Presentation Skills – Keeping the Blackberries at Bay

Question: How do you know if an engineer is an extrovert?

Answer: He looks at your shoes when he talks to you! I am allowed to say that, coming from a family of engineers, but it’s exactly to the point of this month’s column on the art of successful presentation design and delivery. At the heart of all successful presentations is a presenter who maintains proper eye-contact with members of the audience at all times.

Microsoft estimates that with over 300 million copies of PowerPoint installed world-wide, something like 3 million presentations are given every day. What they don’t say is that roughly 2.9 million of those are completely ineffective in achieving true knowledge transfer, what presentations are supposed to be about in the first place.

Knowledge transfer occurs, for the most part, when you are able to keep every member of the audience on the same page throughout the entire presentation. Unlike a written report, where the intended audience has the luxury of acquiring the embedded knowledge at his or her own pace, a presentation is actually an event where knowledge transfer is a rather ethereal event; information appears on the screen and is discussed for a fleeting moment in time, and then disappears.

To understand the relationship between an on-screen presentation and a written report (or worse – the presentation printed as a hand-out), think billboard versus magazine ad.

Look me in the eye

To keep the audience together, you first must start with a presentation that allows you to stay engaged with the audience, as opposed to either the screen or your notes. When you lose engagement in business presentations today, you invite audience members to wander, and that’s when the Blackberries blossom.

A key element to successful engagement involves learning proper eye contact, which requires you to hold contact with individuals for anywhere between 3-7 seconds, or until you have completed one thought. At which point, you pause and move to another person and do the same. Most presenters look at one person no more than ½ to 1 second at a time, if that, and then only when they’re not looking up at the ceiling or down at the floor. Or, with extroverted engineers, your shoes.

Modern presentation theory teaches a conversational approach to presenting, because that’s the way to maximize both comfort and trust between you and the audience. By practicing some fairly simple eye contact techniques, you can deliver to a group of 500 without ever feeling more anxiety than you would when discussing your job to friends around a lunch table. Most people find that hard to believe until they’ve received some training, but when you get it down, it’s rather powerful stuff!

People like to talk about themselves, about what they do, and about what they know. Your presentations should be like that. Use the screen to keep yourself in a pre-set direction, use it to list all the points you want to be sure to make, but deliver the presentation itself from the heart. People care somewhat about content, but what moves them to interest is hearing how you feel about it. To get across emotion, you want to be conversational.

Reading is NOT fundamental

Your job as presentation designer, therefore, is to create visuals that further this process rather than hamper it. Your slides need to contain only as much information as is necessary to start the conversation, and allow you to continue it while engaging individuals in the audience with your eyes. You are not there to read slides – the audience could do that quite easily for themselves, thank you. If you’re reading from the screen, you’re not engaging the audience. If your eyes are anywhere but in contact with a listener, the audience is actually dis-engaged.

The other problem with trying to deliver a presentation that contains lengthy streams of prose is that the people who came to hear you speak can read words about 40% faster than you can speak them – 250 words per minute for them vs. 150 wpm for you. It is the equivalent of having a minivan that waits until the last minute to pull out into the road in front of you, and then proceeds to drive 40% slower than the speed limit you were pleasantly exceeding.

When there is too much information on the screen, especially in the form of sentences, not only does the reading process rob the audience of their precious time, it also leads to breaking the essential bond between you and the audience that occurs only with constant eye contact. When you project up TMI, you are forced, by design, to turn your back to the audience as you read from the screen.

As practitioners of the conversational approach know, nothing works more to bind you with the audience than the proper use of eye contact, summed up with this rule:

If eyes aren’t locked then your jaw must be.

With a visual so complex that it forces you to read from the screen, this all-important component to proper presenting is lost, attention erodes, and the only contact your audience seeks is with people at the other end of their wireless devices.

Absorb, Align, and Address:

The solution, then, is to restrict the volume of information at each exposure to that which can be absorbed by both you and the audience in just a few seconds – 10 at the most. The proper procedure for achieving transfer of information from the screen to the audience involves a process we call Absorb, Align, and Address, but that is a the subject of an article all its own.