How to focus on your audience – Executive Summary
In this 2,000 word article, we show you how to assemble your speaking material, practice your content, create running notes, and how to memorise vital parts of a talk or a whole presentation if it’s really important to do so.
So buckle up and get ready to release your speaking potential and give your audience your utmost attention…as it should be.
Are you a PowerPoint Gazer?
In the early 1990’s began a music genre called shoe gazers and as you’ve guessed it, the guitarists would play whilst staring at their shoes. They looked odd but the music they produced was terrific.
Shoe gazers launched the success of many Britpop and Indie bands, my favourite was Elastica.
Enough of the music reminiscing.
Whiz forward in time and we have a new genre but not in music but for business presenters called PowerPoint gazers – presenters who constantly gaze at their PowerPoint slides because these remind them on what to talk about. They don’t know their material well enough or haven’t taken steps to prepare their content.
This makes them too content focussed as they spend brain power thinking and remembering what to say. It takes their attention away from their audience.
I know why, so do you. Because we’re busy and can’t find the time to prepare. However we need to master our content if we’re to honour our audience – if we don’t, we’re not caring for our paid audience. Remember audiences pay with their precious time not just money.
Allow me to offer you some tips and strategies which I’ve gleaned after professionally presenting for over 20 years.
I’m going to start with how you can create prompts and notes, then how to practice and memorise your speech and finally, on the day of the presentation, how to keep on track with your content.
All allowing you to focus exclusively on your audience and not become a PowerPoint Gazer.
Prompts and notes
My first training team weaned in the early 1990’s, as shoe gazers became of age, were all successful salespeople who I plucked from the field sales force to become excellent trainers. Our challenge was to help them stay audience focussed whilst presenting top drawer content. I began by teaching them how to make notes that they could refer to during the sessions so to keep on track and remember the key points required. For Christmas I bought them plastic recipe book stands to house their notes with one aim.
So they could glance at the notes during their session without taking their eyes off their most precious resource – the audience – but still know what to talk about.
And I recommended 3 varieties of notes – mindmaps, bullets on card and the A4 sheets that PowerPoint produces for notes. All these were placed on the recipe stand.
I’m sure you’ve come across mindmaps before and maybe you create them regularly. I do for a variety of purposes and one is notes whilst I’m running talks and presentations. Here’s an example of a one day seminar.
This stays at the front of my presentation on my recipe book stand to enable me to glance and remember the section I was talking about. Maybe you could create these to remind you of what to say. I like to use colour and pictures to help me remember parts of my trainings and talks. The trick is to glance at the notes when needed not to stop and read them half way through – that’s amateurish.
Bullets are summarised points i.e. short one or two words describing the content of your talk. A series of bullets can summarise a whole 1 hour talk or a 7 hour seminar. Each bulleted word should spark your brain to recall a series of information, points, stories to enable you to present that area of your talk. That’s all that is needed if you have put your time into preparing the content.
Your bullets can look as you like them to look but they must be glance’able from a distance of 3 feet or one metre so make the font size large enough to see at a distance.
PowerPoint provides its own note page, you may have seen it. It helps you to print out the slides with your own notes underneath the slide. These work so long as you keep the notes you make brief enough and large to be able to read them using the 3 foot rule.
The major problem with this method is you end up with a collection of sheets of paper which can look clumsy and awkward when presenting. I’ve seen speakers use these when presenting from the dreaded podium and very few use them well as they have a tendency to type lots of notes and practically read these to the audience. Lack of preparation.
They are useful for preparing and practising your talk though.
Political speakers and Heads of are trained to read these in their presentations but they are weaned off reading as such and trained to capture a sentence or two by looking down, they then look up to engage the audience or camera and say their words. They repeat this process all the way through.
Practice before the event
I don’t need to tell you that the more practice you do, the better your presentation. It relieves nerves, makes you more audience centred, allows you to adlib on the day and come over more polished and professional.
The problem is time, or lack of it, especially if you work in a corporate environment.
My advice is to use your down-time to practice. Create your talk first and transfer it to notes, cards or mindmaps – something to remind you. Make sure you’re comfortable with the content and can carry your notes with you. Then you use downtime to read out your talk and glance at your notes to remind you. Carry a master copy of the speech or slides.
But if it provides solace for you, many speakers miss out large chunks of the content and the audience still get the message.
Read out loud your speech in:
- The car
- Whilst walking the dog
- Out running
- In the shower (but don’t take your notes in with you. The shower is the best place to memorise the first 5 minutes of your talk. Yes, you need to do this.
- On the plane (but read to yourself)
- In the gym
- Waiting for the kids at the school gates
- Whilst cooking the dinner
- Doing the housework
The list goes on.
Future pacing the talk
Once you’ve nailed the talk, consider future pacing your presentation. This is a splendid way of relieving nerves and creating bucket loads of confidence. It firms up your timings as well and allows you to immediately connect with your audience when you arrive because you’ve practiced.
I’ve been known to future pace my entire presentation of 45 minutes by visualising where I am, the audience reactions, the use of slides, my interactive exercises, questions from the audience particularly the Q&A.
It’s what I do for a living so I make the time, but I do appreciate some of you reading this may not be able to find this precious resource so try speed rehearsal instead.
Speed rehearsal is used by actors to rehearse and practice their script and scene. In their heads or out-loud they just talk through their lines as quickly as they can. So a 45 minute talk might take you 19 minutes with speed rehearsal but it has a positive effect on you recalling what to say on the day.
Leverage your preparation
I like leveraging – it’s my goal for the next few years. I try to eke out some other benefit when performing talks. An example is my downtime when I’m preparing for a talk. Whilst practising or reading out the talk, have you thought about recording it to MP3 using your laptop, tablet or Smartphone.
You can achieve a reasonable quality using the latest technology and don’t need to splash out sums on microphones and software.
The MP3 can be used for a variety of purposes. Add it to your blog for downloading, send a link to the audience after the talk as a way to reinforce their learning. Generation Y will love this as they were born with earphones grafted to their heads.
And of course you can use it to help you remember the talk by playing it to yourself during your downtime. People have been known to go to sleep listening to the talk and swear that subliminally they remember every word. Clever, but I roll over and hurt my ears during my sleep so I’ve never mastered this.
Memorise your talk through a journey
Do you ever travel the same journey time after time? A journey or a route which you know like the back of your hand, a short journey around your garden, through your house, a car route, a train trip.
If so, you’re well on the way to memorising your talk effortlessly and presenting with no cards or prompts at all. Let me show you how.
First you need to put your talk onto index cards or A4 sheets and this must be represented by key points, bullets of one or two words. Make sure the talk hangs together and you’re not going to change it anymore.
Now for each bullet that you’ve written, I want you to visually create something to represent the bullet. Something totally weird and visual, a 3 dimensional object is best. For example your bullet might say USA comparison. So you put a picture of the Statue of Liberty in your head but elaborate this image by putting a big beaming smile on her face because the comparison figures you want to show the audience are very positive numbers.
Or you might have “Financial Services Authority” as a bullet point so you create a picture of Canary Wharf in London with little grey men with bowler hats emerging one by one looking very sombre and officious.
Now the fun part begins. Start your route in your head and at every major point in the journey place your object firmly so you can see it clearly. Put them in the right order of your speech.
Next run through your journey in your head and visualise every image you’ve created. There’s nothing to stop you physically going on the journey and seeing the item, I often do this when I’m using the garden or the house as my route but for longer journeys I use my imagination.
I’ve been known to place up to 35 items in my journey – each item represents a bullet point, a part of my talk and because of the power of visual memory, I’ve been able to recall every single image. Try it, it works.
On the day
The slurp technique
This one never fails even in large conference rooms when you’re presenting to hundreds of people. To drink water in the middle of your talk is as acceptable as breathing so combine your drink with a quick glance at your notes placed carefully next to your bottle or glass of water.
It’s that simple, I do it everytime even if I never glance at my notes. Sometimes just having your notes on hand is enough to calm your nerves.
Your notes can be surreptitiously placed around your presentation arena. I’ve been known to stick my notes to the back of a flipchart, on the floor if I’m on a stage as the audience can’t see them, on post-it notes on the wall when training, next to my PowerPoint remote control, at the back of the room on a poster.
One of the most frustrating aspects of a talk is forgetting which slides are coming next when you have a mainly slide based presentation. For those of us who can’t find the time, we create slides to help us remember. You know my views here, however, slides do have their place in effective presentations. A tip here is to print out a handout version of your slides with 9 on each page, number them and keep this close to your notes so you can glance at the next slide before you reveal.
That way you can correctly alert the audience to the next slide rather than clicking on the next slide, glancing at it to remind you of what to say.
In case you lose your notes, ensure you’ve scanned or photographed them and download them to a service such as Dropbox.
Copy the public link to your Smartphone so you can quickly download them from a convenient hotel pc and print them off before your presentation starts. Plan B’s are well recommended.
The trend of shoe gazing came to an abrupt end as the audience fought back. The band members just weren’t engaging with their fans, so the practice had to stop.
Likewise try and prevent the onset of PowerPoint gazing by planning, practicing and reminding yourself of your talk so you can free up your attention and concentration thus ensuring your audience has an experience to remember.