10 Strategies for Keeping People Awake During Your Presentations

Don't bore people with your presentation Presentations, for better or worse, are a mainstay of modern business and the medical industry seems to be particularly fond of the genre. From executive board rooms to doctor roundtables, everybody wants to present his or her ideas in a clever presentation. PowerPoint, Keynote, and other presentation software applications seem so versatile and inspiring, why is it that so many presentations are like a triple hit of sleeping pills?

It’s because most people don’t really think about their presentations as a communication vehicle. Many presenters are more interested in sharing a bunch of facts or charts or diagrams than they are about actually transmitting a specific message.  We offer some tips to help make your next presentation less soporific.

  1. Decide what your objective is. Believe it or not, you get to have an objective. Are you trying to share specific information? Motivate a launch team? Deliver a product message to potential customers? This is important, so figure out your main objective and hold on to it. It’s going to come in handy as we work through the next steps. In general, objectives tend to be: sharing information, motivation, persuasion, and sometimes even obfuscation. (Yes, some presentations are designed to muddy the waters, but that’s another story.)
  2. Now figure out how to deliver your message and meet your objective without using the presentation software. This means you need to outline your talk and maybe even rehearse a few well-crafted phrases. If you have a lot of data or charts that are integral to your message, figure out how to get them to people without using the presentation. Ever wonder why people want handouts with info-dense presentations? (Hint: it’s because they want handouts.) So give them some paper if the crux of the content involves understanding certain figures or diagrams.
  3. Having an objective and a message, you are now free to use the presentation software in a truly creative way. It should underscore, support, emphasize, or add humor to your message. In other words, don’t rely on the presentation to give your talk, use it like a backdrop. If you’re talking about a big year in sales, show a beauty shot of some of your major products. If you’re trying to motivate a business team, show some vintage photos of the company way back in the olden days. If you want to teach your sales reps about the mechanism of action of a drug, give them some proof sources or clinical papers and show them an image of a rep talking to a doctor … while you explain things to them.
  4. Don’t use a lot of words in your presentation. If you are supposed to read something, put it on paper. Nobody likes reading from a screen.
  5. Never, never, never read your slides. If you do put words on your slide, be bold and resist the urge to read them. In fact, state the same thing in other words. It will reinforce your message. For instance, if your slide shows a bunch of army men holding down the fort and the text says “Opposing Forces” then don’t say “Opposing Forces.” That image is pretty powerful and people will read it. Instead, talk in a more business-like tone about barriers to entry, factors that may hold the company back, or obstacles to be overcome. This creates a dual-track: one is visual and one is audio. They are totally different but work harmoniously together to drive home a single message.
  6. Get interesting images. Presentations rise and fall on images. You can purchase the rights to photos relatively inexpensively from sites like iStock. You probably do not need to buy the expensive large-size high-res images; most of the time, the small or extra-small formats is more than sufficient. You can also shoot your own images–most smartphones take excellent-quality images.
  7. Get media, if that is appropriate. There is no reason you can’t have a video clip of an atom bomb falling or two boxers duking it out or a basket full of puppies. These are also available from places like iStock or you can shoot your own. Remember that if you use a video or audio clip, it will interrupt your presentation. That’s dangerous because it will divert attention from you to the presentation and you need to get it back. But for certain presentations, the risk of losing audience attention due to a transition is outweighed by the power of a short clip. (And keep them super-short! A minute is too long in most cases.) A really good place to use a video clip is at the end of the presentation, since you won’t be interrupting yourself, you’ll just be transitioning from you to the screen to the end.
  8. Develop a healthy contempt for your presentation, that is, realize that it diverts attention from you. And if it bores people, it diverts attention from you and then fails to deliver your message. Get to the point that you can make your presentation without the software. Then let the software punctuate and enhance.
  9. Avoid using animation unless it serves a purpose and if you do think there is a purpose for an animated slide, don’t use more than one or two. Animation seems cool while you do it, but it is jarring to watch words swish on and off the screen. If you like special effects, go for video clips since they add meaning and visual interest. Most animations are just gimmicks.
  10. Recognize that this is hard. It is very easy to write your talk on software and then just stand up and deliver it. It’s much harder to write your talk in your head and then figure out how to enhance it with images. But this is what makes a great talk great.

Some presenters hand out copies of their slides on paper to the audience. We don’t recommend that because those are two different media. It’s kind of like deep-frying a pizza. You can deep-fry certain things and we all agree pizza is marvelous, but the two don’t mix well. A presentation is meant to be experienced. It’s ethereal. It should vanish when you’re done. On the other hand, if you have information you want your audience to take with them or charts or ECGs they should study as you speak, then provide them on paper. If you need to give a talk on ECG analysis, there is no problem with handing out pictures of the tracings and then showing the same tracing in your presentation so you can speak to it. But it would be even more powerful if you handed out the tracing marked with whatever you wanted to say and then discussed the tracing, while showing on the screen a related image, say, a patient during an ECG.

So how to you use a presentation to underscore what you want to say?

  • Find fun, funny, odd, powerful, or unique (shot by you) images that show the emotions or messages you’re trying to convey: fear, accomplishment, obstacles, complications, worries, motivations, success.
  • If you can find charts, graphs, or illustrations of things you want to express that are exceedingly simple, use those. Complex charts don’t work well in presentations but simple ones do. Avoid labeling them–explain what they are. For instance, you might have a graph trending upward with no text. This forces your audience to hang on your every word until you tell them what it is they’re looking at. Then you can tell them–this is our competitor’s sales for the last three quarters. This will instill in them a desire to know your company’s sales in comparison. You can talk about some other things for a while and then come back and superimpose the next line on your chart in answer to their question. This kind of delivery builds anticipation and keeps people from drifting off.
  • If you can use humor, do it. Don’t lift cartoons from the papers, but if you want to use a cartoon, write to the author or publisher (such as the newspaper where it appeared) and ask permission. Many cartoonists are also accessible online. In most cases, you can get permission to use a cartoon for little or no money if you use it in a presentation like this. You can also get an in-house artist or staffer to draw a cartoon for you (or outsource it to us).
  • Don’t worry if you only have four or five “slides” for your talk. That’s really enough, because your presentation is about you. You don’t need to spend your presentation clicking through a bunch of forgettable word slides.
  • Add some unusual stuff to your presentation. Go to a website and look up memorable quotes. Sometimes they can be appropriate to business talks or be motivational. If you quote Mark Twain or Abe Lincoln, put their picture on screen and say the quote. That’s better than just writing the quote.