In Western civilization, the first transition from oral to written communication took place in ancient Greece. Still, “ancient Greece was in many ways an oral society in which the written work took second place to the spoken,” wrote scholar Rosalind Thomas in the book Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece. Most Greek literature was meant to be spoken or sung, politics were conducted orally and written legal documents weren’t considered adequate proof on their own until the middle of the fourth century B.C.
Prior to this point in history, most cultures passed down their rituals, values, spiritual beliefs and knowledge through oral stories. Millennia later, oral stories remain a critical part of culture. Even in the world of business, the most important elements of many stories — interaction with the audience, imagery and repetition of key themes — dominate modern presentations and speeches.
A survey from cloud-based presentation product developer Prezi found that 70 percent of employed Americans who give presentations agree that presentation skills are critical for career success. Author Carmine Gallo, writing for Forbes, believes the remaining 30 percent don’t yet realize how important presentation skills are.
Many professionals are afraid to give presentations, and this fear can be costly. Twenty percent of respondents in the Prezi survey said they’d rather pretend to be sick than give a presentation, and a Microsoft survey found that oral and written communication were the top skills listed in postings for high-growth, high-paying jobs.
A memorable presentation can do wonders for your career, whether it’s a keynote speech or a lesson for your co-workers. It doesn’t have to be daunting or complicated.
Experts agree that stories are the crucial factor to compelling presentations. Forbes highlights Steve Jobs’ popular commencement address at Stanford University. Jobs opened his speech by explaining he was going to tell the audience “just three stories.” In the Harvard Business Review, TED curator Chris Anderson writes about a “painfully shy” 12-year-old Kenyan boy, Richard Turere, who could hardly speak English. When Anderson and his colleagues learned that Turere invented a fence that kept lions from attacking villages in Nairobi, they helped him to develop a TED Talk because his story was so fascinating.
Even for tedious topics, presentations don’t have to be confined to dry slides of bulleted lists. Weave facts and ideas together to create a story. Frame it all into a beginning, middle and end “that’s easy to digest, remember, and retell,” says Nancy Duarte, CEO of a company that assists people in leadership positions with their presentations. Duarte recommends looking at “what is” and “what could be” for every phase of the story, taking a pain point and introducing a solution.
Conceptualize your topic to develop what Anderson calls a “detective story.” Present problems and describe the search for a solution. Along the way, you can use data to maintain the informative nature of your presentation. Because it’s in the form of a story, anecdotes and illustrations will keep the audience’s attention and produce something memorable.
“If you’ve lived a story, you can tell it from memory and with genuine feeling,” suggests Jane Praeger in Forbes, founder of a New York City presentation coaching firm. “And stories stick in people’s minds. When you tell people a story, it arouses their emotions and releases dopamine in their brains, which makes that content sticky. In other words, if you make people feel what you are talking about, they won’t forget it.”
Research demonstrates that a slow speech rate has a calming effect on others, and it can actually deepen people’s respect for you. Moreover, Psychology Today reports that it increases the ability for listeners to comprehend what you’re saying.
If you speak slowly, you’ll see other benefits. Your articulation improves and eliminates mistakes you might make when speaking too quickly. You appear more confident and in control. You’re forced to become more selective with your words, and you’re less likely to babble.
At times, you’ll want to vary your speech rate. Just like a conversation, you might speed up when talking about something exciting or covering details of an anecdote. But you’ll generally want to make sure you maintain a slower rate of speech as well as a warm and natural tone to retain that conversational feel.
Nevertheless, body language is meaningful, and it all revolves around comfort. Anderson says that the biggest mistake in this area is people moving their bodies too much, such as swaying from side to side or shifting their weight from one leg to the other. That can be distracting to the audience. Instead, simply stay still — unless you feel comfortable walking — and rely on hand gestures as needed for emphasis. If you appear comfortable and relaxed, your audience will be more at ease.
Anderson thinks that making eye contact is the most important physical act during the presentation. He and Jane Praeger recommend finding friendly faces in the crowd and speaking to them. “If you’re making eye contact with a friendly person in quadrant one, everyone to their left will think that you’re talking to them,” Praeger says. “Then do the same thing in quadrant two. You want to see your talk as a series of conversations with different people throughout the room.”
Bad slides are a fixture of bad presentations. “They forget that PowerPoint or Keynote are tools designed to augment their presentation not be their presentation,” author Michael Hyatt says. You should not simply be reading from a list of bullet points.
Keep each slide simple and use it to strengthen your presentation. Carmine Gallo gives an example of how Apple CEO Tim Cook used slides well to convey how Apple registered 6 million developers in 71 seconds. Instead of two stats on one slide, Cook had two slides for each number — one for “6 million” and one for “71 seconds” with “Sold Out” in red. “Make slides that reinforce words, not repeat them,” author and PowerPoint expert Seth Godin says.
According to Hyatt, some of the most effective slides are just a few words long. “The more words you use, the less readable they become,” Hyatt says. Aim for at least 30-point type and try not to exceed a couple of sentences.
Distribute a handout after you’re finished. If you do this before the presentation, your audience is filled in on any surprises or drama built into your presentation. Also, a handout can become a distraction if the audience reads ahead. Your handout should list the main points, ideas and data from your presentation — not consist of a printout of your slides.
The cliché can be true: Practice makes perfect. For example, Apple takes up to 250 hours to prepare for a 20-minute demo and product launch, including the storyline, testing and rehearsals. This amount of practice helps Apple’s speakers create a seamless, top-notch presentation.
Apple may be an extreme example for common presentations in your workplace, but a little bit of extra practice can help smooth rough edges in any environment. For larger presentations and speeches, just five or 10 extra hours of practice can help you feel more comfortable and less anxious.
Nevertheless, remember that being nervous is natural. “In general, people worry too much about nervousness,” Chris Anderson says. “Nerves are not a disaster. The audience expects you to be nervous. It’s a natural body response that can actually improve your performance: It gives you energy to perform and keeps your mind sharp.”
The Path to Learning More About Effective Presentations
As you work on your presentations skills, you can enhance your role as a leader on your team and in your company. Developing these skills can advance your career and lead to new opportunities. At Alvernia University, you can earn an online MBA that provides a solid foundation in soft skills, as well as knowledge in areas such as leadership, finance, marketing and accounting. With an MBA from Alvernia, graduates have been able to move into leadership positions, start their own businesses and pursue other goals in numerous industries.