Putting your audience first: The key to great presentation skills

When delivering presentations, we are often so focused on the content that we pay little attention to our audience and what they need. We may consider the impression we want to make, but we neglect to think about how we will deliver and, more importantly, who will be listening and what that means to our message and its delivery.

Audience expectations

Before you start preparing your presentation, begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why are they here? What do they need to know? Are they new to the subject matter or hoping for a new angle? Are they expecting technical updates, to be challenged or to hear about practical applications?
  • What do they want to know? Are they interested in knowledge sharing: data, facts and findings, or are they here to exchange opinions and discuss best practice?
  • What will engage them? Nobody will endure ‘death by PowerPoint’ these days so it’s important to consider how to involve your audience. What data will you share? What visuals will you use to complement your message?
  • How can I convince them? If you are presenting to a group of decision-makers, how will you get ‘buy in’?  Credibility is viewed differently across cultures. In low context cultures, such as Switzerland, The Netherlands and The US, you need to be seen as an expert and people tend to be more  convinced by facts and figures. In high context cultures, such as Mexico, India and Japan, on the other hand,  people need to connect with you and trust you: they may respond better to story-telling.
  • How do I measure success? Audience participation, questions, feedback, applause: if you get none of these, it’s time to adopt a new strategy.

Content and delivery

If you plan to use slides, source memorable images which support your message or challenge assumptions.  Avoid text-heavy bullet-pointed slides and keep any data simple and legible. Detailed infomation can be circulated afterwards. Resist the temptation to read your slides aloud to your audience - the primary focus should be on you as the presenter rather than on presentation slides on the screen.

Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you

Amy Cuddy

Take a moment to reflect on how you come across to your audience. Do they see you as a confident and enthusiastic presenter, timid and boring, funny and engaging, authoritarian and didactic, or even slightly aggressive? Do you build rapport quickly? These factors can influence how well your presentation is received, so seek out feedback and experiment with your pace, tone of voice, posture and body language too as these all come into play.

Language use

Avoid using jargon or acronyms which may exclude non-specialists and be mindful of cultural references that could exclude people from diverse audiences  . Try to limit the use of phrases such as ‘you know what I mean’ which detract from the impact of your message.  And finally, Keep It Short and Simple.

Non-verbal communication

Most of us have bad presentation habits; often we are unaware of these and we rarely find someone willing to point them out to us. With this in mind, persuade a friend or colleague to watch you do a dry run and give honest, developmental feedback. Or otherwise film yourself; it's the only way to see what your audience sees and improve your presentation skills.

A presenter with their hands in their pockets can look unprofessional and suggest a certain lack of respect for the audience. Equally, a presenter slumped behind the lectern will be less likely to engage with their audience.  If you are presenting to a small audience in a meeting room it can be tempting to sit down to present.  However,  this can reduce your energy and impact.  Try using your posture and physical presence to add more power to your presentation.

Some movement is good but avoid distractions like fidgeting with the pointer or waving your arms around too furiously. Remember to maintain good eye contact and SMILE as this is crucial in building rapport.

Engaging techniques

Think about if and how you can involve your audience in your presentation. With the widspread use of social media, you can ask your audience to live tweet or participate in polls. Alternatively you can ask your audience to vote by raising their hands, encourage quick partner discussion and signal that you welcome interruptions. This will increase engagement and make your subject matter more likely to stick.  

Cultural considerations

Your audience may well be international or multicultural and so adapting and responding to their cross-cultural expectations is a valuable skill.  Never assume that everyone in your audience has the same expectations, so do your research beforehand. Find out what makes your audience ‘tick’ and what a presentation means to them.   Will they expect to interrupt and ask questions?  Do they want to hear your key message upfront or build up to a strong conclusion at the end of your presentation.

Finally, here are my top tips for excellent presentation skills:

  1. Be warm and open:  smile and make eye contact with your audience
  2. Make your voice sound interesting: vary your intonation, tone and pace
  3. Choose language appropriately for your audience
  4. Maintain audience engagement: ask and invite questions throughout
  5. Be aware of your gestures and body language
  6. Keep your audience needs and expectations front of mind
  7. Finally, practise, practise and practise - and try and see yourself through your audience's eyes

With many thanks to Jackie Black.  Jackie will be delivering our International Presentation Skills course taking place on 5 March and 12 June 2019.

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