Presentation Hacks to Engage Your Audience

I had a teacher in high school who read to us from the world history textbook every class. Occasionally he would change it up and have us take turns reading to each other. It was a long year. The two things I remember from that class: it was mind-numbingly boring and I was ecstatic when it was over every day.

The equivalence of this in my adult life is being read to from a PowerPoint presentation that I could, you know, read myself. We’ve all been in those presentations, trainings or meetings. The presenter hands out a stapled version of the PowerPoint that’s on the screen. And then they read it to you. Verbatim.

Don’t Be That Person

Presenting to an audience can definitely be nerve wracking, especially for a subject-matter expert who isn’t a professional trainer. Using a PowerPoint presentation as a crutch is an easy and understandable habit to fall into. However, it is not an effective way to transfer knowledge to your audience. There are some simple things you can do to wow your audience, even when the topic is less-than-thrilling.

Start With the Right Mindset

Charmain Brittain is a training and development guru for professionals working in the field of human services. (Check out her Leadership Toolkit). Years ago I attended a curriculum development session she facilitated and she said something that has stuck with me, “Curriculum is not PowerPoints.” It is so simple and true. And yet it did not reflect my current reality. Think about all the PowerPoint “handouts” you have received over the years. How many times did you actually refer back to them? How many of them did you toss? Into the recycling bin, of course! Here are some quick tips based on Charmaine’s wisdom:

  • Use handouts that support your presentation rather than a carbon copy of it. If you are presenting on a new policy give the policy as a handout if it is feasible or provide it electronically. Then use brief slides to go over the major points.
  • Follow the “Rule of Five” on your presentation. Avoid wordiness with no more than five bullet points of about five words each. Add appropriate images to slides for an even more powerful presentation.
  • Take the time to create a meaningful handout, rather than copying your PowerPoint. You may legitimately have some key information that you want your audience to leave with. Create a handout that flows logically to hit those major points. Use bullet points to draw the eye to what you want folks to retain. One page front and back is all you need for shorter presentations.

Create a Memorable Presentation

  • Create a quiz in your presentation. You can do this within the software or you can download a free quiz plug in tool that allows your audience to answer or vote with their smart phones.
  • Use a word cloud instead of a boring bulleted list of information. Most word cloud builders will allow you to manipulate which words pop so you can control where the audience eye goes first.
  • If designing in PowerPoint is too tiresome for you try Prezi. You can use the free basic version to create engaging presentations that your audience will love. A subscription is less than $100 per year and allows you to control privacy settings on what you create.

Engage with People

  • Start with a quick ice breaker to energize the room. Make sure it is relevant to your topic, as an icebreaker just for the sake of it can start everyone off on the wrong page. An easy icebreaker to modify is Popcorn. As facilitator you can control the items or qualities to share based on your topic rather than having participants take turns sharing.
  • Resist the urge to read your presentation. And while it might be appropriate to point out where key information is on the handout, resist the urge to read that to your audience.
  • Simple questions can get the conversation going. If the free tools mentioned earlier don’t fit your topic or style, try questions in both directions. You can pose questions to the room to gauge what they already know or to get their opinions throughout the presentation. And opening the floor for them to ask you questions can ensure mutual understanding.

Go For It!

It may take a little extra time and practice to implement some of these ideas, but your return will be so worth it. When you start with the right mindset, get creative, and engage your audience, they will respond to it. You will finish your next presentation knowing that you connected with people and shared your knowledge. You’ll never want to go back to death by PowerPoint.

Gabrielle Wonnell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Leah Anderson

Thanks for sharing these tips! I love the idea about including a quiz in the presentation. Not only helps with learning retention, but it breaks up the content of the presentation and encourages participation from your audience.

Gabrielle Wonnell

Ironically I started reading Pitch Perfect by Bill McGowan after submitting this post. So far it has some great tips on engaging with an audience, including practicing and being prepared. He recommended allowing 30% of time for audience participation if you are opening your presentation up to that.

Erica P. Harris

Thanks for the additional tips. I recently sat through two full days of the wordiest Powerpoint presentations known to mankind. In addition, there were some graphical slides where the presenters gave a nonchalant “I know you can’t see this, but…”. I don’t get why it’s difficult to understand that the slides are there to aid the presenter, not replace or compete with them. I was recently introduced to Mentimeter and it is now a staple in our main forum for government ICT professionals.