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6 rules for delivering presentations in the attention-challenged Internet era

Posting in Design
When it comes to information, we live in a jaded age. All sorts of electronic media compete for our attention. We are bombarded with 24x7 media, and videos on any topic from any source are available on a whim from sites such as YouTube. 
Conference hall-Gaylord National Convention Center September 2013-photo by Joe McKendrick.JPG
 Photo: Joe McKendrick
 

If you are called upon to deliver a presentation, how do you cut through all the noise? And, most importantly, how do you leave an impression on your audience? It seems that in most, if not all, conferences and sessions I attend these days, more than half the audience are looking at their screens -- catching up on email, and all sorts of other distractions. Many presentations are delivered over the web these days, so you know a good part of the audience is doing something else while the talk is being delivered. How do you compete against that?

Having conducted more than 100 webcasts, along with many in-person presentations, I've picked up a few pointers along the way, especially from seasoned co-presenters. Here are a few new rules for getting and keeping an audience's attention in the Internet age:

1) Tell a compelling story:  First and foremost, members of the audience wants to know why the information you are presenting is meaningful to them. It doesn't have to impact them directly, but if you can make it interesting, and open by making a powerful case for whatever solution you are going to offer, you will have their attention. Think about it:  why is this presentation so important to you, personally?  What did it take to get there? What started your journey to this particular place?  (It could even be something that happened as far back as your childhood that triggered a long cascade of events.)

2) Rehearse to the point that you sound spontaneous. It may sound contradictory, but delivering what sounds like a spontaneous presentation takes a lot of preparation and rehearsal.  While it may be difficult to remember a talk line by line, a speaker should have practiced to the point that a lot of it is in his or her head, and he or she can deliver much of the material as if he or she were conveying it in an informal conversation.

3) Keep it simple: In his legendary presentations, Steve Jobs would limit what he was presenting to simple, clear, one-line descriptions, usually chunked into groups of three.  His PowerPoints were sparse, minimalistic, but attention-grabbing.

4) Keep it short:  Everybody is stretched for time these days. Kevin Karschnik, a corporate public speaking coach, says that in many situations a speaker should be able to deliver a hard-hitting presentation in no more than nine minutes -- which is also the time limit on TED speakers.

5) Show your passion: This is what makes TED talks so compelling -- the speakers seem to be oozing passion. Many politicians have mastered this on the podium, but this often is lacking in business presentations. Business or technical presentations should be every bit as passionate as a political stump speech. Look at the presentations Steve Jobs used to give. It wasn't just the sleek new devices he rolled out, it was his sense of passion for his mission. Jobs had been on a mission, since day one, to change the world and bring seamless computing to everyone on the globe. That passion energized his speeches well beyond that of the typical tech industry speaker. It's a passion that literally infected his audiences, whether they are watching the presentation live or on video, or reading a summary.

6) End with a call to action: You don't want to just wrap it up and wish everyone a good day. You want to state what it is audiences members -- their heads now filled with your ideas and concepts -- should do next to improve their lives or businesses or technical projects. Give them something to start pondering as soon as they leave the room -- or sign off, in the case of a webcast. 

— By on February 24, 2014, 9:18 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure