Keeping your Audience Listening

January 5, 2010

Letting the audience get ahead of you is one of the most common ways of killing a good presentation.  Not letting the audience get ahead of you is one of the main tenets of a good presentation.

Once your audience know what you are going to say next, there is a strong tendency for them to switch off and start thinking about other things.  They will get bored waiting for you to say it and get on to the next point.

There are many ways for an audience can get ahead of you, if you let them.  One of the most common ways is when you put up a slide with several bullet points on it and start working your way down the list.  Before you are even through the first sentence describing the first bullet point, they will have read the slide.  If the bullets are self explanatory, then they are ahead of you.  They will have caught the gist of what you are going to say and then have to wait for you to say it.  While they are waiting, their mind will wander and you will have to work much harder to recapture their attention.

Using the line by line reveal facility in PowerPoint, will reduce the scale of the problem but still does not cure it. If you bring up the bullet point first and then start talking about it, you have still let the audience get ahead of you, and you will be telling them what is effectively “old news” as they have already read the headline.

This problem often occurs because presenters use the PowerPoint slides to remind themselves of what they have to say. This means that they display the bullet points before they say the words. Their audience is then bored by what they say, as they have already read the slide and know in advance what the presenter is going to talk about. It is compounded by the fact that, having just read the words themselves, the presenter will invariable use exactly the same phraseology in their speech. It is no wonder many people switch off and fall asleep because the presenter is constantly telling them things that they already know, because they have just read it on the slide.

If you have to use bullet points on a slide, bring the points up, one by one, after you have talked about the subject. That way the slide reinforces what you have just said and the audience will not get ahead of you.  Better still, rather than displaying the bullet points, keep those for your own personal cue cards, which you can refer to during your presentation to ensure you don’t forget anything, and use PowerPoint (or which ever software product you prefer) for what it was really designed for, a graphical presentation tool. Have slides with pictures, images, or graphics which conjure up strong mental images of the topic you are discussing, images that will stay with your audience long after your words are forgotten. See the sections on visual aids and graphics for alternative suggestions and approaches.

Of course, handing out printed copies of the whole presentation before the event is another classic way of allowing the audience to get ahead of you. Have you ever looked at the audience during the first key note speech at a conference? Most of them will still be scanning through the handouts working out which presentations they think will be worth listening to, not paying the slightest attention to what the key note speaker is saying.

Do not get me wrong; I am still a firm believer in the ‘tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them’ approach to presentations.  But this does not mean letting your audience get ahead of you.  To keep an audience listening, you need to build in some suspense and tension just like in a television drama or a play.

Presentation Training and Coaching is available from the author of this blog. Please visit my presentation training  website.

Give me a day and I’ll change your presentations, forever