Recently someone approach me for private coaching. She was nervous about an upcoming presentation. Before she ran through her presentation, she told me that her topic was important to her audience and she really wanted to have impact. Then she practiced her presentation by sharing her screen as she read, or sometimes paraphrased, a series of PowerPoint slides.
She came across as professional, knowledgeable and confident. Had she not mentioned her desire to have impact, I would have been quite encouraging in my feedback. I would have suggested fewer words on the slides and starting and finishing without slides so that she was more visible to the audience. But I would have reassured her that presentation was as good as many work presentations I see.
However, I knew that she would not achieve her goal of having impact. I could barely see her on my screen and I had read all the words on the slides before she spoke to them. I gave her positive feedback but I also told her that her presentation was not memorable. I also pointed out that she was adding very little value and she could just as easily have paused and let the audience read her slides for themselves!
This got me thinking about how speakers have impact. Although I have seen many good speeches in my time, very few have stuck with me.
Having compelling content helps. But some of the speeches I remember best are based on a simple idea. What they have in common is that the speakers use tools and techniques to differentiate themselves from other speakers.
Before we look at some tools I should say that many of my clients don’t care about having impact – they just want to survive their next presentation! They don’t care if people don’t remember – in fact they would prefer to be forgotten than to be remembered for doing something embarrassing.
I deal with a lot of very nervous people and my first goal is to build their confidence rather than turn them into brilliant speakers. There is nothing wrong with surviving as an initial goal. But I also encourage them to be ambitious about how good they could eventually become.
So let's look at some of the tools you can use to have impact.
Introduce the unexpected
Surprising the audience is one of the most effective ways of getting the audience’s attention and being memorable.
When I asked group recently to recall a memorable presentation, a lawyer in the group told us about a speaker who talked to a group about lawyers overcharging! The speaker’s main idea was that people hate paying for something that they are not expecting. At the start of the presentation, the speaker gave out ice-creams. Everyone sat their eating their ice-cream as he spoke – and of course wondering about the significance of the ice-cream. At the end, the speaker told the audience that the ice-creams were $100 each!
Perhaps that sounds a little gimmicky, and you wouldn’t want to do this every time. But it was memorable. My client remembered the speech and he remembered the main point because the ice-creams were cleverly linked to the main point.
Two TED talk examples that use the unexpected come to mind. Jill Bolte Taylor, “My stroke of insight”, is about a neuroscientist’s first-hand experience of having a stroke. The story is remarkable but what makes it truly memorable is her use of a real human brain as a prop!
Cameron Russell, “Looks aren't everything. Believe me, I'm a model” delivers a disturbing talk about the way in which the modelling industry exploits young women. She comes onto the stage dressed in a slinky black dress and high heels. She then does a full costume change on stage to make the point that she can transform what people think of her in a few minutes.
Use language for effect
What made Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech memorable? Apart from his powerful delivery, it was repeating those lines “I have a dream” at various intervals throughout of speech. In a 17-minute speech he uses these lines 7 times.
Simon Sinek’s TED talk “How great leaders inspire action”, uses the same technique. Simon uses a catchy phrase, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” and uses it 6 times in 15 minutes.
Repetition is just one example of how language and rhetorical devices can be used for impact.
People love stories and stories are more memorable than information. After reading this article, it is likely that the first thing you will recall is the ice-cream story. By next week you may have forgotten the rest, but you will still remember how a speaker made his point by dishing out ice-creams and asking for $100 at the end. Even if you remember nothing else, I have done my job!
Most speeches need information but by interspersing this with stories, anecdotes and examples, you will make your talk more interesting, enjoyable and memorable.
Stories are memorable for many reasons. They can evoke emotion, which is powerful. They also help to make abstract concepts more concrete and easier to understand. And they can be fun and engaging.
Make it funny
One of my favourite TED talks is Tim Urban’s “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”. I have probably watched this talk 5 or 6 times and each time it makes me laugh. Tim could have given a serious and interesting talk about why we procrastinate. But instead, he creates these hilarious characters, the ‘instant gratification monkey’ and the ‘panic monster’! He is a great story teller as he uses these characters to tell the story of preparing his TED talk!
What if you are not a funny person? Any presentation can benefit from a bit of humour, but I would not attempt a humorous style speech like Tim’s unless I was skilled at this. There are plenty of other ways of having impact that don’t require humour.
Use strong visual aids
We have all heard the term “death by PowerPoint” but I am still amazed how often I seen people put up PowerPoint slides full of text and then proceed to read them or paraphrase them. Reading slides is frustrating for the audience as they can read ahead much faster than the speaker. And if you paraphrase the words you risk splitting the audience’s attention as they try to match what you say with the words on the slide.
I can’t think of a single TED talk that has blocks of text on slides. But a few well-designed visuals can be highly effective to support your presentation. Use pictures and graphs but use words sparingly. You could even use props, like Jill Bolte Taylor’s human brain!
But what if people don't like it?
If you are going to be different of course there is risk. I am sure the speaker who used ice-creams could have talked himself out of it. What if people don't want to eat ice creams? Will they get the point? Perhaps they will think it is silly... You have to have some confidence to take the risk. It is so much easier to play it safe. But playing it safe won't be memorable.
And what about delivery?
It’s hard to have impact if your delivery is poor. But nor do you have to be a professional speaker. One of the most memorable talks I have heard was delivered a little awkwardly by a 14-year-old girl in broken English. Her honesty and her story telling abilities outweighed her less than perfect delivery.
Back to my private client. She was two days out from giving her presentation so I had to be a little restrained in my advice.
I suggested that she reduce the number of slides and add more images. I also suggested using examples. She was talking about some upcoming water projects. I wanted her to tell me more about those projects – not just name them. I was also curious about what she wanted me to do. It is hard to have impact when you are merely feeding information to people. For example, a ‘call to action’ would have clarified the intent of her talk.
I also suggested working on her her opening with the intent of grabbing our attention from the start.
I doubt that these steps turned this into a truly memorable presentation. But they definitely would have improved it. And it may have had the impact she desired for people who were already engaged with her topic.
The next time you present, make a conscious decision about which tools you are going to use to aid your presentation. To be memorable you need to be different. While this might sound daunting it is not actually hard to be different from the 80% of work presentations that are formulaic, and ‘adequate’ but dull and forgettable.
Article written by Catherine Syme
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.