How to Deliver Presentations That Are Awe-Inspiring, Not Yawn-Inducing

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Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright



I just returned from Michael Stelzner’s Social Media Marketing World conference, and had the chance to meet with some exceptional marketers and attend some captivating sessions.

It was also located in San Diego, which didn’t hurt.

My time there got me thinking of a few things, one of which was … what about the greatest sessions made them so great? Why were the best speakers, well, the best?

What an astute question. If you have to give presentations -- whether in front of your CMO or a keynote address in front of thousands -- these are the things your audience, whether they know it or not, really wishes you were doing. These tips will help you deliver a top-notch presentation, and ensure your audience leaves that room awe-inspired.

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Let your guard down. Get personal.

Assume all your audience knows about you is what's in your bio. If you have a bio. And even if you have a bio, most probably haven't read it.

So really, assume they know nothing.

You have some authority just by virtue of being on stage, but it isn't enough to seize the audience's undivided attention. To grab their ears, you have to grab their hearts. And yes, I heard how corny that sounded in my head, but I'm going with it.

Generate some empathy by letting your guard down and allowing your audience to see who you really are. Be genuine. Tell them a story about yourself -- one they can relate to. It takes courage to share something private about yourself, but that's exactly why it helps captivate an audience.

Remember, the audience is on your team. They want you to succeed. Just think back to any presentation where the speaker bombed, and you'll remember how painful and awkward that was to see. If you're willing to get a little personal with your audience, they'll give a little, too, helping you succeed by being engaged in your presentation, and receptive to your points.

Use slides to complement your presentation; not as a crutch.

I had the opportunity to see Sheryl Sandberg speak at a breakfast last week to promote her new (and excellent) book Lean In. I've also seen videos of Sheryl's presentations at a couple other venues, and was just as impressed as I was with her speech at the breakfast. Her content was, of course, top notch. But lots of people have top-notch content. What stood out to me was the fact that she didn't rely on a single PowerPoint slide the entire time. Not a one.

Sheryl's on the far end of the spectrum -- she's a talented, practiced public speaker who has learned how to tell a compelling enough story without needing any other visual aids. Most people aren't there yet, nor do they have to be. The best presenters I saw at SMMW used slides in their presentations, but only as a complement to their content, not as a crutch. That means the slides were simple, not visually distracting, and they had very few words on them. Sometimes, no words at all.

The best case I saw of this was in a session held by Douglas Karr, author of Corporate Blogging for Dummies. His slides were largely images that were either complements (often humorous ones) to the point he just made that helped naturally transition into his next topic, or visual examples that he could speak to without requiring the audience to dissect a bunch of words on a slide.

If your audience wanted to consume this information in written format, they'd go looking for a book or a blog post. They're here to hear you speak about something, not read about it. Plus, if they're spending all their time reading your slides, they're not hearing a darn thing you're saying.

Tell a story.

I've hinted at it a couple times already, so let's just call a spade a spade. Your audience wants a story. Over and over again, I see the best speakers opting for compelling, illustrative stories over a laundry list of facts, figures, tactics, and strategies. This isn't to say you don't use the latter to support your case -- you do, and you should. Simply think of the story as the allegory for your overall thesis.

Stories are engaging, they generate empathy, and they stick with listeners; as such, your overall thesis lives on in people's minds long after a presentation is over.

Don’t keep tootin’ your own horn.

It makes sense for you to draw from personal experiences -- it’s part of letting your guard down, establishing credibility, and bonding with your audience. Furthermore, it makes sense that you draw on examples from your own life or business, because it’s the content you’re most familiar with.

But … and I mean this in the nicest way possible … shut up about yourself already.

Find examples from other people and companies to help illustrate your points and support your stories. At SMMW, for instance, the closing keynote speaker Dave Kerpen told, as I recall, only one story about himself. His keynote presentation covered seven main points, but only one point was really about him. (And it was a great story, by the way. Check out how he paid for his wedding here. Also, that story covers the "tell a story" and "get personal" portions of this blog post. Well played, Dave.)

Tell some stories from your own work, but find examples from other companies, too. It adds variety, which helps everyone in the audience find something they can closely relate to in your content. There are tons of people out there doing amazing things; it's good to pay it forward and share the spotlight.

Focus on inspiration over tactics.

Let's talk about the role that more prescriptive, tactical advice plays in public speaking.

I love educating people. I love giving them prescriptive advice. I love giving them tactics and strategies to walk home with that they can implement right away to see real results in their business. It's why I do what I do, and some of the content I get most excited about -- no matter what format it takes.

But while tactics are important for actually moving the needle, inspiration is what puts you in the frame of mind to actually put those new tactics and strategies into place. And when it comes to the nitty gritty, public speaking really isn't the best forum for it. When you're delivering a presentation, focus on three things, and in this order:

  1. Inspiring your audience
  2. High-level takeaways
  3. Nitty gritty tactics for implementation

This order gets your audience excited, self-confident, and ready to implement whatever takeaways and tactics you recommend while you're speaking. Frame of mind is everything. Get people walking out of your room all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

(Tip: Prepare a one-sheeter with nitty-gritty tips based off your presentation. Amy Porterfield (and a few others) did this at SMMW with her presentation about using Facebook to launch a new product. It let people actually listen to her higher level takeaways, and leave the room with more detailed instructions they could take home with them.)

Slow your roll.

When you're passionate about a topic, it's easy to start talking really really fast likethissoyoucangeteverythingin.

Trust me, I get it. I do this all the time.

Slow down. To an almost comically slow pace. This is an old theater trick (I used to do Shakespeare theater; if you didn't already know, I'm a very cool person). When you're giving a presentation of any sort, you cannot speak as you would in a small group conversation. Slow it down, provide actual spaces between each word, and enunciate your syllables. It will feel ridiculous to you. But I guarantee that it will not sound ridiculous.

You'll just have to trust me on this one, guys. But I promise that your audience will appreciate that they can understand all the great content you've prepared!

Make ‘em laugh.

Finally, just make people laugh if you can. This is really more of a bonus trick, I suppose -- I've seen amazing live presentations where no jokes are cracked. But adding a sense of levity can make even mediocre presentations far more enjoyable -- probably because it really does show a willingness to be open and personable. And those are hugely likeable qualities.

The last session I saw at SMMW -- other than the keynote, which also made me laugh -- was from the previously mentioned Douglas Karr. It was hilarious. The guy is just really, genuinely funny. It made consuming the content he was presenting flat out more enjoyable. It would have been a great session without the jokes; but the humor had everyone leaving with a smile on their face. That's a pretty stellar way to leave a 45-minute session about social media reputation management.

What else do you admire about great presentation as an audience member?

Image credit: Smart Destinations  

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