In april 1st, body language, delivery, statistics, structure, style

Just in! After more than twenty years watching thousands of presentations, here are the long-awaited conclusions. Below you will find a cutting-, nay, bleeding-edge toolbox of …er, tools to help you power your way up the greasy pole. You’ll find rhetorical rapiers, communicative cutlasses and metaphorical machetes to help you carve your way through the corporate jungle.

First, Powerpoint. This must always be used – the more slides the better. If it was good enough for Socrates and Cicero and Churchill … . You should aim to write down on the slides every single word you will say – and of course long words are better than short ones, and incomprehensible jargon is best of all. Font size is always a vexed question, but it should be small enough that the audience has quite a lot of trouble reading it, but not so small that they don’t bother and just listen to you speaking instead. This brings us to delivery.

The optimal style is to turn your back on the audience throughout your talk if you can –but you should certainly aim to do so for the vast majority of it. Facing away from your audience puts you in the perfect position to read every word that you so carefully typed on each slide. This is particularly important because everyone loves it when other people read stuff to them in a monotone voice.

There is, of course, an alternative approach, which is to talk at great length about the slide without using any of the words you’ve put on that slide. This is a great technique because research shows that people remember much more when they’re trying to read one thing and simultaneously listen to someone saying something completely different.

In either of the above scenarios, you should, of course, aim to minimise eye contact with your audience. Most people find it frankly off-putting to have a presenter look in their vague direction from time to time. Indeed research has shown that humans respond much more favourably to people who refuse to look at them at all. Perhaps it’s the mystery that this body language engenders: is the speaker simply a complete social incompetent who was brought up by ocelots, or is it more a sign of the speaker’s withering contempt for the listener? Either way, it’s intriguing and engaging. Especially high marks go to those who – as mentioned earlier – turn their backs on the audience to read their slides, but also to those who spend the talk peering down at their notes, or just their feet. These people in particular, are perceived as vibrant, energetic and above all, trustworthy.

Statistics – simply put: the more statistics, the better. If you don’t have enough, make some up, because everyone – from 8 to 80 – loves to have some statistics fun. I find that the best approach with statistics is not to whizz through them: savour them. Take your time and enunciate each number with great care – your audience are sure to see this as 43 minutes well spent. I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering those magical childhood hours as I sat in rapt attention on granny’s knee, bathed in golden sunlight, as she regaled me with numbers, figures and theorems from days gone by, or sometimes just with a simple run through of a logarithmic table. Of course, as granny knew only too well, simple bar charts and pie charts and the like should be eschewed in favour of detailed tables. These tend to work best if you have at least five tables per slide. It’s a signal to the audience of all the good stuff to come.

What then of structure? In my experience, it’s best to abandon all pretence of structure – let’s be honest, it just tends to get in the way. People love mysteries, and what could be more mysterious than the willy-nilly presentation of graphs, numbers, words, shiatsu massage techniques and models fashioned from wool and lego. Yes, structure is simply over-rated and so last-century. You know you’re in the presence of a real presentations maestro when even their sentences lose all sense of and with that he flounced out of the bordello in the mother of all huffs.

On the subject of length, more is always better. I’m sure most of us regularly feel cheated that the presentations at work are simply not long enough. I don’t know about you, but after the first hour or so, I’m just getting warmed up to the theme, and it’s a crashing let down when – a mere three hours 27 minutes into the talk – the presenter finishes with a rousing, “Er…and that’s it.”

Perhaps the single most important conclusion from my research is this: under no circumstances should the presenter attempt to employ any wit, imagination or creativity whatsoever either in the preparation or the delivery of their talk. That way madness lies.

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