Q: Are you a presenter who likes to encourage audience engagement and discussion?
Q: Are you a presenter who worries about radio silence from your audience during Q&A?
Q: Are you a presenter who wants to know more about your audience when you’re in front of them?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then you are someone who needs to know your questions.
Presentation prep does not end with a well-organized deck, replete with clear points, well-contained information, some stories, and a call to action. Presentation prep also needs to include the questions you plan to ask your audience.
Here are 3 prompts for the types of questions you might need to prepare and know ahead of time:
Questions that encourage engagement, discussion and understanding.
Let’s say you are someone who does well with lots of audience engagement and active discussion during a presentation. How do you encourage that? Or let’s say you are someone who likes to stimulate discussion in order to get a feel for whether your audience is on the same page as you and understands/appreciates your points. How do you find out if they’re with you?
You’ll want to prepare ahead and develop some specific leading questions that get you to the discussion you want to conduct or to the understanding you’re hoping to achieve. Questions like “What do you think so far?” or “Tell me what you think the most compelling aspect of this proposal is so far?” or “Let me know who agrees or disagrees so far and why.”
Questions to prompt your audience during Q&A.
It’s time for Q&A. You announce to your audience, “We have about 10 minutes, I’m happy to take any questions you may have.” Radio silence. No hands, no voices. Now what do you do? Again, you will want to have prepared some questions ahead of time that might stimulate the kind of discussion you want to have.
This is where you might ask them, “Can someone tell me what their number one takeaway is from today’s talk?” (peer teachback!) or “Where are the holes in my proposal, what did I leave out?” (challenge me!) or “Is someone willing to volunteer and share their impression?” (potential exposure!)
Questions to help you get to know your audience.
Depending on the size of your audience, you can solicit input from them, either in the beginning or during your presentation, to get to know them better. You might know generally what they’re interested in, but there’s nothing like asking them on the spot, that day, what’s on their minds. Questions that elicit their personal interest or bias regarding your topic can be very helpful as you work through your material. The answers could well give you insights into things you should avoid or include.
Think about stating your topic and then asking the audience what it is about your topic that they would want you to be sure to cover. Or ask for a show of hands when you want to find out what proportion of the audience has had an experience you’re about to describe. Ask them to share their experience. Find out, on a more granular level, what they’re interested in regarding your topic.
It’s all risky. Knowing, not knowing. Asking, not asking. Put yourself out there, ask with sincerity and curiosity and then adapt/adjust accordingly. Your audience can be a presentation helper, not just a receptacle for your words.
Q: What’s up with long, tedious presentations?
A: Time’s up.
Be brief, people! Break away from the pack mentality of proving your worth with your word count and slide count, or the arbitrary convention of filling your allotted time. Leave your audiences wanting more!
No matter how much time you think you have, plan on less (I promise, no one will complain if you finish talking earlier than expected). When conference planners invite you to speak for an hour, don’t. They only do that because it’s easier to book eight speakers per day than 16. No audience can really hang on for an hour; in fact, we know that adults can only digest material for a maximum of 20 minutes. Even when the last 15 minutes are reserved for Q&A, those first 45 minutes are likely too long unless you are able to break up the time with Q&A throughout, videos, group discussions and exercises, or appealing/entertaining visuals.
Adult audiences also need a stimulus change to stay engaged. Without it, they zone out periodically. I recently led a group of female executives who met monthly to practice making different types of speeches and presentations, and they all admitted to zoning out at least once during each other’s talks, which, by the way, were capped at three minutes!
Audience attention is sharpest at the beginning and the end of a speech or presentation, so that makes openings and closings vitally important. In the middle, where the meat is, is where the audience zones out. The point is that it matters how you organize your material and guide your audience. And if it’s absolutely necessary to fill an hour-long time slot, be aware of about a 15-20 minute attention span limit. Break up the talk into sections, and keep each of those as brief as possible. Switch things up at 15-20 minute intervals as a way to restart the attention span clock: turn on the PowerPoint, turn it off, solicit Q&A at the end of each section, draw or write on a white board, show a video. Choreograph the time with your audience’s experience and attention spans in mind.
It’s all about them, so make some judgment calls about what will best suit your audience, including the length and structure of your presentation.
(Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World)
You’re not special. But don’t worry, I’m not special either.
Why do I say that? Because no matter what we do – how well we prepare or how engaging we are – we will lose our audience at one point or another during our presentation. It’s just not realistic to assume that everyone in the audience will be able to hang on for every word, every slide, or even every key point of a talk.
People check out. It’s a fact. And it’s not (necessarily) your fault. It’s the ebb and flow of the human attention span and the unavoidable distractions – both tangible (messages coming through on devices) and intangible (daydreaming, exhaustion, or randomly occurring thoughts) – that are to blame.
No matter how diligently you prepare or rehearse, it’s still not an insurance policy against audience members checking out during your presentation. As much as you plan a presentation for audiences to hear your every word, they won’t. They’ll drift off. You’re not special, and neither am I. We have to work to grab and hold their attention and we have to plan for their lapses in attention.
So, how do we do that? Below are 3 ways you can provide a helping hand to your audience members:
Unless your topic or audience call for a deep, thorough download, be as succinct as possible. Every time. In fact, I would advise you to think about whether people are in the room on their own free will (in which case you have some leeway) or out of obligation (in which case brevity is urgent). This will help you gauge how much time and detail you will use, and it will be better suited to your audience.
Know, don’t guess, how long your presentation is. Rehearse a few times and time yourself. This way, you’ll know if you need to make adjustments or cut some material. You’ll also be able to let your audience know what they’re in for from the start. If you can tell them how long your talk is, they’ll be better able to calibrate their own attention span – e.g. “oh, this is only 20 minutes? I can hang on for 20 minutes.”
On your slides and as you are speaking, give your audience cues and clues as to where you are in your talk. Trust me, they need this. (You’ve needed it, haven’t you? Think about your own experiences sitting through presentations … I’m guessing there are at least a few instances when you would have liked some cues or clues!) Guide them.
Visually, you can help your audience by including a progress bar in your slides, so that your audience can track where you are in your presentation. Or, if you have a small deck, you can include a countdown – e.g. 1 of 12, 2 of 12, etc. Or, if you have, let’s say, three main sections that you told your audience you would be covering, you can let them know where you are by including the name or keyword for each section in the lower right corner. In fact, all of these visual cues are best situated in the lower right corner of your slides.
Verbally, you can keep your audience tracking by narrating where you are and what you’re doing. Some examples of this include: telling the audience how long your talk will be, letting them know when you’re digressing to share a relevant story, letting them know when the story is over and you’re returning to your point, alerting them whenever you’re transitioning from one section of your presentation to another, and (everyone’s favorite) announcing the conclusion.
Use the pregnant pause. Stop and stand in the middle of the stage. Animate or “act out” what you’re talking about. For example, if you say the number 4, hold up 4 fingers. Or if you say, “fast forward a few years,” roll your forearms, one over the other, to show motion. Or if you’re talking about something meaningful, touch your heart.
If “the show” moves along and there’s more to look at than just your visuals, people might hang in there with you better and longer. Before you resist and say I can’t do that, let me offer this: What might feel like theatrics to you will merely look like good delivery energy to your audience.
In a perfect world, speakers would be efficient enough with their words that audiences would be able to hang on every one of them. But as we all know, that’s not the case. Even the most efficient speakers and the best audiences have lapses – no matter how good or how special the speakers are! The best you can do to hold onto your audience’s attention is to take them by the hand and guide them through your presentation. The rest is up to them.
Last week, I was strolling the streets of Manhattan, killing time, when I walked by one of those nice stationery stores that sells not only paper, but beautiful cards, planners, and novelty items. I was thinking it was almost time for a 2019 calendar (yes, I still love a paper calendar!) and so I went in to browse.
The first thing I spotted, on a display table that sat front-and-center, was a stack of small black boxes that said “Stop Talking” on the front. I couldn’t imagine what they were. Luckily, one of the boxes was already opened and so I got a look – inside were 50 or so ivory-colored cards that also said “Stop Talking” in black ink.
This is when my head-scratching began. So, for $9.95, I could have 50 of these little cards to hand out to over-talkers? When would I use these and how? Were these for chatty friends who, over coffee, start answering ‘what’s new?’ and then never come up for air? Were these for those meeting participants who talk for the sake of hearing themselves talk? Were these meant to be surreptitiously slipped onto the desks of neighboring cubicle dwellers who talk too much and too loudly?
My imagination ran wild. And then it stopped. I decided these little “Stop Talking” cards were for any and all of the above … and probably more. We live in a world of talkers, and clearly someone invented this novelty item on the theory that there would be plenty of consumers who would find these “calling cards” amusing and/or useful.
What does this say, then, about how we’re doing with two-way communication? Can you imagine a similar offering of 50 “Stop Listening” cards? I can’t. The problem is that the talking side of the communication see-saw is always over-weighted, and the listening side is under-weighted. Anecdotally, I know this to be the case because I often get asked if I can coach people to be more succinct and to listen better, sometimes teams of people. It’s quite common that people talk more than others can bear, and it’s universally challenging among individuals and groups alike.
For those who are nodding in agreement while reading so far, here are 5 quick-tip reminders about listening versus talking that you can use as refreshers for yourself or that you can share with your favorite over-talker(s):
- Think about your audience: Is this someone/a group you should be listening to more (boss or client) or talking to more? Is there really anyone you should be talking to more than you should be listening to? Balance your talking with listening.
- Train your brain to go into neutral and simply be present and listen. Literally, stop your brain for a minute. Focus. Hear. Process. Listen, stop talking.
- Listen for the purpose of empathizing and relating rather than listening for the purpose of formulating a response. You might not need to formulate a unique response at all, you might just need to reiterate/reinforce/validate what you heard. Slow down. Listen, stop talking.
- Listen for the purpose of learning, gaining insight or gathering intelligence. Listening can produce some very valuable material you can use to your advantage later on. If you’re talking, you’re not learning. Listen, stop talking.
- Listen intently, actively and sincerely. Be that person. So that when you want to talk and be influential, you will surely be given your due. Listen for real, so you when you need to talk, others will listen.
Those “Stop Talking” cards stopped me dead in my tracks and got me thinking. I’m not sure I’d have the gumption to hand them out, but I considered it. More than that, they prompted me to think about communication as a two-way transaction that breaks down when one way gets more traction and time than the other. The fix is simple, though: stop talking so much, start listening more!
It doesn’t take much to be a good leader-communicator. Perfection may be elusive, but being good enough to earn the admiration of your team are well within reach. Adherence to a few core principles takes care of most situations.
In my book Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, I walk readers through the philosophy behind, and application of, these 5 principles: Audience-centricity, Transparency, Graciousness, Brevity, and Preparedness.
“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave.
The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”
This is a daunting thought for overachievers or anyone who strives to do their best at the front of the room!
Or not? You might be one of those people who is so relieved to be done with your talk and still have a pulse that you don’t bother to reflect on any of the three, and especially not on the speech you wish you gave.
But you should.
That third one – the speech you wish you gave – is the one that’s most valuable. To you. Your audience is likely fine. The one you gave is the one you practiced, augmented by shots of adrenaline and the energy (or lack thereof) in the room.
It’s the one you wish you gave, though, that is loaded with wisdom for your next turn at the podium. Don’t let 24 hours pass before you give it some thought and, instead of sighing and saying oh well, make some ‘notes to self’:
Did I open well and grab their attention right away? Would I open differently the next time?
Was every section relevant?
What about the length? Too long/too short?
Did I stray into too much detail in one section while the other sections were more succinct?
Did their questions reveal an interest that was different from the angle I prepared?
What did I wish I had included/excluded?
What are three things I could do to make this content more memorable?
Did I move around and use the floor, or did I stand in one place the whole time?
Did I look at my slides too much (or worse, read them)?
Did my voice have energy, convey passion or dedication to the material?
What about my eye contact in the room? Is that something I could have done better?
Was I able to move forward, toward the audience, giving them the sense that I wanted to be there?
Did I talk too fast? Should I have incorporated some pauses where the audience needed to digest the material?
Making ‘notes to self’ immediately after a talk is one of the simplest ways to help yourself improve as a speaker. Not only are you your own harshest critic, but because you are the source of your own feedback, you’ll understand it completely and you’ll be more motivated to correct it the next time around. The only tricky part is remembering to refer to your notes before you prepare to speak again.
Communicating effectively is not rocket science (maybe this is why rocket scientists are not known to be great communicators?). It’s rarely considered something that’s terribly complicated or difficult, yet I have spent the better part of a decade and a half “dumbing it down” so that professionals of all types can be more clear, more concise, and more successful at getting their points across to other busy (read: busy-minded) people.
The reality is, I’m not actually making it dumber, I’m making it simpler. Less work. Less time. Easier for the speaker (to remember, deliver). Easier for the audience (to pay attention, retain). And the simpler I make it, the more accessible it is to everyone regardless of their level in an organization, and therefore the more widely utilized it is.
On more than a few occasions in the past few months, when I’ve been invited to share my simple framework for communicating effectively, the CEO has been in the room with his or her team for the session. My approach and the SmartMouth methodology have been met with sighs of relief and exclamations of “this is what I have been trying to tell all of you!” In one case, I was met with what could only be described as excitement and joy – clearly, this executive has spent a good bit of time being frustrated with his team’s communication skills.
Since there are a lot of rocket scientists out there – i.e. a lot of smart people with a lot of dense technical knowledge in a variety of fields – I want to share my top 3 pieces of advice for any communicator. You could be a keynote speaker or you could be a participant in a meeting. It doesn’t matter. These 3 are game changers.
1. TMI is the #1 killer.
If I could fix only one thing about how people speak or present, I would attack the “too-much-information syndrome.” In fact, I do attack it, and pretty regularly. Here are some root causes of the problem, see if they sound familiar: presenters who feel the need to prove how smart they are, presenters who love their detail because it fascinates them, presenters who don’t (or can’t?) prioritize their brain dumps, thereby leaving it to their audiences to figure out what’s important.
Information is only valuable and, arguably, relevant when it supports a point. So identify your point first and then pick the information that best supports it (a point is a statement that captures significance or value as a main thought or idea does, or one that summarizes a collection of information). The amount and type of information a speaker chooses to use should be based on the audience – their appetite, their needs/interests, their level of sophistication – not based on what floats the speaker’s boat. If you are sitting with a pile of information that you need to present, ask yourself how you might capture the importance or benefit of all that detail in once sentence and deliver that first, followed by the info.
Finally, less is more. If you can eliminate some information, even better!
2. Serve dessert first.
Life is short, and so are attention spans. Serve dessert, or the point, first. Everything else, like information, is a side dish. Audiences don’t have endless attention to give you, and there are lots of distractions in any given room (some, like devices, give instant gratification when you don’t!). Audiences need a reason, and some context, to hang in there with you.
You can serve dessert first in two ways: First, think about telling your audience upfront what you want them to think, know, do or feel by the end of your talk. And when I say upfront, I mean it’s okay to make this one of your first few sentences – while audience attention is still fresh and on you. You literally can spoon-feed them the impression you hope they’ll take away or the action you hope they’ll take when they leave the room. Second, per the above section on TMI, don’t deliver a truckload of information and then serve up the conclusion; instead, figure out what your conclusion or point is, deliver that first, and then unload your information.
3. It’s not all about you, it’s about them.
Have empathy! For your audience, that is. Consider the experience you are about to give an audience based on your own experiences. You know what it’s like to sit through a presentation or a talk. You know how often you check out, what you like/don’t like when someone else is at the front of the room, or what visuals you find helpful or enjoyable. Use your own experiences to inform the kind of experience you want to give your audience(s).
No matter how much you love your topic, or no matter how urgent it is that you share your content, think about them – who they are, what they really care about, where they are on the learning curve of your topic, why they’re in the room, and how you might impress them – and then adjust your content accordingly. Their needs and interests are more important than yours. I always say, there’s an unspoken agreement between speaker and audience that, in exchange for their time and attention, you will give them something useful or valuable – which you can determine based on the who, what, where, why and how listed above.
Putting these 3 pieces of advice into practice may take some time, but even just the awareness will help you make some advances in your communication skills and style.
It’s funny when people ask what they should do to emphasize something in their speech or presentation. Seems like, depending on what it is they want to emphasize, they would know best. After all, it’s part of their content, it means something special to them, and it’s their goal or intention to call it out.
Even though I’m sometimes tempted to snark back, “well, how would YOU LIKE to emphasize it,” I usually offer a menu of options. Not surprisingly, the menu items all have a common ingredient: supersizing. Go big or go home. Whatever they choose to use, it’s got to be bigger, more, louder, better, stronger, or different.
Here are four supersizing options for you to consider using the next time you really want the room to hear it, get it, remember it:
Words. Choose special or unexpected words. Use a killer metaphor. Construct an especially brief sentence. Repeat the words. Repeat the words again. Make a rhyme. Use call and response with your audience.
Energy. Change the energy in your voice or your body. Get louder for a few seconds. Animate with your hands. Move across the floor or stage. Stop and stand still if you’ve been moving. Get on your toes. Move as close to the audience as you can. Throw some theatrics in (note: what feels “theatrical” to you will simply seem “energetic” to the audience).
Pauses. Create a few seconds of anticipation prior to what you want to emphasize. Leave a few seconds for marination following what you want to emphasize. Give your pause a drumroll – for example, “I’m going to pause here because what I have to say next is critical …”. Take a measured pause in. between. each. word. of. the. sentence. you are emphasizing.
Labels. Slap labels on your emphasized content. For example, “If there’s one thing I want you to remember,” “I cannot emphasize enough,” “This cannot be overstated.” Labels warn and wake. They guide and grab.
Help your audience out. Even the best of the best – those audience members who are paying attention – may not catch something you’re trying to emphasize unless you supersize it somehow. Audiences don’t know what you want them to know or remember unless you tell them!
Meetings are pure communication opportunities – people speak, people listen, people discuss, people ask and people answer. If you’re not going to be contributing to or benefiting from one of those communication opportunities, then maybe the meeting is not for you.
Calling or attending a meeting should be decided on whether or how well it will enhance organizational effectiveness and individual or collective productivity. At best, good meetings represent only half of all meetings. And even if it’s a “good” meeting, 91% of meeting attendees across the country say they daydream and 73% do other work.
With those data in mind, one can hardly make a case for maintaining the status quo. So let’s think about “coloring outside the lines” of one of the most enduring old-school communication practices in the business world and ask ourselves these basic questions before calling or attending a meeting:
If I’m the meeting leader …
- Am I holding the meeting because it’s our regular time and not because we actually have a need to meet? If that’s the case, can I cut it super short – maybe only 5 minutes of “good and welfare” or a “share” of some kind – and then let people get back to their work?
- Am I prepared with the meeting’s purpose, agenda, time limits and relevant participants? If not, should I reschedule and redefine the parameters rather than winging it and potentially wasting the time of a lot other busy people?
If I’m an attendee …
- Do I actually need to attend this meeting? In other words, will it be helpful/meaningful if I can contribute something or will it be helpful/meaningful if I can learn something? Can I decline to attend without repercussion?
- Once there and realizing it’s not a relevant meeting for me, do I need to stay? Do I stay simply to avoid appearing impolite? Or can I duck out, get work done, and explain/excuse myself later?
The meeting is a behemoth left over from the 20th century business culture. While we’ve changed so much about how we work and collaborate in the 21st century, it’s kind of amazing that meeting protocols have not changed very much at all. We gather in groups and measure the communication in quantity, not quality.
Not surprisingly, companies like Amazon are bucking the status quo and giving us some great ideas and examples for improving meeting culture. So my challenge to you is this: if Jeff Bezos can color outside the lines – in the interest of effectiveness and productivity – then maybe you should too!
Communication is the currency of success. No one succeeds alone; every single one of us needs to communicate in order to get things done, achieve goals, and succeed.
Good communication skills are therefore critical to organizational effectiveness and personal success. Yet not enough organizations embrace excellence in communication as a value or a performance imperative.
This is my personal crusade. Excellence in communication doesn’t just happen, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured by organizations and the people who lead them.
While the direct ROI of excellence in communication may not be easily measurable, it would be hard to argue that strong communication skills don’t yield better results in selling, negotiating, client and customer service, employee relations, you name it.
Whether anecdotally or through research, I have become almost painfully aware that there are three elements that make a pretty compelling case for looking more closely at how communication impacts your organization:
1. Performance Issue. Over the past couple of years, I have heard from clients that communication skills consistently emerge as the #1 area of need in performance reviews. In fact, it’s become pretty standard for me, that whenever I meet an HR person, I now ask what tops their list of performance needs, and communications skills are always at or near the top.
2. Career Maker/Breaker. I’ve also observed that communication skills are seen as something that can make or break careers – even by organizations that don’t explicitly embrace good communication skills as a performance imperative.
Anecdotally, I’ve often been hired to coach high-level executives who are either long-winded, short-tempered or not inspiring enough. These are people in the C-Suite who might be flailing a little bit or need a boost; they may be technically competent but communication-challenged. Or I’ve worked with executives who have C-Suite potential but their ability to communicate clearly and influence with confidence is just not there yet.
Straight out of recent headlines, a University President just lost her job in large part due to her poor communication skills. Ironically, however, she is keeping her faculty post in – wait for it – the School of Communication Studies. Nonetheless, she was cited in her termination letter for failures to listen and to communicate well, whether written or oral.
There’s also research that shows how recruiters and employers view and value communication skills, which impacts people’s careers:
According to a 2014 survey of 565 global employers by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the business school entrance test, corporate recruiters ranked communication skills ahead of teamwork, technical knowledge and leadership when assessing MBA graduates for mid-level jobs. They rated communication skills ahead of managerial ability by a two-to-one margin.
Also in 2014, in an online survey of 845 North American business executives, respondents identified leadership and effective communication as the two most important management competencies – as well as the two most in need of improvement!
3. Complaint. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to care about communications lies in one of the biggest complaints in the business world – and one of the biggest impacts on organizational effectiveness – which is long, boring, tedious meetings and presentations.
It is estimated that there are 25 million meetings in the U.S. per day, 30 million PowerPoint presentations per day, and that more than $37 billion per year is spent on unproductive meetings. Yikes!
C-Suite executives are estimated to spend 85% of their time with other people – largely in meetings. Upper management spends 50% of their time in meetings. And middle management spends 35% of their time in meetings.
Why do I pick on meetings and presentations? Because they are the most common and most pure vehicles for business communication. They’re supposed to be productive, but our experiences tell us otherwise.
Communicating is not something people just do, like breathing. When performance and success are on the line, it needs to be thoughtful and deliberate. You exchange this valuable currency a lot, you communicate all the time, so embrace its importance and get it right. Your organization’s effectiveness and your success depend on it!