provides speakers notes and it can be used as a handout.  I would suggest that there are only 3 reasons that we should be using PowerPoint and if we are not using it for one of these 3 reasons, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Reasons to us PowerPoint (or other presentation software)

  1. To emphasize a point (we might put a few words on a slide)
  2. To augment someting in our presentation (a table or graph may be worth 1000 words)
  3. Multimedia presentations may have a unique effect on information processing

PowerPoint was developed in the late 1980's.  Interestingly, it was created for Apple's Macintosh as a way to display images.  Soon after that it was bought by Microsoft and the rest is history.  PowerPoint has been used everywhere from boardrooms to 6th grade classes.  All of us have sat through deadly PowerPoint presentations.  We have all experienced “Death by PowerPoint”.  There is a reason they are called bullets.  There are many experts that believe that PowerPoint is evil.  Edward Tufte is an information design guru – an expert at taking complex information and presenting it.  He contends that bullets prevent us from forming schema or connections of ideas.  Others believe that PowerPoint is making us stupid.  Things have gotten so bad that a political party has formed in Switzerland with their sole platform to eliminate all forms of presentation software.  And yet, there are still those that think PowerPoint is cool.  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  There is nothing inherently evil about PowerPoint, just the way we use it.

In general, during presentations, people can listen or read.  But they can’t listen and read at the same time.  If given the choice between listening and reading – people will choose reading almost every time.  I find that a problem if I was invited to give a presentation.  I want them looking at me and listening to me.  So what can we do?   Don’t use PowerPoint.  Maybe your next presentation does need slide support.  I gurantee you that if you do not have anything up on a slide, everyone will be looking at you.  But if you are going to use PowerPoint - keep it simple, in every aspect.  This means keeping the presentation slides clear, concise and consistent.

Over the years, I have speant a lot of time teaching others how to use PowerPoint.  Frankly, I rather be teaching people a conceptual framework on how to use PowerPoint.  This journey led me to the following question:

Does PowerPoint enhance learning?

Let me summarize the evidence of effectiveness on Power Point on learning.  In the literature, "learning" in these studies is often defined as performance on examinations - we can debate the validity of this another time.  In general, students prefer lectures with Power Point slides over lectures with no slides.  In general, there is no difference in learning between lectures with PowerPoint and lectures without PowerPoint.  Finally, there is some emerging evidence that lectures with visually rich slides (slides primarily with pictures instead of words) was prefered by students and they learned more. 

Richard Mayer is a cognitive psychologist in California who has done many studies in the area of mutimedia presentations and information processing.  He would take College students and place them in a room and have them watch an animated multimedia presentation on a computer on how someting worked (such as lightning).  He would then test them on retention (how well they recalled what they watched) and transfer (could they apply what they learned to another situation).  From these studies, he developed “The Theory of Multimedia Learning”  Essentially, the theory states that students learn more effectively from multimedia presentations than verbal presentations alone.  

The Theory of Multimedia Learning

Some specific principles are that students learn more effectively when:

  1. narration and relevant images are used rather than just narration alone
  2. images and narration are used rather than images and text (modality principle)
  3. multimedia presentations are interesting rather than basic (coherence principle)
  4. presentation is conversational (personalization principle)
  5. presenters direct learners to important passages and events in your presentation (signaling principle)

Keep  it simple applies to your message also.  Thinking about the message starts far before your actual presentation.  When you are just starting to craft your presentation, start with the end in mind – what is the message that you want to communicate?  Consider what your point is and why does it matter?  You should be able to explain your message in 45 seconds.  We often refer to this as the "elevator pitch".  Imagine that you get on the elevator with your boss and you have the duration of the elevator ride to tell you  boss what your next presentation is all about.  If you can't do it - you don't have a clear message.

Manage your flow (7-8-9)

Managing your flow is about effective transitions through your entire presentation.  This requires special attention before your presentation and during your presentation.

Before your presentation

Preparation is probably the single most important element you need consider for effective flow of your presentation.  Start with the answering the  5 “W” questions:

  1. Who is the presentation for?
  2. What is the purpose?
  3. Why are you being asked to present?
  4. Where are you presenting?
  5. When are you presenting?

As part of your preparation you should prepare 3 documents.  I often refer to this as the "3 document rule".

The 3 documents that you need to prepare are:

  1. Speaker notes
  2. Slideware (PowerPoint slides)
  3. Handout

The biggest mistake you can make is to merge these 3 documents into one.  The result – you will have poor slides, a poor handout and you will end up reading from your slides.

During your presentation

Where do we always stand for presentations?  Behind the podium.  Podiums are barriers to effective communication.  Podiums also prevent us from using our natural conversational body laguage.  Body language is an important factor in your ability to communicate effectively.  Don’t be afraid to physically engage the audience.  So you need to get away from the podium.  In order to do this you will need a remote presenter to advance your slides.  Always look forward when you are presenting by using your monitor to follow your presentation.  Make eye contact with the audience.  Leave the lights on when presenting.  The audience is more likely to fall asleep if the lights are off and they will be focused on the screen instead of you.  Finally, finish early.  No one ever said “great presentation, but they finished early”.  And yet if you finish late it may kill an otherwise wonderful presentation and it's disrespectful to the organizers, the audience, and the speakers that are coming after you.

Some final thoughts about effective presentations

Give of yourself.  Presenting is a great opportunity to perform and do things that you don’t normally do.  They came to the presentation to see YOU.  Otherwise they could have read it online, in a book or received the message in a different format.  Like any other skill, you can’t get good unless you practice, practice and practice more.


Inspirations and References

(1) Ron Shevlin’s blog on marketing; http://snarketing2dot0.com/2007/05/10/how-to-give-a-great-presentation-in-nine-words