In the dozen or so presentational skills training sessions I've led this year, I've posed this question to the hundreds of participants, discerning the ingredients they associate with powerful presentations. Four factors have emerged.
1. Relevant content
Content still rules. While make indicated a great presenter could partially compensate for weaker content, the general consensus was that the satisfaction with that presentation would be short-lived once it was fully realized that the learning had been short-changed. Identifying what's relevant means the presenter has thoughtfully considered the specific audience being addressed … be it 5 people in a staff meeting or 500 people in a keynote address.
What do these people care about? What are the current issues and trends affecting them? What examples will resonate most deeply and provide clarity? What knowledge or understanding do they already possess and what new insights and information can I add to that? Great presenters over-prepare on content so that they can modify the information they share based on the participants' response and questions. And no matter how much detail they dive into, they always reiterate a clear and compelling message that tells a simple story, one that is memorable and meaningful and often using metaphors to anchor the new information in simple examples.
2. Engaging formats
Engaging means different things based on your learning styles, so presenters need to offer a mix of learning formats to appeal to both introverted extroverted learners while also being appropriate for the content being covered and the timeframe available for the presentation. It's probably safe to say though that all-lecture is rarely going to be found engaging unless the presentation is very brief, you are a genius and participants will be hanging on your every word, or you are a great entertainer who will enthrall an audience. Even if any of those are true, you should still look for ways to engage the participants in making sense of what you are saying through conversation with themselves, each other, and you.
Examine every segment of your content and identify several possibilities for bringing them to life through more interactive teaching and learning techniques. Then select the ones that offer variety in your presentation, that are appropriate for the participants, and that create an appropriate mix of energy throughout your presentation. Think like a DJ who combines songs for a great set, appropriately mixing styles and rhythms for a great dance.
3. Effective visuals
Whatever you use (and it doesn't just have to be slides), you should offer visuals that are artfully designed with content and images carefully selected. Less text that can inspire more talk is a good general rule of thumb. Ruthless editing generally serves you well, both in terms of the overall number of visuals and the content on any individual slide. Look to magazines, web sites, and slide decks on sits like Slideshare for inspiration. Turn to great books like Presentation Zen and Resonate for more detailed instruction on visuals and presentation design.
Remember, visuals require particpants' energy and attention, so include only those that merit such an investment. I've seen great talks that used 100 slides in 20 minutes and poor presentations that used five slides in one hour. It's not the quantity that matters; It's the quality and the appropriateness. Effective visuals inspire, support, and enhance learning.
4. A thoughtful and interesting presenter
Yep, it really is about you somewhat. Lots of books and workshops are available to help you with presentation techniques, and here's a short article I wrote for Association Forum of Chicagoland on the topic.
Technique matters, but finding your own voice may be most critical. Noted educator Parker Palmer once said that "Good teaching comes not from technique, but from the identity and integrity of the teacher." You need to use technique to bring who you are and what you believe into the presentation, not let the technique try to replace your voice. There is no auto-tune in presentations, so you're going to sound the way you sound.
Spend time discovering the presentation style in which you feel most comfortable, the one that feels almost effortless, the one that leverages your strengths. We tend to engage with presenters who clearly care about their craft and are passionate about their pursuits … even if they say um a few too many times or roam about the stage a bit too much. Yes, by all means, work on not doing those things, but work most on being you.
So, the bottom line on what makes presentations more powerful? Interesting and authentic presenters using engaging formats and valuable visuals to bring relevant content to life.