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The Psychology of Great Presentations
by Alicia L. Cervini

Giving presentations or speeches at work can be nerve-wracking. Not only do you have to stand up in front of people and speak, but you have to get results, too! So, how can you ensure that your presentation is as effective as it can possibly be? You have to understand the psychology of good presentations and audience expectations.

Whether you're trying to land a big client, teach a class or convince your boss you deserve a raise, the following tips will help you in your endeavors.

  1. You don't HAVE to start with a joke.
    Just as cliched as the idea of imagining your audience in their underwear is the idea that you HAVE to start every speech with a joke. Basically, audiences want to connect with their presenter. They want to see you as real and human. Jokes and anecdotes can establish that kind of connection with an audience -- but only if you are the jokey, anecdotal type in real life!

    If you are uncomfortable telling jokes, your discomfort will be evident and your delivery will be stiff. The sound of your punchline falling flat will resound much louder than your speech will. So, hey! Don't worry about it! Skip the joke and start your speech with a statement of conviction about your topic. Or a startling statistic. Or a rhetorical question related to your topic that everyone can agree with. The audience will still be on your side and you won't have to wrack your brains trying to think of a joke that doesn't start with "There once was a man from Nantucket..."

  2. Keep their eyes on the prize.
    When you give a presentation, your audience wants results. They want to feel like you understand their concerns. Your job as a presenter is RARELY to convince your audience that they have their priorities in the wrong place. Rather, your job is to convince them that you know how to address their specific concerns to a tee.

    For example, if you're making a pitch to clients obsessed with revenue potentialities, you should focus your presentation on exactly that. Make them feel it. Revenue is their "prize," so keep their eyes on it the whole time. Even if the revenue potential doesn't seem like the most important thing to YOU. Paint the picture for them of what using your product or firm will be like and exactly HOW that translates into revenue potential. You get the idea. Whatever THEIR idea of the "prize" is, THAT'S what you want to base your presentation on.

  3. Keep it interactive.
    Ask them questions. It's harder for an audience to glaze over when they are engaged. Also, the questions will help to establish how much they do or do not know about the subject of your presentation. You can adjust the thrust of your presentation accordingly as you go, thereby making it as relevant and persuasive to your audience as possible.

  4. Watch. Listen. Learn.
    Don't get hypnotized by the sound of your own voice. Your audience will almost always give you feedback on what you're saying -- it MAY be verbal, but it will more often than not be non-verbal. Audiences tend to broadcast non-verbal cues that indicate whether they are following you or confused, interested or bored, relaxed or impatient. Really listening hard to the feedback your audience provides you with -- both verbal AND non-verbal -- will help you to tailor your delivery to suit their needs and wants.

  5. Be a human highlighter.
    During lengthy presentations, it's often difficult for the audience to keep track of the most important points. So, TELL them what's most important. REMIND them what's most important. You can be a human highlighter with WHAT you say ("this is the most important point...") and you can do it with HOW you say it (either with your vocal inflection or with your body language). Not only will your audience remember what you most want them to remember, but your presentation will also be more gripping.

  6. People remember best the first and last things that you say.
    The stuff in the middle tends to get blurry. So keep that in mind as you organize the hierarchy of your presentation.

  7. Transitions matter.
    Particularly if you're reading from a list of bullet points. You always want it to be clear how one point is relevant to the next, which is relevant to the next and so on. Smooth transitions help to keep the bigger picture clear at all times and helps to keep you from sounding like you're just reading from a list. (BO-RING)

  8. Contextualize! Contextualize! Contextualize!
    In long, detail-ridden presentations, it's easy for the audience to lose track of the big picture and get hung up on the details. To make sure your audience doesn't get mired in minutiae, introduce the big picture, then go over any pertinent details, then restate the main point to demonstrate how all those details were relevant. Basically, contextualizing big blocks of information, before and after you get into the details, helps your audience to follow you. It also helps them to remember why all those details are of interest to them in the first place (keeps their eyes on the prize!).

  9. Watch out for too many words.
    Particularly when we feel nervous, or like we have a lot at stake, we tend to over-explain things. More words can often obscure meaning, rather than clarify it. Instead of talking yourself and your audience into a state of complete confusion, plan in advance how to explain things succinctly and cogently. Besides, in the work world, time is of the essence, so keeping it short and sweet can't hurt.

  10. Believe in what you're saying and let your conviction shine through.
    You don't need to be a zealot, breaking into a flop sweat as you compare your product or your company to the Holy Grail, but DO be genuinely enthusiastic. Getting excited about what you're talking about is infectious. It's hard to resist.

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