We’re excited to share this guest blog post from Erica Olson, the founder of Speak Simple and the creator of SpeakU, a presentation skills training curriculum. Erica has some great insights on the world of presentations and preparing to “wow” your audiences, so enjoy! If you’re interested in pairing Erica’s presentation messaging course with our presentation design services, contact us here to coordinate!
The presentation education industry is cluttered with public speaking coaches that tell you how to present and one of the biggest pieces of advice is about focusing your message. However, when it comes down to it there isn’t much instruction on how to go about doing that. I’ve presented over a thousand presentations and coached presenters for over a decade. I’ve seen the importance of focusing your message and being audience-centric and I will show you a few ways to accomplish this daunting task.
First, let us start by understanding where most presenters go astray from the goal of being audience-centric — improper preparation. When asked to speak at an event, your head starts to swim with thoughts of what to talk about and all the things to say about the given topic. Business professionals across any industry know a plethora of information about their field of work (that is why they were asked to speak after all).
Most speakers feel obligated to share everything they know to show their expertise and to educate the audience. For most presenters, getting over the fear of under-explaining is likely second on the list to the fear of speaking itself. If you do not overcome this anxiety of needing to explain too much, your presentation will be cluttered with too much information and will have an incoherent flow.
Simplify your explanation
My biggest piece of advice is to simplify your explanation. To do that, you must put your presentation’s talking points together. In other words, find the LCD, or Least Common Denominator. You probably have a topic in mind or have been given one by the event coordinator, so now it’s time to brainstorm every possible point that you can think of about your topic. I suggest utilizing index cards instead of a sheet of paper because it helps you organize them later. Write one thought down per card and use as many cards as you need. Then spread all the cards out on the table.
When attempting to educate others about a subject, speakers tend to spit out everything they know. This over-explanation is the root of why presentations are too long, not cohesive and why the audience feels lost. As the presenter, you must find the LCD by finding the three most important talking points. The talking points are the ideas upon which all of the other cards are dependent.
With your cards spread out on the table, start grouping the cards into common elements or themes. Work your way through the index cards questioning each one – will my presentation make sense without this? You will naturally see that some things do not fit in this topic, so discard those cards and use them for a future presentation. You will find some cards are necessary but have less importance than your main talking points. These lesser important cards become support for your talking points. Arrange the cards into talking points with their supporting pieces much like you’d create an outline with your talking points being the headers.
There is significant research on the power of three. People remember information in sets of three. Hence, your phone number is broken into three sets, two of which contain three numbers. You also have the Three Little Pigs, Goldie Locks and the Three Bears and Three Inalienable rights. Any more than three can be easily forgotten as the audience’s attention span wanes. If your talking points are short, you may consider doing multiples of three – like nine steps to prepare a presentation – with a break in between.
Eliminate use of jargon and technical language
Now that the backbone of your presentation is laid out with your outline, continue to fill in the details and elaborate on those three talking points to maximize your time. Use your index cards and continue to fill in any gaps to ensure your audience can follow along effortlessly.
To ensure your audience understands you, keep your explanations free of jargon, code, acronyms and extreme amounts of data (people don’t remember data). You will not be able to explain your entire career’s worth of knowledge in depth. Your explanations should be just enough to touch on the subject without making your audience feel stuck in a requisite college class.
Have a non-technical person sit in at least one of your rehearsals. Practice your outline with a non-technical person at your office, a friend or your spouse, to ensure your message is understandable, and your framework flows cohesively. Your presentation will evolve as you prepare it and it will ensure your message is still effortlessly understood. Ask this person to pay more attention to your message than your delivery. This shift in their attention takes the pressure off you, so you won’t be as nervous in rehearsals. Also, feedback about your message is more important than the fact you said “umm” five times. A good message fairly delivered is still a strong presentation while a poor message brilliantly delivered is a bad presentation — focus your preparation on the message and the delivery will come naturally.
Image you’re chatting with your grandfather
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about public speaking didn’t originate from a presentation book or presentation coach but from a librarian. Following one of my presentations years ago, I was told, “If you have any hope of improving your presentations, you must talk to the old people.”
It took me a bit to comprehend what she meant and quite a while to fully understand the meaning of her unique advice. It hit me one day when talking to my grandfather — the elderly require a specific amount of simplification in order to ensure their understanding. Even when imagining an elderly crowd, you will naturally speak louder, slower and enunciate more, much like I do when speaking to my grandfather. Keep this in mind when presenting to the general public and when speaking to your peers. Even when speaking at a conference in front of your peers, they are not all in the same field of work or at your level, so it is crucial that you simplify your information. You should not present the same way you speak to your colleagues at the office, even if you are a doctor talking to other doctors.
When you speak to prospective clients, whether for a bid presentation or an educational thought leadership presentation, you need to talk at your audience’s level. Create a foundation of knowledge and build up from there. Otherwise you will lose your audience and have no chance of earning their business. Utilizing high-level vocabulary, acronyms and complex concepts does not make you an expert – sharing your knowledge so your prospects can understand you makes you an expert. Creating this bridge of understanding makes them want to work with you because people hire whom they like. No one likes to be talked down to or feel like he or she do not know what is going on.
When you properly prepare a presentation, it does not just help your audience understand you; it also helps you. Knowing your message is understandable, your presentation flows effortlessly and you’ve prepared properly will drop your nerves tremendously. When you feel prepared, your fear will subside by up to 80% and you’ll see a stronger ROI on your efforts.
Erica Olson is the founder of Speak Simple and the creator of SpeakU, a presentation skills training curriculum. After presenting over a thousand times in just five years with Audubon Zoo’s Outreach Education program, Erica brought her self-taught lessons of speaking, coaching and simplification to the business world where she helps technical presenters to simplify their message to engage audiences to win new work.
Erica understands great presentations take more the coaching the delivery of a presentation – it starts with the messaging and proper preparation. She reinforces and improves her self-taught methods with research in psychology and behavioral sciences. Learn more about Erica’s unique approach to improving profitable presentations at Speak-Simple.com.