by : J. Douglas Jefferys (principal at PublicSpeakingSkills.com)
“Practice, practice, practice” might be good advice for a young cellist asking directions on the streets of New York, but it’s not necessarily the best way to approach the presentation process. Successful presentations today require a much more conversational approach, and that means designing them to allow for spontaneity rather than script-reading.
Good presentations are not about memorization. Far from it. Good presentations occur when you, with your thoughts and organization codified in the on-screen file, are able to “launch” from the screen, and convert your talking points into a conversational discourse about what you know. The less scripted the presentation, the less you’ll sound like a…well…script, and more like an expert at a lunch table. In fact, that is exactly how you want to envision yourself delivering your presentation – to individuals whom you know quite well around a table over lunch (and perhaps a glass of wine or a bottle of beer). Does that kind of scene make you nervous? Of course not!
Believe it or not, there are many presentation skills coaches that actually encourage people to memorize their way to confidence in public speaking. Listen to one such expert, quoted along side us in an article for the online version of USA Today:
“Once you’ve settled on the verbal and visual content of your talk, it’s time to start rehearsing. Take a small chunk of the material and practice it out loud 30 to 50 times. Practice it in your throwaway time — in the shower, on the way to work. Practicing 10 to 20 times makes you sound rehearsed, but 30 to 50 times makes you sound natural. By that time you’ve done it so much it’s like a muscle memory for your throat… You don’t have to think about it.”
Can you imagine that? Fifty times? How many of you have the time to take each part of your presentation and say it fifty times? Why would you want to so thoroughly memorize a piece that you might only give once, and then start all over again for the next one? Worse, as good as you might get with memorizing ninety percent of your presentation, do you know what happens to most people when they get to the one part they don’t remember? They freak! They freak and then they freeze, and as the fear of looking foolish builds quickly, their minds lose the ability to process, much less recall, detailed information.
Wouldn’t it be better if you had a system that required no memorization at all? One that simply gave your memory a shove every few moments and then let you be yourself? A properly designed presentation never includes more information on the screen than it takes to key the audience where you’re going, and to cue you as to what you’re going to say.
Most people like to talk about themselves, about what they do, and about what they know. Your presentations should reflect 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 give the presentation itself from the heart. Remember, 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.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the vast bulk of the information imparted to the audience comes from the presenter and not from words on the projection screen. We call this spread between the volume of words you say and the number of words in your bullet-points your “expert ratio”. All other things being equal, audiences will gauge your knowledge, your expertise, by the value you add to what they’ve already seen and read for themselves on the screen.
Theoretically there is no upper limit to this ratio. Ten to one? Twenty to one? One hundred? The point is, audiences will only see you as an expert when they realize that they can’t possibly get the information by tuning you out and grabbing it entirely from the screen. With this in mind, can you see why almost nobody paid attention to you the last time you simply read from the screen? Your expert ratio when reading is, technically, one. But in reality, it’s worse than that.
The problem is, if all you are there for is to read the slides, well, the audience could do that quite easily for themselves, thank you. In fact, 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.
If your bullet points are all grammatically correct sentences, you will always fall into this divide between reading and speaking speeds. As the presenter, you will not be able to resist reading straight from the screen, because you’re conditioned to do that when your brain recognizes a properly structured sentence.
And the audience, also being human, will do exactly the same thing. But their reading takes less time than your speaking, and by getting in their way to be the first- to-know, you are telling your audience that you really don’t care very much about them. 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 had just been pleasantly exceeding.
Demonstrate your expertise by being the main supplier of information you want your audience to get. Practice, practice, practice this concept, but never a script.