What makes a great presentation? Is it the content, or the way it's packaged?
For most, it's getting the right combination. The medium you choose should be tailored to the intended level of interaction and desired response from the audience. Sharing a story with entrepreneurs at a conference versus presenting data to a small team of engineers are two scenarios that require different types of presentations. The first would benefit from using spatial relationships to tell his story, and the latter might prefer something that's more of a simple information display. Choosing the right method to share ideas starts with knowing the audience.
Knowing Your Audience: Ask Yourself Key Questions
The best presenters adopt a story arc that’s relatable for the audience by using unique and interesting perspectives; this way, the audience can understand the point without feeling beaten over the head with it. Steve Jobs, one of the best known communicators of our time, used to have his product manager tweaking a 5-minute intro for many weeks, exploring upwards of 50 ideas with his team before coming up with the story for their product.
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If I need to come up with presentation content, I could sit on my beanbag chair and wait for inspiration to come through my fingertips. Or I can help the creative thinking process along by asking strategic questions. For presentations, thinking about the audience is a great place to start. I ask myself questions like: Why is this audience going to be here and why do they care? and What will create a memorable and engaging experience? Then, once I have an initial idea, I ask: Would there be a completely different way to achieve my communication goal? This approach allows more creative thinking than questions, like: How can I get my point across? Iterating between the big picture and the details is important before settling on your final story.
Kill the Bullet Points: Take People on a Visual/Spatial Journey
Bullets points in presentations don’t trigger our visual and spatial memories, and are therefore hard to recall later. Also, using bullet points or linear slides affects both the creation process and the delivery. Ideas flourish when we see how they relate to each other and draw connections between ideas that were formally bound by physical distance, or bullet point lists. We call this concept: “see to think.”
For example, pause and consider: What is currently in your kitchen?
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Now, did you reference a bullet point list in your head or envision yourself standing in the kitchen looking around? It's called the method of loci. Our minds understand and retain information if presented with a spatial layout. Joshua Foer, 2006 USA Memory Champion and New York Times-bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein, has a great TED talk about spatial memory where he walks his audience through the process of creating an outrageous visual and spatial story to remember information. It turns out that the spatial metaphor is very powerful for audiences as well. It helps us understand and retain more of the information. The 2012 Memory Champ—and Prezi fan—Nelson Dellis also uses a spatial journey tactic.
Photo: Courtesy of Prezi
Looks Matter: What You See is What You Get
Before choosing a visual aid, set the stage. Will there be a speaker with a podium or a round table for everyone to participate? If there are a lot of people chiming in, smaller discussions will be difficult. But if you’re with a small captive audience, forcing them to listen to a monologue is likely not going to achieve your communication goal. So, once you have a clear idea of the number of people joining and the stage you will be using to deliver your idea, make sure to choose the appropriate visual aid.
Whiteboards say, “I’m open to hearing ideas," while a slide deck can make you seem confident but also limits you to one linear path and your ability to adjust on the fly. An iPad presentation provides a more intimate exchange of ideas, much like a conversation.
Iterate and Improve
We seldom get everything right the first time. Understanding this gives presenters an advantage and increases the likelihood of continual improvement. It’s only through trying to spread and share ideas that we can measure our work’s success.
Take time to ask questions after a presentation and learn from it. Did people find it interesting? More importantly, listen carefully to whether anyone is talking about the ideas afterward. You might be surprised to find that, with a carefully planned presentation, you can really make an impact.
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Peter Arvai is CEO of Prezi, a presentation software company he co-founded in Budapest, Hungary, in 2009 with Adam Somlai-Fischer and Peter Halacsy. Prezi now has more than 100 employees and 18 million users.