Stop Presenting, And Start Engaging

Face it. Your meetings and presentations are boring. It's easy enough to blame PowerPoint. But that may not the problem. Blaming the slides
May 03, 2011

Face it. Your meetings and presentations are boring.

It's easy enough to blame PowerPoint. But that may not the problem. Blaming the slides for a boring presentation is like blaming the dining room for a boring dinner party.

Just because you've sat through countless boring presentations doesn't mean you have to prolong the epidemic. Have the courage to be an engager instead of a presenter. Not only will your listeners appreciate it and respond more favorably, you'll feel much better doing it. You won't have to ditch your slides, but you might need to ditch a few ineffective presentation habits.

Over the years, I've come up with three rules of engagement, with tips on skills to invest in—and habits to retire.

1. Get them at "hello." Just as it takes two to three seconds to make a first impression, it takes about that long for an audience to form an impression of your presentation.

  • Retire boring beginnings. Stop opening your speeches by clearing your throat, fumbling with papers. Stop saying "I'm here to talk to you about" or "This first slide deals with." And no need to reintroduce yourself. They all know who you are.
  • Invest in attention-grabbing techniques. Use an attention-getter—start engaging your audience immediately, even before you say your name and topic. I've seen some great ways to do this: a. Ask questions. Response questions—A show of hands: how many of you….? Rhetorical questions—"What would you say if I told you our budget problems were a thing of the past?" Actual questions—"What's the biggest issue our department faces in the upcoming quarter?"b. Provoke your audience. State a startling fact or statistic, a thought-provoking quotation, or a compelling anecdote.

2. Tune up your voice. The tone, quality, rhythm, volume, and modulation of your voice affects 38 percent of your message. If you use the tone of voice that you use to order coffee, your audience won't be feeling the love.

  • Retire monotone and "whatevering" delivery. When you utter every word with the same tone, inflection, rhythm and pitch, you may think you're sounding more serious and professional. You're not. Just boring. Even worse is whatevering. That's a word I coined after encountering countless clients and presenters who sound like they're bored to death—as if they just want to get the speech over with, because they're not interested in the topic, and they know you're not interested, either. Whatevering is different from monotone: it has a singsong rhythm and carries an undercurrent of arrogance and impatience.
  • Invest in vocal variety. Savor your wordsDon't think of them as black letters on a page—think of them as beautiful, colorful musical notes. Figure out your focus words and phrases—the ideas you really want your listeners to grasp—and find different ways to emphasis them. You can make them louder, longer, softer, shorter, higher-pitched, lower-pitched, encase them between pauses…the choices are endless. Channel your inner Morgan Freeman. Learn to breathe fully and deeply, using your diaphragm muscle. Not only will that give you a deeper, richer tone, making you sound more confident and powerful—you'll also be able to speak longer without losing your voice.

3. Keep your audience onboard. What do you do if you look into the audience and see folded arms, glazed eyes and busy BlackBerrys?

  • Stop talking and berate your audience for not paying attention. 
  • Keep talking and berate yourself for boring your listeners, or silently berating your audience for being rude.
  • Talk faster, so it'll be over sooner.
  • Change course slightly, and re-engage your listeners. 


Retire the top three options and invest in involvement techniques.

  • State changes. Too many folded arms? Ask a show-of-hands question, or do a partner check-in to get listeners to change their body positions.
  • Ask a rhetorical, open or closed-ended question. Something related to your topic that's slightly challenging—and that will make listeners feel smart for knowing the answer.
  • Throw in a pop quiz.
  • Ask for a volunteer to demonstrate or share something.
  • Tell a story that engages emotions.            .


OPEN Cardmember Robyn Hatcher is the founder of SpeakEtc., a communication and presentation-skills training and coaching company aiming to raise the level of all forms of face-to-face communication.