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Dave Hill – Presentation Skills Excellence

One of the big challenges presenters have is how to form a bond with the audience and keep them engaged and energized. Have you ever been on a training session where the instructor asks a question and there is no energy in the room and responses are hesitant? Have you ever been on a net meeting where the host asks a question and the silence is deafening? For any instructor, presenter or trainer, it can make you feel uneasy if you do not get feedback from your audience, whether in a conference room setting or on a net meeting. On the other hand, if you have a highly interactive session, you go away feeling that people were interested in your material and had value for it. The difference between success and failure is knowledge and technique.

At a recent monthly technical net meeting, an acquaintance was delivering technical information and I was impressed with the tact he used in getting about 50 people highly involved in his technical information exchange. The net meeting was lively, evoked discussion, and provided value. This meeting was highly successful, considering that many similar meeting prior to this had been relatively subdued.

Here is an excerpt from the meeting notice that was sent out a week before the meeting with the presentation slides:

Remember this month we are having a homework exercise. The attached presentation slides contain nine scenarios that may or may not require a safety review for the impact of change of; procedures, materials of construction, or operating parameters. Each site should evaluate these as a team in advance, and be ready to discuss not only if a review is required but WHY. I will call out a plant name at random as we review the list, and that team will respond to that particular question“.

In his book titled “Winning”, ex CEO of GE, Jack Welch wrote that one of the biggest wastes of a company’s resources was the lack of candor in meetings. He also talked about the huge benefits of having a culture where people speak up at meetings, get involved, vocally challenge ideas, and feel a passion to do so. More information can be found on this at

As someone who has been researching presentation skills for over 13 years, I am well aware of the need to engage the audience as soon as possible and get interaction building the energy and excitement in the room.

One of the key considerations when using audience interaction techniques is what will work effectively for your specific audience and for your specific subject matter. What may work for one audience may seem flippant for another. The level of entertainment versus the learning value is important. Question such as “how many of you want to be successful and get rich” provides limited value and you as a presenter will have no practical use for the response from this “no-brainer” question. Another important factor is to make sure that your instructions to the audience are crystal clear for any engagement activities.

Some techniques I use for getting an interactive audience:
1. While training people on “Attention Grabbing Presentation Skills for Technical People – Get Noticed and Promoted” I play a video of an excellent speaker doing a technical presentation which incorporates some PowerPoint slides. The video is played early on in the presentation to help the audience envision what they are aiming for. I ask the audience to form several groups and I get them to watch the 5 minute video and discuss amongst themselves the quality of the content of the video presentation, the delivery, and also ask them to imagine that they are that presenter and want them to discuss how they feel (the presenter is confident, knows his subject matter, is funny, and the audience is visibly engaged and energized). After the groups have discussed the key attributes, I ask them to assign a leader who will summarize the groups’ thoughts.
2. I usually start off my presentations with a story that relates to what I am talking about and make sure that the audience can relate to that specific story – use the technique “make a point, tell a story, relate to the audience”. Relating to the audience is one of the most powerful aspects.
3. Get the audience brainstorming on a specific point, then choose the ones you want to “drill down” further to explore them in more detail. The initial brainstorming could be conducted on a flip chart if the writing is visible to the audience. Another way would be to have a projector and assign an assistant to scribe and capture the ideas.
4. Ask the audience (or separate groups) to discuss the pros and/or cons of a specific idea.
e.g. In my keynote speech on “Making Sure Your Meetings Have a Positive Impact on the Bottom Line” I ask audiences to give me feedback on the pros and cons of brainstorming in meetings.
5. A powerful way of energizing a meeting or presentation is to include competition such as a game. Everyone from front line workers to executives has a competitive urge. The important aspect here is to know your audience to make sure the competition/game is appropriate to the attendees, the occasion, and the learning value.
6. A simple way of getting the audience members focused on best choices is to give them a choice of several specific answers and ask them to identify the least effective ones. E.g. which of the following three speech opening techniques would tend to be least effective and why:
• Story
• Joke
• Rhetorical question
• Quotation
• Shock statement
Once they have answered, I have the opportunity to support the conversation and talk about jokes being ineffective if people have heard them before. I can build on the conversation and suggest that people use quotations that are not too familiar so that they will be more impactful than one that people have heard before.
7. When I have a presentation or keynote speech that uses a handout, I may have some pages with sentences that have key words missing. The audience members fill in the words as the information is given to them. The advantages of this technique is that it provides you with a “cheat sheet” so you do not need to remember the content and order of the information and it also helps the audience retain the information (“If they ink it…they will think it”)
8. When I was at the National Speakers Association (NSA) Academy, the Dean had an audience interaction technique that worked well. At the beginning of his training he would get all 15 of us to form a wide circle in the room and he would throw a baseball size lightweight “fuzzy ball” to someone and ask them to tell one thing that they learned from the previous training session. The person would respond and then throw the ball to another person. This would continue until everyone had spoken. The value of this was to help recall information from the previous training session and help put it into our long term memories.
9. Statistics indicate that when audiences hear information, they will remember about 20% after a week, if they listen and see information they will remember about 50% and if the listen, see, and physically work out a problem, or solve a specific problem with “hands on” techniques, they are likely to remember about 75%. In my presentation skills training for technical people, I have several exercises where we take ineffective PowerPoint slides and unclutter them to turn data into uncluttered visual information that audiences will understand. I start off on easy examples and make them progressively more challenging, building on the learnings from each one.