It was 8:00 in the evening and I was presenting to healthcare specialists who had flown in from various locations across the country to attend a medical meeting. My task was to teach them how to present complex scientific information to other healthcare experts in an efficient and engaging way. Given many had been flying for hours from different time zones and were now eating and sipping cocktails, even if I was terribly engaging, I wondered how engaged they would be. I decided a good place to start would be at the beginning as that’s typically where many speakers lose their audience by reading the agenda slide.
After a brief ice breaker to set the stage, I presented two options for opening a talk about a newly approved cancer drug that extended survival rates. First, I read their agenda word for word. Eyes glazed over. Second, I woke them up by asking a thought-provoking question related to their practices, then paused and emphasized key findings that had never been achieved before. Their heads nodded in approval.
Then I asked the group, what do you think of that?
As the room collectively nodded their heads in approval, suddenly a leading researcher in the front row stood up and said, “I think it’s boring”.
I had two choices. I could ask her why, but then I risked she would try to take over the meeting. Or, I could I could disagree which would challenge her credibility and alienate her. It was clear she wanted the floor and wanted to be heard. So, I gave it to her, but did so in a way that made her feel valued.
I invited her to stand up and show us how she might have presented opening remarks. She was quite pleased to do so and did a nice job. I complimented her in front of everyone and explained that there are multiple ways to deliver opening remarks as opposed to a one-size-fits all approach.
Most importantly, I used the opportunity to explain that the beginning of a talk is the best opportunity to command attention and that’s why it’s so important to say something meaningful. In scientific presentations, it may be defining the scope of your work or stating key findings that you will elaborate on later. Either way, you must help listeners understand how it affects or benefits them and you must do it efficiently, so they know why they should listen to you.
The researcher who challenged me did this very effectively. She started by stating a common problem everyone in her audience shared. She quickly highlighted key findings to illustrate how outcomes might be different. Then, instead of reading the agenda, she explained the objectives of the talk. Right away, the audience was engaged and understood why the information was relevant to them.
In more than two decades of experience coaching speakers, I have found that even the most seasoned experts misread their audiences. Because they are speaking to peers, they assume their listeners know what they know. That’s a huge mistake because if you present information at a level too complex for some to understand, you will quickly lose that part of your audience.
The disconnect of scientific and many presentations is the lack of conversation. You may be wondering; how can I have a conversation if I’m presenting? I challenge you to change your thought process. Stop thinking of your presentation as giving a talk and start thinking of it as having a message-focused conversation.
Yet so many technical presenters think of slides as their script. They follow their slides, sometimes word for word, instead of letting the slide follow them. Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg address in a PowerPoint presentation. Or what if Martin Luther King relied on slides when he gave his powerful ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. If you think that’s not the same as an academic or scientific speech, perhaps you should reconsider.
Albert Einstein once said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
The next time you have to give a talk, ask yourself this question. If your slides crashed, could you still deliver the information? True, you may leave some things out and not be able to show all of the data, but if you can still provide the key facts, then yes you can because you know your subject.
To accomplish this, try practicing with the slides and then again without the slides. With slides, you begin to internalize the information. Without slides, you will be much more conversational as if you’re speaking to a neighbor.
Slides are often text heavy and written in sentences that appear in small fonts. That means the slide is designed for you and not for your audience. Fonts should be big, so your audience can see the words. Text should be minimal to prevent listeners from reading. If people are trying to read the slide, then they are not giving you their full attention. Strive for your slides to follow you and reinforce what you’re saying. You should not follow the slide.
Here are some additional tips to keep your audience engaged.
What’s the story?
If the fire alarm went off in the room and listeners could only hear one thing, what would that be? Write it down. That will help you shape the story and key message you want to deliver.
Want vs. need
There is a difference between everything you want to tell them and what they really need to know. Focus on their needs to create more efficient, engaging talks that are easy to understand.
Two sets of slides
In a perfect world, you should create two sets of slides. Set one includes all the detail and is available to those who want it. Set two is more minimal and what you project when presenting. It’s your job to make sense of information. If people can get what they need by reading your slides, why do they need you?
A picture is worth a thousand words
Look for ways to turn sentences into phrases and 12-point font packed tables into visuals such as pie charts and bar graphs. Highlight key findings to help people understand what’s important.
No matter how many times you’ve delivered your talk or how well versed you are in the subject, winging it is not an option. The more you practice out-loud, the smoother and more confident you’ll be on game day. You can also tape yourself which will help you hear where you need more inflection, pausing and vocal variety.
Remember, communicating is about connecting. If you fail to connect, you fail to engage. If you don’t engage, no one is really listening.
I went to the UPS office to ship a small package before 3:00 p.m. which was the last pick up of the day. One woman was being waited on and there were two other people in front of me. However, the counter clerk appeared efficient, so I assumed the line would move quickly.
Assumptions can be dangerous.
The woman being waited on said she didn’t want to send her package through UPS. She just wanted to know what it would cost so she could compare it to other services. The employee was trying to determine a price but needed to enter information into the computer to be accurate. She didn’t have the information he needed and became irritated at him. Still trying to help her, he Facetimed with his supervisor. The supervisor couldn’t fix it, so he called a technician who promised to be at the store within ten minutes.
At this point, the woman chastised the employee, said she didn’t understand why he couldn’t understand what she was saying and stormed out of the store.
Next customer. This man gave the UPS clerk a package sealed in a United States Postal Service (USPS) envelope. The clerk explained that it couldn’t be sent in a USPS envelope from a UPS office as they were two different organizations. Clearly irritated, he began to give the worker a hard time. Once again, calm, polite and patient, the UPS man tried to find a solution and asked the customer if he had ever sent anything from UPS before. This way, he explained, he could look the account up in the computer and see what he could do. The customer responded, “let’s just pretend I have.” More explaining from the clerk. More defiance from the customer.
Enter the UPS delivery man. He came to collect packages for his final pick up of the day. The woman in front of me interrupted the man in front of her to ask the clerk if she could get her package onto the truck. I said I had also come early to make sure my package went out today.
The defiant customer turned toward me and exclaimed “are you blaming me for the delay?” Not wanting to end up as a post on social media that might go viral, I calmly said I wasn’t blaming anyone and just wanted to get my package out. The insolent customer muttered something to the clerk and stormed out of the store. The clerk thanked her for coming.
Two down. One to go.
The woman in front of me was returning a pair of shoes. Easy. I’d be waited on in no time. So, I thought. She originally purchased the shoes in a size 7 she told the clerk. Those were too small she continued, so she ordered them in an 8. They were shipped to her boyfriend’s house in another state, but her boyfriend broke up with her. She thought he loved her, but it turned out he has mental problems. He’s a mental health counselor, but in her opinion, he is the one who needs counseling. Anyway, she continued explaining to the UPS person behind the counter, she’s returning the size 8 because she thinks they are too big, but she’s not sure. They fit correctly at the toe, but her heels kept popping out. She wants to make sure that the return package shows her address and not the ex-boyfriend’s address.
She also wrote a note explaining the situation that she’s included in the package. Would he like to hear it? Well, she’ll read it to him to see what he thinks. When she was done, she asked him if he thought it sounded okay. He nodded.
At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was really awake, or I was having a bad dream.
The delivery driver returns. The shoe woman leaves. My turn. The clerk asks me if I’ve ever shipped from UPS before. I reply, “let’s pretend I have.” Not understanding my attempt at humor, I provided the information he needed, and he quickly completed the transaction.
More than one hour later, I finally leave the store.
Talking does not equal communication. Yet, many of us provide too many details, tend to over-explain, send long wordy emails and deliver hour long presentations that could have been presented in fifteen minutes. The results, especially at work, could be significant.
If you’re not fully attentive, you may miss an email with important information. If you’re too busy talking and not listening, you may botch an important deal. If you’re too long winded, you could blow a job interview because you’re rambling, instead of making key points. Besides, according to author Joseph McCormack, our brains can’t handle it.
McCormack says the human brain has the capacity to absorb 750 words per minute, but the average person can only speak 150 words per minute. That means an extra 600 words are floating around in there which gives us more time to tune out and get bored. So, if we’re chastising a worker, babbling to a clerk or taking too long to get to the point, chances are that person isn’t really hearing us.
What’s the fix?
In our programs, we challenge people to present information in different time increments. For example, if their presentation is thirty minutes, we ask them to deliver it in thirty, twenty and even ten minutes. The results are typically astounding. Speakers start honing in on what’s important, eliminate unnecessary details and command attention for longer periods of time.
Hit the Headline
Since attention spans start dwindling after ten seconds, it’s important to grab attention as soon as you speak. Like a great headline that draws you in, your first few words should do the same. Make your most important point as soon as you start talking.
There are many reasons people ramble including nerves, trying to impress and being unsure of how to draw others out. In business however, we observe the lack of preparation techniques. That’s not to say people don’t prepare. They do. But, instead of trying to cram ten pounds of information into a two-pound bag, learning how to effectively use message models will help even the most seasoned presenters condense information.
Back to the UPS office. Perhaps the real communication lesson learned is from the UPS clerk. Attentive, calm, resourceful and patient. He was also outwardly non-judgmental, which is difficult when people appear hostile. He showed us that it’s important to take all kinds of communication seriously, but not personally. He barely talked. He just listened, which signals he understood their frustration even if he couldn’t fix the problem to their satisfaction.