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The Presentation Whisperer: Advice from the Experts on Making Great Presentations

Najaf Ahmad - photo 1 of Steve Rabin and Shaun Adamec (l-r)KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Delivering an effective presentation requires that you use ethos, pathos, and logos: establish your credibility, make an emotional connection with your audience, and use factual arguments.
  • Whatever you do, don’t be boring. A good way to re-engage the audience if you feel it slipping away is by telling a story, one that revolves around people and starts in the middle of the action.
  • If you’re helping prepare someone, know their style and tailor your preparation to meet their needs as a presenter.

He suddenly stepped away from the podium and turned his back to the audience. Everyone gasped and the room fell silent in stunned disbelief. My stomach churned. I was so embarrassed for him.

Professor Smith (not his real name) was known for delivering riveting lectures on health economics that left even us jaded graduate students enthralled. Yes, he could make almost anything interesting. Even more impressive was how he spoke extemporaneously, with ease, before and after class and during his bustling office hours.

So we were naturally shocked when—while speaking at a prominent health care conference—he suddenly stopped, stammered, and eventually turned away with his hands on his head, concentrating mightily to regain his train of thought.

Recovering after several excruciating minutes, he left in his wake a few rattled souls and a valuable lesson: The best preparation is needed for every presentation.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]Facts by themselves or tugging on heartstrings without a point are ineffective.[/pullquote1]

Flash forward to the “real world” of nonprofits where a great deal can hinge on effective presentations. If you’re tasked with preparing the leader of your organization, you stand to lose even more! According to Shaun Adamec, Director of Strategic Communications for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and one of the presenters of Because the Boss Said So: How to Give a Presentation You’d Want to Sit Through, you can lose valuable time, money and, crucially, the confidence of important supporters and partners.

So how can you take control of your message and your audience? Adamec and his partner Steve Rabin, Director of Speechwriting, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, shared a few tips that can help ensure your next presentation—or that of your organization’s CEO—goes off without a hitch:

Use Cicero’s classical formula of Ethos, Pathos and Logos

Ethos is establishing your credibility. Pathos is pulling on the heartstrings of your audience. Logos involves making logical arguments. To communicate effectively, you must use all three of these elements together to create a factual, compelling story that draws out your audience’s emotions. Facts by themselves or tugging on heartstrings without a point are ineffective.

Don’t be boring

Rabin warns that the cardinal sin of any presenter is being boring. If you can’t interestingly and convincingly tell the story of your work, you are a “proverbial tree falling in the forest.” Adamec adds, “If you see and feel that you have lost your audience, it’s your job to adapt on the spot. An easy way to do that is to tell a relevant and engaging story to recapture attention.” A noticeable shift in the body language of an audience is discernable when a speaker starts a story—they look up, sit back, and get ready to join the presenter for the ride. Gripping stories start in the middle of the action, revolve around people, and end with resolution. They may also use metaphors and images to paint a vivid picture in your audience’s mind.

Don’t impose YOUR style onto others you are helping

If you’re tasked with helping someone, be it your colleague or CEO, you must identify and adapt to their style. Non-profit leaders often fall into one of three buckets:

  • The over-preparer gets lost in details and has difficulty prioritizing the objectives and goals of a speaking engagement. Prepare the over-preparer by prepping the team around them, emphasizing the purpose and role of the event, offering the audience’s perspective through role-play, and understanding the role of other speakers in the line-up.
  • The under-preparer has broad visions but struggles with more granular issues. They often rely on their “gift of gab.” One way to help is by developing a detailed “stump speech” together. Involving the under-preparer in the process helps capture their voice, gives them ownership, and may ease your own concerns that he or she didn’t read the speech.
  • The practiced preparer tends to be insular, and relies on his or her own devices and a “formula.” To address this, be proactive by asking what 2 or 3 things you can provide that would be helpful, pinpointing past approaches that didn’t help, identifying the audience’s nuances, and ensuring the team knows the formula.

As communications professionals, we believe we know how best to present and convey our message. But if we consider the style of the presenter and the needs of the audience, we’ll do a much better job of achieving the greater good that we’ve all set out to do.

Najaf Ahmad - Najaf photo

Najaf Ahmad is a Communications Associate at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a graduate of the Yale School of Public Health.


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