Presto! 5 Steps to Magically Fix a Boring Presentation

Not every presentation is chock full of interesting content. Sometimes, the subject matter is either too technical, hard to comprehend, or just of passing interest to your audience. And though one solution might be to not present such content in the first place, in other instances, the “show must go on.” And for those circumstances, here are five steps to add a pinch of spice to an otherwise dull presentation.

1. Add Vocal Variety

Even the most boring presentation in the world can come to life when a presenter employs vocal variety techniques. Specifically, changing how phrases are sounded out, raising your voice for important statements, or even lowering your voice for effect can make unexciting content much more interesting. Changing from a monotone to a lively delivery can help your audience perk up and listen.

2. Add Passion

Take the most uninteresting topic in the world, add a passionate presenter, and—like magic—you have something worth listening to! Audiences are very smart and can instantly discern whether a presenter truly believes what he/she is saying. When a topic is presented with genuine excitement and passion, even the most technical fare can come to life.

3. Make It Real

One of the biggest challenges for presenters of technical content is creating relevance, especially for a group that may only have light familiarity with a topic. For example, not every person is interested in data warehousing and analytics. However, if a presenter can show how analytics works using “day in the life” scenarios for a retailer, suddenly that content becomes applicable. Approved case studies work even better as audiences discern that the presentation is more than “vaporware” and, in fact, touches the daily decision-making of consumers. By making the information real with examples and case studies, a presenter answers the inherent question of a listener, “What’s in this presentation for me?”

4. Bring on the Visuals

Most presenters understand that audience members absorb information in different ways. Some prefer an auditory approach, others prefer handouts, and there are plenty of people who would rather watch a multimedia video than listen to a one-hour lecture. That’s why an interesting presentation uses most/all of these devices—and often! Bring pictures, videos, charts, handouts, and more to your presentation. Employing two or more visual aids helps keep audiences interested in your subject matter.

5. Slow Down and Breathe.

There’s no rule of thumb that says a presentation must be delivered with breathless abandon. In fact, use of elongated or pregnant pauses in a presentation can give an audience time to mentally catch up, especially if the presentation is overflowing with facts and figures. Take time to breathe, look around, and make sure people are engaged. A rapid fire presentation with slides rolling every minute or two is usually disconcerting, and it may leave an audience with only a small fraction the information you intended to convey.

These are just five steps to fix a boring presentation—there are certainly more tips. Please contribute to the conversation by adding the best and worst practices you’ve observed!

Two Key Ingredients for Better Marketing Stories

Marketers inherently know it’s easier to tell a story than sell someone on the key features and benefits of a product or service. As Seth Godin points out in All Marketers Are Liars, good stories “engage the consumer” and “appeal to our senses.” Yet the best story in the world may fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t fit cultural dispositions or lacks authenticity.

Seth Godin reminds us that marketers tell stories to best sell products and services. “No one buys facts,” he says. “They buy a story—they’re here for the story and the way believing it makes us feel.” Anyone who has seen a marketing brochure or advertisement for Volvo can see how the use of storytelling brings forth the “safety” value proposition much better than detailed specifications of its whiplash protection system or roll stability control.

However, a carefully crafted story that works well for one market may fall flat in another. Godin says that’s because “different people have different worldviews. People can see the same data and come to different conclusions.”

Author Peter Hessler highlights this idea in a New Yorker article titled “Go West.” Born and raised in the United States, Hessler has spent the past 10 years traveling from farm to factory in greater China, so he knows a thing or two about Chinese and American culture. It was no surprise to Hessler how the two cultures uniquely use narrative in daily communication.

For example, Hessler writes that one night he decided to visit a local bar somewhere in Colorado. Hessler relates that within a few moments, a stranger had sat down next to him, ordered a drink, and proceeded to tell Hessler his life story, including the fact that he had just been released from prison.

Hessler contrasts this openness with his experiences in China. “People in China never talked like that,” he writes. “They didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative. They rarely lingered on interesting details.” It wasn’t necessarily that Chinese citizens didn’t tell stories, just that they told stories about much different topics. “Most Chinese could talk your ear off about things like food, money and weather,” Hessler says. “But they avoided personal topics, and I learned that it could take months before an interview subject opened up.”

Hessler observed that Chinese seemed less willing to talk about themselves. Contrast this with the average U.S. citizen who is likely more than willing to tell you his or her life story and probably has it well-rehearsed.

One narrative technique that seems to work well in Western cultures is the personal testimonial. However, from Hessler’s observations on the uneasiness of Chinese to talk about personal issues, it’s easy to see why a marketing campaign of customer testimonials for a product or service might fall on deaf ears in China.

In addition to cultural nuance, a university professor friend of mine—who is Chinese—says there’s something deeper here on why personal testimonials might not work in China. The larger issue is trust and believability.

In Communist China, billboards with propaganda are the norm, the Internet is tightly controlled, and the government does its very best to control both media and message.  The professor says, “Many believe that stories and testimonials are made up, especially because there isn’t an unbiased monitoring mechanism to convince consumers that testimonials are from real people.”

Storytelling works in marketing. But the most real and believable narrative may fall victim to cultural nuances that predispose your customers to not listen in the first place.


• One person interviewed by Hessler says, “An individual with a story is on a higher ground than an individual with an argument.” Do you agree or disagree?
•  Hessler also observed, “Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen.” Is this consistent with your observations?

Gartner Voice Podcast

Presentation skills are capabilities all marketing professionals need. Even those that aren’t client-facing frequently pitch internal management, sales people and potential alliances on the benefits of working with the marketing organization. Listen as Paul Barsch – experienced marketer, frequent public speaker and Director of Marketing at Teradata – shares tips and advice on how marketers can become better public speakers.  Listen

Presentations 201: Importance of Staying in Time Limits

There are many presentation worst practices well-documented on the Internet, especially concerning the use of PowerPoint slides. However, a top five worst practice employed by some marketing professionals is the overtime presentation, or more succinctly, the presentation that never ends. If given a 30-minute time slot for a presentation, why is it so important to “stay in time”?

Perhaps it’s a  stereotype, but most marketing professionals tend to be gregarious folk that enjoy communication and conversation. It’s no surprise that a fair portion of marketing presentations to sales teams, customers, and conference audiences tend to run over the intended time slot. Thirty-minute presentations sometimes morph into forty- and sixty-minute presentations cheat over into breaks and lunch.

At this point, perhaps you are thinking, “Who cares if a presentation runs five to 10 minutes over the time limit?” Here’s why the never-ending (overtime) presentation is a worst practice for speakers:

Going over time limits is disrespectful to your audience. Your audience most likely has a printed agenda and they expect you to stick to it. Moreover, audience members may have other presentations they want to attend after your talk, a pending conference call or scheduled break. Be on time! An exception is: If you ask permission from your audience to go over time (and your audience and conference organizer agree), then spend a few more minutes to summarize and close.

Going over time limits is disrespectful to other presenters. When the first and second speaker go over time, then usually conference organizers have to “make up time” by cutting into breaks or other presenter sessions. Be cognizant of the other speakers on the agenda and use your own time effectively.

Going over time limits is disrespectful to conference organizers. Most conferences have a room monitor to introduce speakers and monitor time constraints. If you choose to ignore the room monitor when time cards are flashed, then it’s pretty likely you won’t be invited back as a speaker.

Assuming the conference is running long and your speaking session is closer to the end of the day, prepare accordingly.

First, locate your conference organizer and ask him or her if your presentation will need to be shorter or if they plan on making up time elsewhere. Your conference organizer probably already has a plan in mind.

Second, adjust your presentation to the time limit. If you have 60 minutes of content and now just 40 minutes to present, start trimming slides if possible. Sometimes conference organizers make slides available prior to the conference, so this strategy may not work. If trimming slides isn’t an option, explore where you might spend one minute per slide instead of the usual two.

Third, monitor time during your presentation. It’s a difficult challenge to present 60 minutes of content in 30 minutes, especially if you cannot remove slides. If the conference organizer has not offered a room monitor to help you stay on time, you may wish to employ a presenter remote with built in vibration to alert you at the five minutes remaining mark.

Finally, if constrained for time, the master presenter remembers the adage of “never let them see you sweat.” Don’t apologize to your audience about your limited time together and most certainly don’t make remarks about previous speakers and/or your conference organizer. It’s much better to leave your audience with the impression that everything went as planned.


• What other strategies might you suggest for speakers when a conference is not running on schedule?
• When giving a speech, what tips can you share on how you “stay in time”?

Seven Advanced Habits of Highly Effective Speakers

photo courtesy of FlickrLike it or not, marketing executives are expected to deliver great presentations. And while some marketing executives are competent public speakers, practicing the following advanced tips can take a communicator from “good to great”.

Public speaking, like any other craft takes discipline, commitment and plenty of practice. With customer presentations ranging from prepared to impromptu, it is often helpful for marketing executives to keep these skills current. And while many speakers concern themselves with “the basics”, some are interested and willing to take their skills to advanced levels.

In this vein, assembled are seven habits of advanced public speakers (undoubtedly there are more):

Know Your Audience

“Know your audience” initially seems like an obvious tip. However, too many public speakers give canned and non-customized presentations that show little to no knowledge of the audience. For example, if the presentation is for a customer, find out why the briefing was requested and specific customer needs. Think personalization. Surprisingly, a little homework goes a long way.

Storytell Whenever Possible

People love stories, and best of all, stories are memorable. Powerful presentations have stories sprinkled throughout, and case studies to help bring key topics to life. Undoubtedly you have seen presentation after presentation start with speaker introductions and an agenda slide. Why not consider starting and ending a presentation with a story instead?

A Smile and Laugh Go a Long Way

Must every customer or internal presentation be so serious? Do you have a funny anecdote that captures a key point? Presenters sometimes think, “I’m not a funny person, so I will leave humor out of the discussion.” Incorporating humor doesn’t mean one must tell jokes. The advanced presenter may incorporate a smile to start, humorous story, and/or self depreciating comment. Remember, a presentation is a performance, so have fun!

Engage the Audience Whenever Possible

Suppose your upcoming presentation is slotted for thirty minutes. Is there any heuristic that says a presentation must take twenty five minutes and leave five for Q&A? Mix it up! Why not incorporate feedback and questions throughout the presentation? Even better, allow for open ended questions (asked by the presenter) during the discussion. For larger audiences, some advanced presenters ask for a show of hands, or other polling device. Social media shows us we live in a world of “engagement.” Your presentation should take this concept into account.

Add Vocal Variety

The advanced practice of adding vocal variety is rare for most public speakers. While a speaker may have body language and content down pat, vocal variety (rate, pitch, tone, highs/lows) is often forgotten. A well-done presentation isn’t necessarily “over the top”, and to be sure vocal variety can be exaggerated. However, adding vocal variety where appropriate can alert your audience that key points are worth their attention.

Self Modulate Based on Audience Reaction

With the exception of a presentation to an audience in a dark room, most speakers can see their audience members. Don’t pass up a golden opportunity to gauge audience reaction—during the actual talk. During your delivery, notice audience reactions—are they bored, asleep, disinterested, fiddling with their smartphone, or staring into space?

Based on audience reaction, the advanced presenter changes his or her delivery and possibly content accordingly. Stop for clarification, ask your audience questions, or consider doing something to change the direction of your speech. Your presentation isn’t actually over until it’s over, so don’t be afraid to change things up before the half-way point.

Incorporate Dramatic Use of “The Pause”

Have you ever seen a speaker incorporate a long breath before delivering a key point? If so, you have witnessed “the pause”. A pause of 1-2 seconds can alert an audience that the next phrase or sentence is worth hearing. This advanced technique is extremely rare, but can effectively be incorporated to activate a key message. However, as dramatic technique, “the pause” should not be over utilized.

These are just seven habits of highly effective presenters. What other “advanced” techniques have you witnessed from your favorite speakers?