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Here’s my vision of hell.

I’m sitting through a presentation with 50 slides in it. Actually, make it 80 slides. I’m pinching myself to stay awake. It ticks all the boxes. Lots of bullet points? Tick. Sub-bullet points? Tick. Font size 12? Tick. No discernable pattern or storyline? Tick. Monotone delivery? Tick. Clip Art? Tick. Distracting animation? Tick. No possibility for audience interaction? Tick. Presenter faced back to the audience like some Tridentine priest? Tick. I apologise if you feel sick now.

It should be legislated against. Motivational speaker Jay H. Lehr has an answer: “Failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning”. (He has many other things to say about presentations here)

There is no law that says that presentations must be boring, but somehow many of us have been sucked into this morass of bad PowerPoint. I am as guilty as anyone, having inflicted the most awful presentation on college students in Dublin some years back. Complex consultancy diagrams, impenetrable business jargon, rambling storyline, the lot. Some of the students fell asleep in front of me. It was terrible. I still shudder to think about it.

I learned from the experience. I had no choice. I now use a fairly simple technique that seems to work, so here goes..

First of all, I start by taking everything away. I delete everything from the page – titles, bullet points, page numbers, everything. When I am left with a completely blank page, I think about what I want to say and then I see if I can summarise it in as few words as possible.

Then, I think about a simple picture or a photo (not clip art, please, please not clip art) that conveys this message. And that’s pretty much the essence of it – a picture and a few words. There are some great shareable pictures available on the Internet via photo sharing sites.

I find that if I give the audience strong visual cues that reinforce my message, then it helps to make the presentations more interesting and memorable. It really is that simple.

The thing about presentations is that they are not meant to be used as a crutch. They are not meant to help the presenter remember his lines. Instead, they are meant to enhance and clarify the messages that the speaker wants to convey. They can also help add variety and leave the audience with an image they are unlikely to forget quickly. Presentation slides are there for the benefit of the people you are speaking to, not you.

That’s the basic principle. You can elaborate from there as much as you want. You can use video, graphics, appropriate animation, or physical props to emphasise your points. You can even turn off the presentation at times during your talk to allow the audience interact with you alone. There’s no law that says that you must be a slave to slideware.

You are limited only by your imagination by what you can do. Just don’t make it boring. Some of the audience members might be packing stones.

I’ve just posted this article to some local newspapers as part of my job as PRO for our local Toastmasters club, but I thought I would post it here also, as it’s a subject that interests me greatly. Please let me know what you think. Would you have anything to add?

One of the most important life skills is the ability to start and hold a conversation with new people. Conversation is an art that requires tact, understanding and self-knowledge.

When starting out on a conversation with strangers it usually works to think small. Small-talk on topics such as the weather, the immediate surroundings, a recent news or sporting event or a pleasant comment about what the other person is wearing can be a very effective way of beginning a dialogue between two people. Small talk is particularly good for two reasons – it will help you both start from a common, neutral position and it will also give you an indication if the other person is interested in a conversation at all. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not want to talk and that’s OK. A flat response to an innocuous topic is signal enough to end the conversation and move on.

Things that get most people talking are topics to do with themselves. You can use the FORE technique – Family, Occupation, Recreation and Education. How are the kids doing? What project are you working on? What sports are you interested in? Where did you go to school? All these questions may open doors to the other person’s life, making it easy for them to talk with ease.

A useful approach in conversations is to use open ended questions. Questions starting with “Did”, “Are”, “Can” or “Is” are fine in a court of law, but might not move the conversation forward as they may only elicit “yes” and “no” responses. Instead, you should ask open questions that require the other person to elaborate. “What”, “How”, “When” and “Why” type questions are often much more appropriate if you want to get a conversation moving.

When conversing with strangers it is good practice to keep the conversation positive and to avoid negativity as much as possible. Criticism or sarcasm, whether direct or implied, can have an immediate effect of putting others on the defensive and closing them down. If your aim is to get the other person talking, but you disagree with what they have just said, you are often better off staying quiet or perhaps adding a different perspective, than flat out contradicting them.

Finally and most importantly, you need to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Repeating, paraphrasing, building on what the other person has said or adding an anecdote or a bit of humour helps to make people feel at ease and keep the conversation flowing.

You might note from this article that the art of a good conversationalist is to focus on the interests, opinions and experiences of the other person, not you. People will often leave with a good impression of you when they feel they have been truly listened to and not subjected to a monologue about your thoughts and attitudes. Economy can sometimes be the key to a successful conversation.

My first presentation at an academic conference is over. I think I did a good job of it. The audience were clearly engaged throughout my presentation and I got a lot of relevant questions at the end.

I tried my best to do as good a job of it as I could. I avoided bullet points as much as possible. I added many relevant photos throughout the presentation. I started my commentary with a strong “wake up” statement which was well memorised in advance. I positioned myself outside the lectern and into the audience, using eye-contact to connect with them. I used a narrative style to tell a story. I relied heavily on my passion and interest in the subject to bring it alive, and I brought the story to a close by relating it in some way to how I started my presentation. It helped that my subject rocked!

If there were any areas to work on, I would love to interject a little bit more humour into my presentation style. It’s a fantastic tool that really helps to build up a rapport with your audience. Those to whom it comes naturally have a precious gift that shouldn’t be belittled. I also had some technology issues (porting my presentation from a Mac to a PC was much trickier than expected. However it was all resolved before the presentation. 

My Toastmasters training and my keen interest in blogs such as Presentation Zen really came to the fore today.

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