Some 3 years ago, I had my very first (prepared) speech or icebreaker at Toastmasters. I must confess that before that I had already been speaking in public but yet this one felt different, probably because it was all about the speech. In my previous opportunities at public speaking, I was either presenting my results or teaching at my local church. The focus of those were different because while giving a presentation, I felt only results were being evaluated and same with teaching.

All of a sudden, here I was standing before a group of strangers, (I got to know them better later on) to give a speech where the speech itself was the focus. I can assure you, it wasn’t a walk in the park. But what made it work, Ikenna? First of all, you are assuming it worked – but let us say for the purpose of this email that it worked. In preparing that speech, I learnt a few critical things about giving a speech.

Most importantly was the realization that the speech and delivery would always be a focus point. Regardless of how good your results are, if you cannot present it properly, that is still a failure.

Why this journey back through memory lane? One of the questions I typically get is what makes a good presentation? I don’t plan on being a storyteller like you, but which components will make my presentation standout?

Show

I can still remember vividly a meeting we had in my previous role some 5 years ago. The speaker opens his presentation with a slide of a bale of hay. He slowly describes how we as a company had gathered hay in times of plenty and this would have to take us through the difficult times on the horizon. Being our financial director, I had expected a bunch of numbers to show us where the company was financially and also how to improve. However, his image and the stories behind them stuck in my head (I actually walked over to him later to appreciate this type of presenting).

Since Microsoft introduced PowerPoint, and especially bullet points, this has become the gold standard of all presentations. We want to use these pointers to summarize and highlight the key points within our presentation. The question then is, do we really need these bullets? And do we really need all those slides?

Teaching people how to give presentations, I can remember explaining to my students that it is important that the presenter and not the screen is the focus of your audience. If they are going to be looking at the screen, I might as well record my story and play an audio clip for them while they follow the slides. In essence, give them a radio. Again, I am not knocking the radio, but aside from while driving – how many times do you still listen to a radio? Humans are visually oriented organisms, yes even those who are not the V in VAK still need to see.

I stumbled on an article recently where people researched on the importance of images in learning. In essence, they were writing on the importance of presentations and one of the points they make is how critical it is in preparing the right slides. A quote from John Medina (a molecular biologist) on this topic is interesting “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”

Yes, you read that correctly – simply adding an image can make people remember six times more of your message. I cannot remember the other presentations in the meeting as mentioned earlier, but this one stands out in my memory. Years to come, my audience of 3 years ago would have forgotten my speech but as one of them told me – I remember you had that play thing in your hand.

Tell

This may sound obvious but you have to not only show but also tell your audience about your topic. This may again sound like the easy part of presenting but if you consider the intricacies involved in communication, you realize why this is important.

In presentation, we term this vocal variety, which is just a fancy title for mixing up your voice while speaking. If you search for boring presentations, one of the major issues is monotonous delivery. The human brain likes diversity and responds more to contrasts and abrupt sounds. On the other hand, constant or repetitive sounds are soothing and can put one to sleep. Ever wondered why normal rainfall (not punctuated by thunder and lightning) can make one fall asleep? You are just listening to the continuous rhythmic tapping which is almost hypnotic. So if you ever want to hypnotize someone, just play rainfall sounds.

It might sound as if hypnotizing your audience is the best way to ensure that you convince them. However, the goal is potentially to effect a change of mindset and not to have your own band of robots. That being said, it might be a nice idea to rule the world (he says in my best evil guy voice). If your goal is to convince or influence and not hypnotize, ensure that there is diversity in your voice.

Some simple examples include – change your voice when making an important point. I say change your voice since it can work both ways, whether you raise your voice to get attention or you reduce your voice as if whispering a secret. I have shared earlier on about the use of a well-timed pause for emphasis. You could even play with the words for effect – loooooonnngg and short, just to help your audience see length even in your words.

Shock

One of my favourite speakers Paul Zak (and not just because he wrote a blurb on my book), told his audience that if they are not willing to embrace empathy on their own, he has a syringe full of oxytocin for them. As you can imagine, he picked up his syringe just like a doctor ready to inflict pain, with the audience surprised and laughing.

A great presentation involves a bit of an awe factor. Something which the audience are not expecting, think back to when I was writing on keeping your story interesting.

This also ties into the fact that our brain is searching for something which stands out. You may not have to take a syringe during your own presentation, or mosquitoes like Bill Gates did. But by springing a surprise on the audience, not only can you bring humour into your presentation but also it keeps people on the edge of their seat.

For my icebreaker, pretend weeping was such a one for my audience, none of them expected any of that while watching me putting the block pieces together.

I wonder, how is it going with coming up with and telling fascinating stories?