No matter the type of presentation, the purpose of public speakers and presenters is clear. Their role is to share, educate, and inform an audience about the selected topic. Well before one steps onto stage, some level of preparation is necessary. There’s many mechanical steps speakers take to prepare for an upcoming presentation, but what are the organic bits that make a presentation feel effortless?
Every speaker surely has their own secrets, but here’s a look into my process as someone who delivers countless software-focused presentations. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of attending a software-focused presentation — you know how excruciating such presentations can be. What I often experience is such presentations tend to be tell assertive. The substance of such presentations is all about telling the unsuspecting audience something — not taking them on a journey, or telling them a story.
The Social Handshake
We as humans are social creatures. If you think back to that mechanical presentation you’ve inevitably attended at some point. Chances are, that presentation forgot this simple lesson in human behavior. Delivering a great presentation isn’t about checking boxes, it’s about connecting with an audience.
What’s the best way to connect with an audience?
The answer to that is strikingly simple. It’s the same way you connect with anyone in daily conversation. Though your purpose is to discuss business, chances are your conversations with colleagues do not immediately shift to that business. Instead, most conversations begin with a social handshake of sorts. It could be asking what someone did last weekend, or how their child’s baseball team is doing this season.
How your colleague answers those questions is immaterial to the business portion of your conversation, but is arguably the most important part of it. The social handshake tends to reduce tension between people, build rapport, and establish an emotional trust between individuals. Such emotional appeals are critical in everyday conversation, shouldn’t they also be important in the presentations you deliver?
Find a Story to Share
Though this seems theoretically reasonable, there’s many reasons one might argue make this impractical at best. Without the interactive nature of everyday conversation, it’s not possible to make such a connection when the opportunity for interaction is limited at best.
Further limiting me is the fact most of the presentations I deliver focus on a piece of engineering design software. As you might imagine, these products tend to have structured and very linear processes associated with them. While this is essential for the function of the tool, it doesn’t make connecting with an audience any easier.
The secret way I build a social handshake into my presentations rests in the way I look for a story to tell around even the most mundane, technically laden topics. It’s incredibly difficult to connect with an audience unless you’re telling a story. Even if you somehow manage to connect with your audience, being memorable without telling a story is practically impossible.
Make your Story Relatable
Finding a story to tell is not always easy. Okay, it’s never easy. What I’ve learned to do is think back to an earlier time in my career that relates to the topic I’m working to build a presentation around.
This process usually starts with me writing ideas onto a piece of scratch paper. What I’m looking for are 2–3 themes I can tell a first-hand story around that will also relate to my audience. If my topic is document management software, I might tell a story of a project that came back to life after being dormant for a decade, and that we had just two weeks to round up all of our data and submit the project.
Even if no one in the audience has ever experienced that particular crisis, it’s an experience nearly everyone can relate to. It’s also important to notice the synopsis of my story had nothing to do about the piece of software I was about to present. Instead, the story helps me begin framing a simple three-act structure. More specifically, it establishes the inciting incident (Act One), and the basic confrontation (Act Two). That paves the way for the resolution (Act Three) where I will share how my software product can save the day.
Why a Three-Act Narrative?
Apart from establishing the framework of a three-act story, the other important thing this approach accomplishes is tell my audience what I’m not going to talk about. Although I might need to directly state what I’m not going to discuss during a presentation when using a more common tell assertive presentation, the story approach communicates this important element through universal social norms.
Put another way, when you frame your presentation around a tell assertive framework, you essentially establish the expectation that you’re going to tell the audience everything about the topic (software product) at hand. By contrast, framing your presentation as a story, social norms establish the expectation that you will only share what’s necessary to tell your story.
Think about how confusing it would be if, in conversation, you transitioned from talking about your son’s baseball game this weekend to the deck you’re building at home without explanation. Building a technical presentation where you talk about Feature A and then Feature D is much like this type of presentation. Framing the introduction of those features around a storyline provides that critical narrative.
Figure Out How to Tell Your Story
Once determining the story you would like to tell, the next step is to figure out how you’re going to tell it. Every speaker I know does this in a slightly different way. I know some who employ a Post-It note process where they write one idea per note, stick them to a wall, and rearrange until they have a cohesive story. Other speakers I know employ a similar process, but do so electronically using outlining our mind mapping software like X-Mind or MindManager.
Although I have, and occasionally still do, use those methods, what works best for me is talking to myself. As someone who tends to drive a lot, I will often use that otherwise idle time to build my script. While talking to yourself might look crazy in just about any other context, with the ubiquity of bluetooth in cars today, other drivers simply think I’m on the phone. More importantly, it gives me a place where I can fumble through the messy process of assembling my story in a safe place.
No one is there to question my process or offer their unsolicited two-cents about all the reasons my early ideas make no sense. I know my early ideas make no sense. That’s what the creative process looks like for me. I simply need to hear my bad ideas spoken out loud to understand they’re bad ideas. Once I understand the nuanced ways a particular idea doesn’t work, I can adjust my delivery and incrementally work towards the final product of my presentation.
Put it all Together
By this point, I have a good idea what my presentation is. I know the basic narrative structure, what topics I’m going to discuss, what order I’m going to share them in. What I need to do now is put it all together. Working in technology, putting it all together basically means building a PowerPoint slide deck so I can deliver my presentation to an audience.
Notice how late in the process I open PowerPoint. This is intentional in my process. We’ve all experienced death by PowerPoint where presenters just read a million bullet points littered across a hundred slides.
By crafting my story upfront, I understand what the key point is to each segment of my presentation. Understanding those key points is important to me because it allows me to highlight just the essential message in my PowerPoint slides. In lieu of a waterfall of bullet points, I instead opt to build slides with short phrases that reinforce the message I’m sharing.
Back to my example of building a presentation about document management software. Instead of a slide crowded with sentences of text in 12 pt font, I might instead opt to make a slide with the words “Take Control” in large font and an image of disorganized files in the background. Not only does this force my audience to focus on me instead of my slides, it more importantly provides memorable points my audience can take back with them.
My audience might not remember all of the features of the document management software I’m talking about, and that’s okay, but what they will remember is my solution will empower them to take control of the disorganization that plagues them today. That’s important because I know my client will likely compare my solution to another vendors, and when the two solutions otherwise share the same basic functionality, I’ve established a social and emotional differentiator for my product.
As social creatures, this emotional connection is what will make my presentation memorable. Essential to that is the creative process I used to get to that point. I see many speakers tell stories at the beginning of their presentation only to quickly transition into a tell-assertive presentation style once again. It takes time, but working through the steps outlined in this post helps me intertwine a cohesive narrative throughout the entirety of my presentation. Even if my story doesn’t precisely align with the experience of my audience, they can relate to that narrative. They can imagine being in a similar situation to the one I’m sharing with them on stage.