Recently, several members of our team attended a conference that featured a range of keynote speakers each day. These speakers covered topics ranging from in-the-weeds details about the business of creativity to big picture thinking about the issues that define major industries. They were business owners, thought leaders, and people who had achieved incredible success in their careers.
But despite their qualifications, skills, and expertise, they all made the same presentation mistakes. Now, we don’t say that to criticize them, but rather to show that even experienced speakers with lots of practice speaking in front of audiences can fall prey to the same challenges that inexperienced presenters face.
So in this blog, we’re going to run through a few of the simplest ways that any presenter can make their keynote address more audience-friendly. But don’t think you need to be stepping onto the big stage to get the most from this blog – the same advice that applies to keynote presentations will also enhance the quality of your everyday presentations!
Tip #1: Set the stage with storytelling
Picture this. You are sitting with a few hundred of your closest colleagues as the first keynote of the day kicks off.
The lights go down as a hush settles over the room. From the back, music begins, a slow pulse that builds intensity as the speaker approaches the stage. The beat drops, the lights swell, and the speaker grabs the mic: “I’m here today to talk to you about getting the most from time tracking software.”
Falls a little flat, right?
While we’re all busy, and attention spans have dwindled over the years, there’s more to be gained from taking the time to use storytelling techniques in your presentations than you might realize. A keynote address is a unique opportunity to build a personal connection with a large room full of people, and one of the simplest ways to do it is to use storytelling techniques.
We define storytelling as the practice of putting information into context. Of course there are other ways to approach storytelling, and using tools like narrative structure and the Hero’s Journey can be useful when thinking about how to craft a story. But at its most basic form, a story simply shows your audience how something has changed over time.
So start by setting the stage, show where things are today, highlight the challenges your audience is facing, and then take them on a journey to discover how your idea will change things for them.
Tip #2: Keep the focus on you, not your slides
After the first day of presentations, it was clear to us in the audience which presenters had given a keynote address before and which had not. What gave it away? It wasn’t errors, or nerves, or confidence, it was how they designed their slides.
In particular, inexperienced presenters would put far too much copy onto a single slide, a practice that we often see when PowerPoint slides are used as a stand-in for other forms of internal communications.
At one point, one of our team members took a moment to count the words on a presenter's slide. The total came out to 22, which might not seem like a lot. 22 words is a short headline, and 3 bullet points with 4-6 words each. Sounds reasonable, right?
Wrong. The reality was, the slide was positively packed with content. And this wasn’t even one of the worst offenders. Some of the keynotes featured slides with so much content that you couldn’t possibly read it all before the presenter was ready to move on. The end result was an audience whose attention was divided, half-listening to the speaker and half-reading the text on their slide, but definitely not focused on the main point they were trying to make.
Tip #3: Move content to the top of the slide
At this conference, several different team members were discussing the day’s keynote speeches, and each of them came back with the same issue: “I liked the talks, but I had to move around to see the bottom of the slides over the audience.”
What happened was that the screen, which was at stage level and slightly above the audience, was lined up just such that for anyone not in the front row, the view of the bottom part of the slide was blocked by the backs of the people sitting in front.
This led to the same problem as in our last tip, which is that it distracts the audience. Now, instead of reading the slide, or simply listening to the speaker, we were all craning our necks and leaving to the side in an attempt to read the final item in a bulleted list before it was clicked off screen.
This can be a tough one to plan for, because you don’t always know what a room is going to look like, but it’s worth trying to consider some worst-case scenarios that might impact legibility while designing.
Tip #4: Make it click
Even the most carefully planned talk can have some unexpected delays. But few things will more immediately throw off your rhythm and take the audience out of the moment like your slides being out of sync with your talk.
There are lots of reasons why this can happen: maybe someone off-stage is clicking your slides forward, or you may have simply layered too many clicks on different cues.
That’s why we recommend that any animations, transitions, or other motion on your slides be set to change on click. Pacing in your content on clicks is a great tool for controlling the focus of the audience without adding any additional design or animation. Not only does this give you the most control over when your content changes, it also gives the audience subtle cues about which pieces of content are most important at any given moment.
Tip #5: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Our last tip is both the most obvious, and the most important. If you want to give a great presentation, whether it’s a mainstage keynote, breakout talk, or small conference room discussion, no single act will help ensure success like practicing your talk.
This is true of experienced presenters, first-timers, and everyone in between. And no matter what your experience level, nerves will always play a factor. But the more comfortable you are with your material, the less likely you are to get hung up or lose your flow while presenting.
There are also benefits to rehearsing that go beyond delivery. One of the best reasons to spend time running through your presentation is that you’ll inevitably find places where the story can be stronger, the language tighter, and the overall flow improved.
This may be the last tip on the list, but if you were only going to implement one suggestion from this blog, this should be it. Nothing will give you greater benefits during your presentation, or teach you more about your presentation style, than rehearsing.
Attending in-person presentations, whether at a conference or a client meeting, can be an inspirational and powerful experience. They are a wonderful opportunity to learn new information, form lasting connections, and enhance your own presentation skills. Even if you aren’t the presenter, simply taking the time to think about the presentation itself in addition to the content can be a great way to learn.
Before your next keynote presentation, or any in-person presentation, think about how these 5 tips can change the way you approach creating, practicing, and delivering your presentation.