I am indebted to a close contact of mine Ian Brownlee for bringing to my attention the results of an International study on Presentations 2000 to 2012 (updated in Dec 2017).
The study aimed to identify why audiences lose interest and stop paying attention during presentations. I’m sure this is something any presenter would want to understand.
I hardly need to explain why this is a bad outcome. In short, you’ve wasted your best opportunity to get your message across and wasted everyone’s time into the bargain.
I don’t believe that anybody deliberately sets out to deliver a bad presentation. The vast majority of presenters seem to genuinely believe they are presenting well. They might not be totally confident in their own ability but they believe they have done all they could to deliver their messages successfully - even when they haven’t.
Can You Rely On Audience Feedback?
Understanding current performance levels is the first step towards improvement. Unfortunately, audience feedback isn't much help. It's very difficult for an audience to objectively critique a presentation and it’s even more difficult for the presenter to receive this critique objectively.
A better place to start might be to understand the most common behaviours that will make your audience switch off. Bear in mind too, that remote presentations make the task of keeping your audience engaged that much harder.
In no particular order here are 5 of the most common issues that arise:
Grasp the Limitations of Working Memory
Without going too deeply into the science behind it, maintaining audience engagement is all to do with our working memory. This is how much information our brains can evaluate and retain. Miller's original research suggested this to be 7+/- 2 pieces of information. More recent studies by Cowan & Shu and others suggest that the memory can process up to 14 connected or related visual elements – lending further weight to the oft quoted cliché that “a picture paints a thousand words.”
Shu, et al, also state that Working Memory is able to easily process 3 chunks of incoming information at one time. E,g., The good, the bad and the ugly. The Father, the son and the holy ghost, etc.. Listen to any politician and note how often points come in groups of three!
So in practical terms, to improve your presentations you must avoid overloading the working memory:
Doing all of this is easier said than done. It’s beneficial to have an objective external opinion to coach you on how effectively you are implementing these points and to provide encouragement and coaching on subtle ways of improving.
If your presentation is of critical importance to you and your business, you really want to do all you can to keep your audience alert and engaged, and ready to absorb the points you need to communicate.
The Bid Coach consultants are experts in effective communication. We help individuals and businesses large and small to improve the effectiveness of their presentations so they become sought-after experts and win more business.
Telling presenters that they shouldn’t use bullet points is, well, pointless. I think most people (except excessively lazy presenters) have got the message that bullets are engagement killers. But sometimes they are unavoidable.
So rather than issue an edict that says ‘thou shalt not use bullet points in your slides,’ I thought it might be more helpful to look at what bullet points do to the communication process. This might help you to use bullets more carefully and wisely.
I’m indebted to my friend Ian Brownlee for the psychological insights here. It certainly confirms what I’ve observed through experience over many years.
What’s the Point of the Bullet Point?
Most people believe that presentations are for sharing facts, figures and evidence to convince the audience of the strength of their argument. These are important considerations, but only up to a point.
The problem is that people don’t make decisions based just on the facts. Neuroscientific evidence shows that if the rational and emotional parts of the brain become disconnected, even simple decisions become impossible to make. Recent research indicates that more than 90% or our decisions are based on emotions which then need to be justified by data.
So when you are presenting, don't show them the data. Show them what it represents – the ‘what they get.’ Paint a picture of a brighter future.
ALL decisions (even ‘hard-nosed’ business ones) are a mix of the rational and the emotional. Bullet points are not strong on emotional engagement. So, if that’s pretty much all your presentation has, you have a problem.
In the world of procurement a slightly better mark can be awarded to one potential bidder simply because “it felt better” to the assessors or “they seemed to understand us more.” Multiply this effect across a range of questions and even a marginal improvement in score can make a significant difference to the overall marks and result.
Use words like ”Imagine the positive impact..!” Or “Consider how this will increase…!” This style of language initiates internal emotions - which is what you want.
Control the Narrative
Our role as presenters is to lead the audience through the ‘story’ we want to tell them. We need to focus on one piece of that ‘story’ at a time, until we choose to move on to the next stage. The best way to achieve this is to make sure we get our audience emotionally engaged in our narrative. There are techniques you can use to do this, which we’ll cover below.
Be aware too, of what happens if you ask anyone to read and listen simultaneously. They start reading and stop listening. Project a screen full of text or bullet points and you’d might as well stop talking altogether.
How to Use Bullets and Stay Connected
So, if you get to a point in your presentation where you can’t tell the story with pictures and the spoken word, if bullets look like the only option, what should you do?
How Much Can We Remember?
Here’s the other thing to remember about bulleted lists: people are most likely to retain what they hear first (when their concentration is highest) and last (the most recent thing they hear). It’s a case of front-loading vs end loading in a double bind context.
In the double bind context the first point somebody hears is absorbed and ‘accepted as a given.’ The follow up point or option is then treated as more important and retained longer in the working memory. The working memory applies a “last in, first out” concept. This is especially true if the point is emotion-based and provides more benefits for the receiver.
So the presenter who lists bullets in descending order of importance may be helping their audience remember points that are less important at the expense of key information.
The order in which you present bullet points has more significance than many appreciate. You have considerable influence over what information your audience absorbs and retains - use it wisely!
The point of your presentation is to make an impact, induce positive feelings and be remembered for the right reasons. How you avoid or use bullet points can go a long way to achieving this.
Want to go deeper? Here are links to articles by Ian Brownlee related to this topic:
The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations.
Goodbye, Bullet points. Hello, Transmediation (and Effective & Memorable Communication)
International Presentations: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? How to structure your message.
Published in the ASTD journal.
For now, face to face meetings and presentations are off the agenda. And who knows, there’s every chance that when social distancing restrictions are lifted remote presentations will remain commonplace.
The efficiency of organising presentations without everyone needing to be in the same place is something many clients will want to hang on to. So we’d better all become skilled at presenting online if we want to win new business.
For presenters and bid teams, this brings a whole new set of challenges. While many of us are getting used to Zoom and other remote communication tools we maybe have a bit of leeway. This won’t last. Expectations will increase rapidly as more people experience how online meetings and presentations can be handled with professionalism.
Is it the Technology, or is it You?
Even just the mechanics of getting everyone on the presentation team to make their contribution in a slick and professional way takes some planning and practice. Don’t do your learning in front of your client or your most important audience.
Thankfully, we’ve largely got past the stage when presenters routinely apologised for the technology (or their mastery of it) in face-to-face presentations, we don’t want to replicate that painful experience remotely.
Help Your Voice to Help You
Probably the most important change to grasp is that you are even more reliant on your voice. In my coaching sessions I have always emphasised how important it is to modulate your tone and pace, to use strategic pauses and repetition, to add colour and changes of pitch.
Online presentations don’t allow you to move around. Gestures have less impact. Eye contact isn’t possible (but do make sure you look directly into the camera). Your voice is pretty much all you have at your disposal to bring energy to your presentation.
Supercharging your vocal delivery probably won’t come naturally. It almost certainly won’t feel natural at first. But work at it. Maybe record your script and play it back without images, just to see what sort of impact your voice has.
See What Others See
The next thing I would urge you to do is think carefully about what other participants will see. Position your camera so that it is more or less at eye level. If you are using the camera built into your laptop you will probably need to place your computer on something to bring it to the right level. The ‘up the nose’ shot probably isn’t your best angle.
Make sure you are well lit and that the background is uncluttered with nothing to distract the audience.
These few basic tips will help you be more engaging and persuasive in your online presentations and meetings. I’ll be sharing others over the coming weeks. If you’d like to get into all of this in more detail and have the opportunity to ask questions, I’m also hosting some free webinars on online presentations.
I'll be releasing the details of the next webinar soon - drop me an email if you'd like an invitation: [email protected]
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.