Getting your message across
In many job functions today, communication is an essential skill. Whether you are an expert, leader, facilitator, teacher or trainer, your ability to communicate effectively in many cases determines how successful you are in your job. In this article, we will share some tips for communicating better and delivering more effective presentations.
The field of communication is wide, and it is far from possible to cover it all in one single article. Acknowledging this, we have made a prioritisation in this article as to what might be most relevant to those who want to get started on improving their communication practice.
We will start with an introduction to how the brain works. This first section serves as the foundation for the following two sections, as understanding how the brain works forms the backbone of many of the communication principles presented in the later sections. That said, studies of the brain are also a vast field, so in this article, we will only shed light on the most relevant insights from this field that relate to communication. In section 2, we will look at how to prepare your presentation and unfold two concrete tools to improve your presentations that you can start using straight away. We will end the article with a third and last section where we take a deep dive into how to deliver your presentation, focusing on the strategic use of body language.
We hope that the tips we share will support you in delivering presentations with effect. If you are already an experienced communicator, you might also get a couple of new ideas for how to advance your communication practice even further.
Mark Bowden is an American body language expert. According to Bowden, when initiating a presentation, you have no more than 90 seconds to convince your audience to be your allied and not your enemy. This means that if we get off on the wrong foot, we only have a small chance of succeeding with our presentations.
When facilitating a workshop or a meeting, you must be aware that your participants will start evaluating whether they like you or not even before the formal meeting starts. They will do their evaluation based on how you welcome them to the room and how present you are before the meeting starts. For instance, are you preoccupied with emails, or do you show an interest in them, making small talk with positive gestures and openness?
If we look at how the brain works, Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman divided the brain into a system 1 and a system 2, each representing either fast or slow thinking. Looking at the 90-second rule, this is where system 1 – the fast-thinking part of the brain – is dominant.
“But what can we do if we really want the system-1 brain to like us?”
According to Kahneman, system 1 is evoked by emotions, and it tends to jump to conclusions without having a specific reason for this. So when we want people to like us, we try to find common ground that connects us and get them to build empathy for us or the story we tell. We also want them to feel that they are in good hands and that they can rely on what we are saying in our presentations.
When you prepare and deliver your presentations, knowledge about how the brain works is important. And if you sometimes feel that it is difficult to engage your audience, think about what you did to motivate and build trust with them from your very first touchpoints.
The redundancy effect is related to how the brain deals with multiple sources of information, e.g. visuals and text, and has been described in various learning theories over the past decades.
A way to exemplify the redundancy effect is when you pick up the phone while being focused on a task on your computer. You cannot stop looking at the task even though you are on the phone. Reading the words on the screen and listening at the same time is hard.
So how does the redundancy effect impact the way we prepare our presentations? Generally speaking, if your audience is reading and listening at the same time, the likelihood that they will remember what you are saying is essentially zero1. Therefore, you need to ensure that your slides do not contain too much text distracting the audience from paying attention to what you are saying.
Another sure way to lose your audience’s attention is to forget all about the fact that they are in the room. This could happen for many reasons, e.g. if you are nervous about your presentation and stick to your speaking notes without paying attention to your audience, or if you are talking about a topic you are very passionate about and forget everything about the people, time and energy in the room.
The human brain cannot stay focused for very long. Knowing this, we recommend that you keep your presentations to a maximum of 20 minutes in a physical meeting and 10 minutes in a virtual meeting before activating the audience. A way to involve them could be something as simple as asking a question and making them reflect and relate to the content presented, or you could have them discuss a question in pairs for just a few minutes.
Using micro-involvements every 10 or 20 minutes is an easy way to keep your audience engaged throughout the presentation. Your presentation should last no longer than 45 minutes in total before you ask the participants to work on actual group activities to digest the content of it. If your knowledge session lasts longer than one hour, it might be a good idea to give your participants a break every hour.
In the next section, we will share two concrete tools to support you in preparing and structuring your presentation.
At Implement, we have developed a tool called the design star. We use it when designing all kinds of human interactions, including preparing presentations.
The design star has five dimensions, as shown below.
When clients come to us asking for help to become better at getting their messages across, we often find the root of the challenge in the first step of the design star – the purpose.
We are busy people, and preparing a presentation for a meeting is something we have done many times before. To many of us, communication is not our primary job, but it is an important part of it, e.g. we cannot be scientists or researchers without sharing our work with others, and we cannot be leaders without communicating even though we do not consider communication our primary job.
Most of us have probably participated in meetings where we listened to presentations with PowerPoint slides with so much content that it was hard to stay on track. And when we do not have any mental resources left to keep ourselves engaged, our minds start to wander, we look out the window, start checking emails or social media etc. And then finally, back at our desk, we realise that we have a presentation to prepare for tomorrow. What do you do? If you are anything like most other people, you will probably start collecting slides from previous presentations, hoping that a clear storyline will appear out of nowhere as soon as you have put together the slides you find relevant. And if you think it is not clear enough yet, you might add one or two more slides to see if that helps. But how do you define whether the selected slides are relevant if you do not have a purpose to compare with?
Adding more slides as well as more text, data and facts to the slides is not the way to prepare effective presentations – on the contrary. It is not that we cannot reuse slides, but before starting the exercise of putting together slides from other presentations, we must ask ourselves: why are we delivering this presentation? What is the purpose? What do we want to leave the participants with?
In this dimension of the design star, you formulate the purpose and define the one or three key messages that are important to include as part of your presentation.
When you have formulated the purpose, it is time to consider who your target group is. This is the dimension we call “participants” in the design star.
Often, it is necessary to use the same type of communication for different target groups, e.g. project team, steering committee, leadership team, external partner or others. But even though the main message might be the same, the presentation of it should not be.
When it comes to design choices in the actual preparation of your presentation, it is crucial that you know who your target group is. Knowing your target group enables you to identify what message will resonate the most with the different groups, and you can then use this to choose what to highlight in the specific presentation.
A final but important fact to take into account is the number of participants, as the tips for the use of body language vary slightly, depending on whether you are presenting to a small or a large group of people. As a rule of thumb, it takes 40 seconds from you asking a question to your audience hears and understands it and is ready to reply. The 40-second rule applies to large groups of people, but the principle of making sure to pause and stop talking, allowing the participants to think before answering, also applies to small groups.
The “environment” dimension is about considering where the presentation should take place, e.g. is it a virtual or a face-to-face presentation? If it is a face-to-face presentation, do you have any influence on where it takes place, or has this already been decided? Sometimes we do not have any influence on this decision but will have to make the most of what we get. But remember that you can do a lot with the room you have available.
You probably still remember the 90-second rule; and to support you in getting off on the right foot, the environment dimension can be an easy fix. If you show the participants that the presentation is important to you and that you are well prepared, you also signal that the participants are important to you, which is often something that gives you credit on the friend-enemy scale.
One way to stage the room to send a positive signal to your participants could be with a welcoming flip chart on the door or in the room when people arrive, music playing and handouts with more details about your presentation placed on the seats.
Another thing to consider is the mental environment. How much do you think about supporting your participants in arriving with the right mindset to engage in what you intend to present to them? A way to ensure that the participants’ mental environment is where you want it to be is to consider whether they need to receive anything from you in advance. Do they need to prepare anything, read something or take action on things before the meeting to make the presentation more meaningful for them to engage in?
If you grew up in a western culture, and maybe even in an academic environment, my guess is that every time you read the word “presentation” in this article, you thought about PowerPoint presentations and slides – at least, that is probably what 90% of you did. Maybe a PowerPoint presentation is the best way to achieve the purpose of your presentation, and maybe other methods would better support your message and the purpose you are trying to achieve – or maybe a combination of PowerPoint and other process methods is exactly the recipe you did not know you were looking for.
Therefore, we want to challenge you a bit on your traditional thinking when it comes to the form of the presentation. We briefly mentioned flip charts as a way of staging the room, but have you ever tried to make a presentation using only flip charts and index cards? Or have you considered printing the key slides as posters and putting them on the wall for greater flexibility when delivering your presentation, as you can use the entire room and invite the participants to join a standing presentation as part of the session, also to ensure that they are energised and engaged?
Finally, if you are more than one presenter, it is a good idea to align roles in advance and maybe even practise the transition between your different responsibilities in the presentation. Confusion and misunderstandings between presenters can be enough for your participants’ attention to start wandering and thereby losing focus of what you are presenting to them.
The design star is a good tool to use for the initial preparation of your presentation. The next step is to start creating a storyline and preparing your slides.
Many different communication models exist – some more advanced and complex than others. In this article, we will share one simple tool that is easy to apply. We call it the fish model, and it offers you three attention points for structuring your presentation: beginning, content and closure. As you can see in the model below, it also comes with guiding estimates of how long each element of your presentation should take.
In the first step of the fish model, you should consider the 90-second rule and what you know about your target group. Think about the purpose of your presentation, and reflect on what might be the most appealing and motivational argument to start this presentation with. If you are talking to the person responsible for financial matters, you could start with a statement like:
“Imagine if we could save 35% of our expenses of x. We can – and how to do that is what I want to unfold throughout this presentation.”
With some target groups, it is better to start off with a personal story that builds empathy for you as a person, which makes people want to listen to what you have to say.
Generally speaking, storytelling is always a strong communication tool, as human beings are much better at remembering stories that moved them than facts and data. Using storytelling at the beginning of your presentation is often a good way to catch the attention of your audience, but storytelling does not need to be limited to the beginning – it can be used throughout the presentation.
The second step of the fish model is where most people start. You might think you know what you are trying to communicate, but you are struggling to build your storyline, finding the right content and reducing the amount of text on your slides.
Regardless of whether the format of your presentation is PowerPoint slides, posters or flip charts, there is one simple and common rule:
One slide = one message
If you want to get your message across clearly, it is crucial that you help your participants understand what the key takeaway from each individual slide is. You can have more than one key message in the presentation, but make sure to have only one message on each slide.
Our brain naturally draws our attention towards moving objects, big objects, signalling colours (such as red, orange and yellow) and contrast-rich objects. Use this knowledge consciously to guide your audience’s attention when you do the layout of your slides.
If you have more than one object on a slide, we recommend making use of contrasts to hide the objects you either have already presented or have not yet presented, thereby only showing what is relevant for the audience to pay attention to. This is a feature in PowerPoint; but for handheld presentations, you can use index cards with key words or sentences and present one card at a time to not overwhelm your participants with too much information.
By default, PowerPoint comes with a white background, which has a couple of downsides you want to avoid. The white background draws the attention of the eye and will make your participants want to look at the presentation instead of you. If your presentation has a dark background, it helps to relax the eye, and the participants will start focusing their attention on you – and remember, you are the presentation. So regardless of how great you are at making slides, the way you convey the key messages of your presentation is essential for your participants to gain takeaways from what you have presented.
A final point about how to structure your presentation is to never have more than six objects on each slide. If you do, your participants will have to count the objects. However, by sticking to no more than six, they will see the objects instead. Knowing that the brain does not have unlimited resources to take in information, it is crucial that we do not waste people’s mental resources on the wrong things, e.g. counting objects instead of listening and understanding what we are communicating.
If you are reading this article at a point where you have an existing presentation you want to improve, it might be a good idea for you to take a few steps back. Complete the design star with emphasis on the purpose of the presentation and start cutting out the slides that do not support the purpose. Now look at what you have left to see if it follows the six guiding principles for preparing a better presentation.
Your presentation ends at the tail of the fish because we want you to close it by flicking the tail.
Consider what actions or reflections you want to leave your participants with at the end of your presentation. How do you structure your presentation so it leads to this outcome, and what final, challenging and maybe even provoking question could you ask your participants to evoke reflection or action?
Congratulations! You are now done with preparing and structuring your presentation. Now it is time to deliver it.
When delivering your presentation, we enter the field of body language – a field that has been explored and developed for decades. At Implement, we have been inspired by many different thinkers in this field, such as Mark Bowden, Joe Navarro, Paul Ekman, Amy Cuddy and many others.
Having helped many leaders and employees to become stronger communicators, we know that it is difficult to learn how to master your body language during presentations simply by reading. It takes a lot of training and many hours of practice. In the final part of this article, we will share a few tips; however, we are fully aware that it is only scratching the surface of what body language is and what you can do to become a master in this field.
We have chosen to highlight three elements in the field of body language to start practising, which will improve your presentations straight away.
Where do you position yourself in the room when presenting? If you are speaking to a large group of people in a conference room or an auditorium, there will usually be a large screen, which may even be dominating the room.
To show your presentation, you most likely plug in your computer in a corner next to the big screen. Some presenters fall into the trap of delivering the presentation from this position, probably because they do not even think about it – remember that the brain is lazy, and it may just think “this is where the technological equipment requires me to stand”. Or maybe you forgot to bring your clicker, which means that you cannot move away from your computer. Or maybe you keep standing in the corner behind the lectern because you are nervous about presenting in front of that many people.
How do you think this presenter comes across from an audience perspective? Most people in the room will probably perceive the presenter as insecure, which will potentially have the snowball effect of more questions of doubt such as: “does he know what he is talking about?”, “is she hiding something?”, “what is he afraid of?”, “what is it that she is not telling us?” or “does he even care about being here?” You get the point. Even a small decision like this can lead to several unwelcome reaction patterns from your audience that will make it more difficult for you to get your message across.
Remember that you are your presentation, and you need to own it. If you hide behind the furniture, you will seem as if you are not even convinced of your own arguments, so why should the participants be?
When kicking off your presentation, you should stand at the centre of the stage. To come across as more confident, it often works better if you apply the “walk, stand, talk” principles, which means that you walk towards the centre of the stage, you stand and ground yourself, capture the attention of the audience and start talking. If you make this a part of your routine, you will also quickly experience that using the same strategy and daring to own the stage will make you feel more confident and secure in return.
What does crossed arms mean? Consider this for about 10 seconds before you read on. It can mean different things. The question is in what context you observe the crossed arms. If a presenter says: “I have been looking very much forward to welcoming you today” while crossing their arms and taking a step back, we as the audience will experience incongruence between what is said and the body language we observe. In this case, crossed arms do not support us in coming across as trustworthy, as you can probably imagine. But if you have just asked the audience a question, or if you are listening to what a participant is saying while crossing your arms, people will most likely not notice anything different about your body language, and you are probably just carrying yourself in this way, as this is a comfortable position to be in when listening.
When we train clients in the use of body language, we often get questions such as: “where do I place my hands?” or “what is good and bad body language?” To answer these questions, we will always argue that it depends on the context and what you want to achieve. You can use your hands strategically to support the message you are trying to convey. If you are presenting without any other visual aids, or if you follow our tips for how to prepare presentations, the visuals supporting your presentation can be enhanced even more by the way you use your body language. You can make use of illustrating hands when explaining how to get from A to B by first pointing your hands to the left and then to the right. Or if you are talking about growth: “back in 2010, we were this size, and now we have grown to 1,000 employees”, you can support your message by keeping your hands low and raising them as you talk.
Your hands are also a great tool when facilitating human processes where you either want to drive the process forward – first letting one participant speak and then letting someone else speak – or if you want to make a pause in the process and encourage the participant who is currently speaking to keep talking.
We also train the use of heavy, constant hands, which is another way to appear more confident about the presentation you are delivering, instead of not having control of your hands, e.g. one hand moving in circles, which typically happens if you forget what to say for a moment or if you are not sure what words to use. While it is okay to pause for a moment in your presentation, pausing combined with shaky, uncontrollable hands will make you appear nervous or insecure, which we want to avoid. Instead, make sure that your hands are moving synchronously when you deliver a message and that your palms are facing upwards. This supports the action of “serving a message”.
Your voice is important, and you can use it strategically to turn up and down the energy you want to create in the room. Sometimes you want to catch the audience’s attention by raising your voice and maybe even by speaking a bit faster. In other cases, you want to create a space for the participants where they are allowed time for reflection by speaking slower and with a lower voice.
When talking about tone of voice, we also have to keep in mind that we were all born with different points of departure. There is a clear difference between men and women as well as within the same gender. If you have a very light and soft voice, it might be worth trying to work with a different tone of voice once in a while. Play with the different tones of voice – and maybe even pay attention to what you are already doing, as we in our everyday conversations with others are also using different tones of voice, depending on the topic of conversation.
Our tone of voice often reveals our inner emotional state, so pay attention to how you start your presentation and how you respond to critical questions from the audience. Also consider what strategies to use to get control of your voice in situations where it is needed.
Tip #1: Place yourself at the centre of the room when starting your presentation.
Tip #2: Apply the “walk, stand, talk” principle.
Tip #3: Use a clicker to give yourself more flexibility on stage.
Tip #4: Keep your hands heavy and constant when delivering key messages, and use illustrating hands for variation and to support the message.
Tip #5: Experiment with your tone of voice, and practise how to use your voice strategically to change the energy level .
In this article, we have shared a practical guide to help you get started on preparing and delivering more effective presentations.
We started the article by getting to know some of the basics of how the brain works to better understand the dynamics of people who either lean in and engage or let their minds drift and lose focus of our presentation.
Then we shared a few dogma rules of how to prioritise your time in each process for you to keep in mind when preparing your presentation.
Section two introduced the design star that helps you define the guiding principles of the design of your presentation, and we also introduced the fish model which is meant to support you in structuring your presentation around three elements: beginning, content and closure. Finally, we ended the article with five tips for strategic use of body language when you are ready to deliver your presentation.
We believe that you have most of what you need in this practical guide to getting started on improving your communication practice. Now it is just a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting started on your training.
1 Phillips, David JP : How to avoid death by PowerPoint?
Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking – Fast and Slow
Bowden, Mark: Winning Body Language
– through assessment and analysis.
Implement Consulting Group