Not everyone is gifted with the ability to deliver an exceptional presentation. But successful public speaking isn't mere luck; it's using best practices rooted in scientific studies of audiences that make the difference between good and great. Most of what is written about speaking is focused on what to do, not why it should be done. Here are some key principles that will help you craft an awe-inspiring presentation:
Why an audience's attention declines and how to combat it
Great public speakers know that an audience's attention span will start to wane, but why? Professor J. W. Niemantsverdriet of the European Federation of Catalysis Societies, an international scientific organization, studied how audiences pay attention to presentations.
At first, most people are all ears, listening closely to what a speaker says, but their attention gradually drops to around 10 to 20 percent of its original level. The audience's attention peaks again toward the speech's conclusion.
This attention curve suggests that speakers should state their main points near the beginning of their presentations and summarize them at the end. It’s also a good idea to divide a presentation into several sections, each one with an intermediate conclusion. Niemantsverdriet wrote about the attention curve for presenting scientific findings in academia, but his strategy works for any public speaker looking to improve the audience's attention level.
Why storytelling works better than facts alone
Renowned speakers use stories because stories keep the audience members’ brains entertained and active.
When a speaker presents just facts, only the language-processing portion of the brain is activated. However, when a story is shared to reinforce key points, all the other parts of the brain are engaged in experiencing the story’s events. It encourages the audience to imagine, associate, and feel.
As such, a story evokes cognition as well as emotion. When both the mind and heart are engaged, people are more attentive and receptive to information.
Why practice really does make perfect
If you're an inexperienced presentation speaker, don't let your mind and emotional being get the best of you. Minimize your fear of public speaking by conducting a series of mock presentations.
When you start worrying about your communication skills, you worry about the audience’s possible negative reaction to your speech. This manner of thinking causes your body to display indicators of anxiety such as palpitations, excessive sweating, and restlessness. When your body is on high alert with those symptoms, it becomes difficult to convey any message—let alone a well-organized presentation.
One good way of combating anxiety is with practice. After preparing your materials, invite some of your friends to be your audience and do an actual presentation. When you expose yourself to an undesirable stimulus over and over again, you become less sensitive to fear. In psychology, this is considered a desensitization strategy and it works wonders for public speaking.
Why non-verbal communication matters
Truth be told, your audience will absorb more than just what you say during your presentation. They will also grasp the messages conveyed byyour body movements, tone of voice, gestures, attire, and choice of materials. According to the studies of James Borg and Albert Mehrabian, more than 60 percent of the message you convey can be attributed to your body language.
When you have relaxed facial muscles, good eye contact, and moderate tone of voice, the audience will assume you are confident and experienced. But when you cross your arms in front of you, for example, you are putting up a barrier to trust. When you have a sloppy or typo-prone PowerPoint presentation, the audience will stop listening to the content you've been deliveringand start critiquing the mistakes they see. You lose credibility in the audience's eyes.
Because nonverbal communication matters, don’t just focus on what to present, but also on how you deliver your topic. Your presentation is a package of knowledge, delivery style and audiovisual materials. Maximize all your resources; don’t take any for granted, or concentrate on one at the expense of the others.