Delivering engaging presentations that stick


It is part of common lore that the fear of public speaking (technical term: glossophobia, for those who like Scrabble) ranks at the very top of surveys about human fears – indeed significantly higher than the prospect of errant reptiles, air travel and even death.

Added on 27 August 2014 by Angela Muir

Delivering an engaging presentation

Performance anxiety factoids aside, those working in finance often avoid making presentations unless absolutely necessary. This is often due to a limiting belief that the predominantly ‘dry’ numerical content will be boring, confusing or difficult for an audience to digest – particularly if that audience comprises non-finance managers. Communicating complex, data-heavy messages may not always be easy or exciting but, by applying these basic rules to your presentation planning, structure and delivery, the results can be significant. Here, Angela Muir offers some practical tips and techniques designed to help deliver more confident, dynamic and engaging presentations that are memorable for all the right reasons.

Prepare well

Even the most run-of-the-mill subject matter can be made interesting and enjoyable, however to really maximise effectiveness it must also be made meaningful for your audience. Start by asking yourself: what would people need to see / hear in order to fully engage with the purpose of this presentation? Identify the few key points that will provide the overall structural architecture then decide exactly how you will start and end – the two most memorable points in any presentation. Whilst it is obviously necessary to plan the detail around your key messages, learning a script ‘by rote’ merely sets you up for failure. Not only does it significantly increase stress levels (killing much-needed brain cells) but also consumes large quantities of mental energy with the effort of trying to remember what you planned to say. This generally results in the appearance and/or feeling of being disconnected from your audience.

Mind your body language

Recent research suggests we form strong subconscious impressions about the warmth and competence of an individual within the first seven seconds of engagement. When it comes to face to face presentations, effective communication relies on the degree of perceived congruence between the three major channels supplying the information, i.e. body language (55%), tone (38%) and words (7%). The percentages represent the relative ‘power’ of the channels if working against each other. For example, if a presenter is frowning and looking stern (via their body language) whilst genuinely inviting colleagues (via their words) to ask questions about part of their presentation, the overriding impression will be that the presenter is actually discouraging the audience from asking questions. At 55%, the message conveyed by the presenter’s body language is approximately eight times more ‘powerful’ than that of the words, at 7%. . The real reason for this may be nerves, a headache, mislaid spectacles or any number of other reasons; however if the result is contrary to the intention then it’s worth correcting. Not doing so can result in a sense of mistrust or rejection of the message or, perhaps worse still, the messenger.

The eyes have it

Good quality, frequent, varied eye contact is crucial for establishing and maintaining a connection with your audience. It also provides a valuable feedback mechanism for checking if you’re getting your point across. Avoid being drawn to looking at the bright light of the Power point screen, at the views out of the window or indeed down at your notes for long periods of time. Also if possible, avoid dropping your eye contact at end of sentences (to check notes etc) as it significantly lessens the impact of the point you’re attempting to land at precisely the point you’re attempting to land it.

Tell a compelling story

If you think back to a memorable presentation you have encountered, the likelihood is that the speaker shared personal anecdotes about people or issues that you could relate to in some way. As well as capturing the imagination, stories are much easier to remember than pure data and they provide an opportunity to reinforce the ways in which the presentation will be relevant and important for the audience. Frame your story clearly and concisely from the start – couple of jargon-free sentences are enough and will help you and the audience to stay on message. Alternatively an enthusiastic, emphatic or powerful opening statement or question can be very effective at setting the tone. Paint a picture in the minds of your audience by using descriptive language where appropriate. Support your points with quotes, examples, analogies etc and don’t forget the pauses – an audience needs time to digest what they’re receiving, particularly if it’s number-heavy.

Don’t overdo the data

Obviously it is likely that your presentation will include lots of numbers but it is important not just to dump large amounts of complex data and hope the audience will be able to interpret it. If using a spreadsheet to display figures, take the time to break it down by highlighting particular columns or sections. If appropriate, make sure you explain how to read the data in question and why you’ve focussed on it in particular, for example “this number is significant for you because…..” or “Applying this formula will enable you to predict…..” Be clear whether the numbers they’re looking at are good or bad so that people can make sense of the bigger picture. If it is bad news, build in time to explore possible solutions or outline tangible steps towards making a positive impact where possible.

Use Powerpoint sparingly

Keep slides to a minimum to avoid boredom creeping in. A good rule of thumb for calculating the number of slides you need is to work on an approximate average of 3 minutes per slide. Try not to exceed 5 lines or pieces of data per slide. This way the information on the screen acts as a concise aide memoir to talk around and avoids the trap of reading out everything on the screen.

Give your audience something to do

Discussion usually delivers richer and more meaningful returns than a lecture in terms of both memorability and likelihood of action. To stay fully engaged and attentive throughout the duration of a presentation, an audience needs to be encouraged to make a bit of an effort. It is a balance though – too little effort and people will be dropping off, too much and people will be too terrified to remember anything! Consider how you can best enable them to engage with the data at various points, but particularly in the middle of your presentation. Try posing questions for reflection / discussion, asking for a volunteer, inserting a mini Q&A session or brainstorming a live issue.

Get creative

People tend to remember pictures much better than numbers so by enhancing a point whether with a simple pie chart, some clip art or a graphic image you’ll be increasing the likelihood of retention considerably. Using a short video clip or handing round a relevant artefact can also be extremely effective in leaving a lasting impression. I once witnessed a pile of obviously fake but beautifully crafted £50 notes being used to highlight the economic impact of counterfeiting in a presentation given by the CFO of a bank to a new intake of graduates. Every member of the audience left the room engaging in animated conversation, clutching a detailed copy of his presentation in one hand and their ‘monetary souvenir’ in the other.

Be human

As the saying goes, it’s not the mistake that counts but how you deal with it. If you fluff your words or forget to say something, don’t let it throw you – only you know what you were planning to say anyway. Moments of imperfection are not only normal but can ease tension and enhance the levels of rapport you have built with your audience. People tend to be more likely to trust a presenter who is authentic and therefore fallible like they are, rather than someone who is absently robotic or perfectly slick.

Make fear your friend

Hokey as it sounds, deciding to embrace nerves from the start makes a big difference to your likelihood of success. Ignoring or supressing feelings of anxiety only serve to make your levels of anxiety significantly worse, both in that moment and in future presentations. Instead, choose to reframe the perceived ‘threat’ as a ‘challenge’ and – unlikely as it may sound – something to be enjoyed. After all, a bit of adrenaline is a positive thing, keeping us alert and focussed on the task at hand. Combining this with a heightened mental image of a relaxed, confident, successful ‘you’ sets up a virtuous psychological circle for both you and your audience. It is a fact that we notice our own mistakes and shortcomings much more than others do, particularly when ‘on stage’ (a paradox known to Psychologists as ‘The Spotlight Effect’), however research also confirms that people tend to consistently look much more confident than they actually feel when giving presentations. If new to presenting, build confidence and competence by repeatedly seeking out small opportunities for practice, ideally when the pressure is less or the risk is lower, for example offering to give a budgetary update at a departmental meeting. Ask a trusted colleague in advance to give you balanced, specific, behavioural feedback in relation to whatever skill you’re trying to master.

And the next time the sense of trepidation takes hold, take a deep breath and have a go at some of these tried and tested techniques. After all, as WWII broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow put it “the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation”.