This recent TED Talk by Julian Treasure on 5 ways to listen better is a fabulous example of an effective presentation. Watch it, then let's talk about what you can do to improve your presentations.
5 ways to present better:
1. Keep it short
This talk is only 7 minutes long. As Julian explains, with our busy world, our attention spans are shrinking. We pay attention to fewer things for shorter periods of time. Keeping a presentation short helps ensure that the audience doesn't reach the point of being antsy and bored. But what if you're teaching an hour long class or have to give a presentation that is longer than 10 minutes? Break it down into smaller segments. As Dr. John Medina explains in Brain Rules, students tend to tune out at around the 10 minute mark, so structure your lesson to take advantage of that. Divide the lesson or presentation into 10 minute chunks, create your slides around those segments, and build in a break or related activity in between each of them. This helps regain the attention of the students. Even a simple joke can work – as long as it is directly related to the topic. Breaking down the lesson into smaller chunks also makes it easier to prepare.
2. Jump right in
When you watch the video, notice how there is no self-introduction, incidental anecdote about his plane ride, an lengthy list of thank you's, or a string of "umms" and throat clearing noises. He simply starts by stating the thesis of his talk, "We are losing our listening," which he promptly backs up with a clear set of data. This is the art of the cold start, which I have mentioned before. All of that warming up tends to bore the audience to sleep, while a brisk opening wakes them up and let's them know you mean business.
3. Keep slides simple
It's a theme that I repeat over and over again. Your slides are too complex. Everyone tries to cram too much information on a screen which is not meant for detail. Slides accompany your talk, they do not deliver it. Julian's slides are dead simple. No bullet points, no title and body text. Just simple phrases in large text on a decent colored background. They accompany his talk and reinforce the message he is trying to share.
4. Use media seamlessly
This talk was about sound: How we listen and why we should pay more attention to it. Julian played sounds in the background while he presented – cocktail party chatter, pink noise, crowds, birds in a forest, etc. – to give the audience a feel for what he was describing. The reason this was effective, though, was not simply because he used audio, but because he used it almost imperceptibly. I see lots of people use media in their presentations – like music or YouTube videos – but the process isn't always as seamless. Instead, the presenter exits out of the presentation revealing a mess of files on the desktop, navigates to a YouTube video, plays it in the window rather than fullscreen, fiddles with the mouse or volume while it is playing, and then returns to the presentation. This process is full of distractions and empty seconds in which the audience can drift off. If you want the media to make an impact, insert it into your presentation and set the appropriate timing so that it plays when you want it to. It can sometimes be difficult to find the right media format to use with Microsoft PowerPoint, but experiment a bit and check Microsoft's Support site for help. (If you're using Apple's Keynote, you will rarely run into playback issues with media.)
5. Stand comfortably
We've all seen it: the presenter pacing awkwardly around the stage, more often than not in a little jazz square near the lectern, pausing periodically with one leg crossed in front of the other. I like to call it the "presenter potty pace," and it happens when we are unsure of how to stand and what to do with our arms. Standing comfortably takes practice and awareness. Julian demonstrates it perfectly at 6 minutes 40 seconds into the video when he suggests that we be "connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other." This also explains why nervous presenters look uncomfortable in their own skin – they lose connection with the present moment. Their minds are racing thinking about themselves and what they're supposed to say, and whether the presenter remote is working. If they just calm their minds, acknowledge where they are, and focus on their audience, they can relax into their stance and present comfortably and naturally. Julian is so adept at this, that, for a moment, he even had the confidence to dance a waltz on stage!
The TED stage has a large circle of red carpet which, I assume, is meant as a boundary for the presenter. There are likely many reasons for this, such as making it easier for stage lighting and the camera crew, but it also benefits the presenter. If they are conscious of the boundary, they will not wander frantically around the stage. Having a soft limit gives you a safe area to move around in. Just like Julian does, it is ok to shift your weight, take a step or two, and move your arms deliberately. Oftentimes, I will script a stage move at a specific point in my presentation, i.e. walk across the stage while introducing the second topic, stay there, then walk back while introducing the third topic. In general, though, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and your hands relaxed at your side or in front of you if you tend to gesture a lot.
Of course, for teachers, it may be a little different. It is important to move around the classroom and maintain a close connection with the students, especially in K-12 (although, if you're using PowerPoint in grade school, we need to have another discussion). But when you are moving among the audience, it is even more important to maintain that relaxed confidence and presence of mind.
What other presentation tips can you learn from this wonderful TED Talk?