Making It Interesting
Here is the process that I recommend for preparing a presentation:
Step 1 – Research and write an outline of the presentation
Step 2 – Put the ideas into PowerPoint format
Step 3 – Think of ways to make the presentation more interesting
Step 4 – Create the graphics for the PowerPoint slides
Step 5 – Rehearse the presentation
Step 6 – Review the presentation one more time
Step 7 – Deliver a great presentation
In this article, I want to think about step 3: Think of ways to make your presentation more interesting. After all, nobody wants to listen to a boring presentation. It’s one of the primary goals of any good presenter to make their presentation more engaging.
Are some presentations impossible to make interesting?
Throughout these articles, I often use TED Talks as examples, and I will continue today. Perhaps you might complain that it’s easy to make TED Talks interesting because they are on interesting topics. But what if you have a boring topic, such as the analysis of your country’s trade deficit or linguistic properties of computer-generated speech?
It is possible to make any presentation interesting, even technical and business presentations! Let’s find out how!
Interacting with the audience
The very best way to make a presentation interesting is by interacting with the audience.
This is much easier with a small audience of, say, fewer than twenty people. You can ask questions, get the audience to share their opinions or even play games (like in a training session).
With a larger audience, this becomes harder, but you can still have some level of interactivity by asking questions.
With a small audience, you might expect them to call out the answers. With a larger audience, this is not possible, but you might ask them to raise their hands to indicate a YES.
In the following weird but fun TED Talk, Ze Frank uses this method throughout his presentation:
With a large audience, it is more common to ask rhetorical questions. These are questions that you do not expect the audience to answer aloud.
In fact, it’s a common technique to begin an entire presentation with a rhetorical question. In the example below, Elif begins with the question, “Can you taste words?” Note how she pauses immediately afterwards.
But is a rhetorical question really interactive, even though the audience doesn’t call out the answer? Yes! This is because – as long as you pause for a second or two – the audience members will answer the question in their heads. They may even whisper the answer to each other.
What-if questions are great for this:
What if I told you that you could retire by age 40?
What if you lost your job tomorrow?
What if you suddenly found out that you were adopted?
Although not technically a question, the phrase think of a time works in a similar way:
Think of a time that you had bad service in a restaurant. How did it make you feel?
Think of a time when you had financial problems.
Think of a time when you changed your mind about someone you disliked.
The audience members will all recall a personal memory related to your topic and you have a basic level of interactivity.
Games are fun and suitable for a lighthearted presentation. You can use websites such as Kahoot! and Quizizz to create quiz-style games that the audience can play on their phones by scanning a QR code. I’ve been to a presentation where Kahoot! was used with an audience of over 1000 people!
Get Personal, Tell Stories
The second-best way to make your presentation interesting is through storytelling.
An anecdote, for example, is a short story about something that happened to you or someone you know.
We can see this example in the TED Talk below. Starting at 5:23, the presenter tells anecdotes about four different people who were happy despite their circumstances.
The most powerful kind of anecdote is a personal story – about YOU. Never think that the audience wouldn’t be interested in you, your life and your stories. It’s exactly the opposite! As humans, we love to hear each other’s stories and these stories are a powerful way to get a message across.
Just like asking a rhetorical question, a personal story is a great way to begin your presentation. The following TED Talk offers a great example:
There is even a style of presenting where the entire presentation is based around a story. This is called the narrative presentation style and you can read about it here.
Pictures, Videos, Props and Demos
If you watch a lot of TED Talks, you’ll notice that the presenters do not rely very much on slides. They prefer that the audience’s attention is fully focused on them, and they use their speaking skills to hold the audience’s attention. Many of them use only a handful of slides, mainly pictures or statistics and mainly to illustrate a point.
While this is very effective for TED-style presentations, it is not always suitable for a business presentation. The more technical the presentation, the more you want the focus to be on the content and not on you. This is also true for product presentations – it’s about the product, not about you!
So, pictures, videos and props are a great way to make your presentation more interesting.
Pictures should be clear and large enough for the audience to see all the details. Charts should be kept simple.
In the following video, Michael shows pictures of sea creatures throughout his presentation.
If you wish to show a video, make sure it is not too long – you don’t want the audience to think that you are using a video get out of talking!
In the following TED Talk (which is about viral videos), the speaker shows several videos:
Props are items that you can bring in and show to the audience. For example, if your company sells food products, why not bring some of your products to show to or even give to your audience?
In the following example, Mark Bezos, a part-time firefighter, uses his firefighter’s outfit as a prop.
In another TED Talk, Jae Rhim Lee wears her “mushroom burial suit” to talk about ways to help the environment when we die.
Perhaps even better than bringing a prop is giving a demonstration.
In the following example, Apollo Robbins demonstrates misdirection (moving someone's attention away from what you are doing) through a series of tricks (starting at 4:55).
Body Language, Voice and Language
A truly great speaker can make any topic interesting. How? Through the use of their body language, their voice and their choice of words.
Body language and energy level
Your body language should convey this: You are passionate about your topic and you are excited to share your knowledge with the audience.
Look at the following two presenters. Although we don’t know what they are talking about, we’re drawn in by the passion that they display. Think of people like Oprah Winfrey or Jamie Oliver as good role models in this regard.
You should project energy into your talk. How much energy? You need to have a higher energy level than your audience. If you are giving a talk to a group of excitable teenagers, you will need to have a super high energy level. If you are giving a technical talk to a group of accountants, you can tone it down a bit, but the basic rule still applies – you still need to have a higher energy level than your audience.
Whether or not you use PowerPoint slides, your voice is the primary tool that will help you give an interesting presentation.
Volume – Your voice must be loud enough for everyone to hear. Avoid using a microphone if you can (microphones are terrible in a small room); people will prefer to hear your natural voice.
Speed – slow down and speak a little bit slower than usual so that everyone catches everything you say.
Enunciation – here is the key point; you must stress the important words. That is, you say them slower and louder than in a normal conversation.
In the following TED Talk on anxiety by Wendy Suzuki, we will hear this passage (starting at 0:12):
Most of us think of anxiety as a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it weren't? What if you could take all of that energy racing around your brain and your body and transform it into something helpful?
Did you notice how Wendy stressed the words in bold? You may also have noticed that she also used her body language to accentuate these words, by “grasping” with her right hand. You can see many other speakers do this, too!
You may also notice that she used “what-if” statements, as we discussed earlier.
Choice of Words
To drive your points home, use powerful words, precise language and expressive language.
For instance, avoid words like good or bad and, instead, favor the stronger versions, such as fantastic, excellent, awful and horrendous. Instead of big, use immense. Instead of hungry, use absolutely starving.
As an example, here is a proposal using “normal” language:
Our company’s social media account is not very good. We don’t have many followers. I think that maybe we might be able to find a way to increase our followers. This will be good for our company.
Here is the same proposal using more powerful language:
Our social media is severely lagging behind our competitors. We have to increase engagement, and fast. I strongly feel that this will improve our brand recognition.
See the difference?
By the way, to practice using powerful adjectives, you can try an exercise here.
What about specific language? Look at the following example:
In the past decades, business has started to be conducted more easily across national borders and this has caused prices to decrease.
It’s confusing because it takes many words to say a simple thing. How about this version?
Globalization has led to lower prices.
By using the word globalization, we can shorten the sentence to six words and make it much clearer. Therefore, globalization is a great word to use. It is a specific and precise word.
Expressive language refers to interesting ways to express things. We can use idioms, metaphors, slang and visual language to get our point across, and this is more likely to capture and hold the audience’s attention.
Let’s go back to Wendy Suzuki’s talk and examine her opening statement:
You know when you get that ambiguous email from your boss and you start to feel sweaty palms and that empty, freaked out sensation in your stomach? Welcome back, anxiety.
She uses an idiom (freaked out) and she uses a kind of visual statement – she asks you to imagine a situation where you have “sweaty palms” and an empty feeling in your stomach. This is a great example of expressive language. We should always be on the lookout for words like this.
Like most great speakers, she continues like this throughout her entire talk. You can read the transcript in full here.
Humor is a great way to make your talk interesting (as we saw in Ze Frank’s talk above).
However, you should only use humor if you feel comfortable doing so.
Basically, your presentation style should reflect your natural personality. If you are the kind of person who loves to crack jokes, you certainly should add humor to your presentation. But if you are more of the serious type, I recommend that you avoid it.
“Buy-in” refers to the audience understanding that the presentation will be useful to them. Once they understand that the presentation will be useful, they will pay close attention, even if the topic is dry.
One of the best ways to get buy-in is to start by directly explaining exactly how the audience will benefit from listening to the talk.
For example, if you are giving a talk on cryptocurrency:
Many people are worried about cryptocurrency. They’re worried about losing their money if they invest. They’re worried about missing opportunities if they don’t invest. After listening to my talk today, you will have a clear understanding of whether cryptocurrency is the right investment tool for you.
Pick the way that is right for you
We’ve gone through lots of examples and methods that you can use to make your talk interesting. Which way is right for you?
As you become more experienced as a presenter, I hope you can try out all of the methods that we have covered.
Good luck with your presentations!