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Dave Hill – Speaker, Trainer, Author, and Speech Coach

Visualize a highly technical meeting where there are about 40 people crammed into a conference room. They are listening to technical presentation after technical presentation for a full day. The delivery mode is primarily PowerPoint with lots of wordy data in the slides. The technical data is overwhelming and people can be seen fidgeting in their seats. Time is limited and the pace of data exchange is fast. The room lights are dimmed to allow the PowerPoint to be the focus of attention, and to make it visible to people in the back of the room.

In 2012, I was sitting in this audience and the presenter was interrupted to get clarification on a point. As he responded to the question, there was an out of place audible rumbling sound; someone was snoring. The presenter paused to see who was asleep; he smiled and continued to answer the question. Suddenly, there was a loud snort that transitioned into a full blown, high volume snoring session. Smiles and glances bounce around the room, and someone gently nudged the snorer in the back. He awoke in a moment of shock with the awareness that he had been caught napping by his peers.

If you present intricate or technical information, how would it feel to have an audience member fall asleep and start snoring? Have you ever had to present a technical subject after your audience has had a heavy lunch? Have you ever been distracted by someone nodding off during your presentation?

Holding your audience’s attention when delivering intricate & technical information

  1. It will help if there is fresh air in the room and that the temperature is not too warm or too cold. Can you increase the ventilation rate in the room without getting disturbed by background noise?
  2. Know your subject and display energy, enthusiasm, and vocal variety. Make sure your voice can be heard clearly throughout the room, otherwise people will tune you out.
  3. Give the audience members a written agenda so they have a clear image of the flow of the content. This also helps keep the session on track and on time. If discussions start to deviate from the agenda, it give you the opportunity to interject and get everyone back on track. We have all witnessed the audience member who has a comment that goes on and on and the audience gets fidgety and starts to tune out and have side conversations.
  4. At the beginning of the presentation give them a brief review of the rules and enforce them for aspects such as:
    • Cell phone, laptop, and other electronic device etiquette
    • Side conversations
    • Off-topic comments
    • Question & answer (are they allowed throughout the presentation or towards the end?)
  5. Have frequent breaks.
  6. If you have control over snack food and lunches, you could consider keeping it light (minimize the potential for “food coma”).
  7. Vary the modes of presenting as much as possible
    • You speaking
    • Video clips
    • Flip chart
    • Whiteboard
    • Ask an audience member to provide an example to drive home your point
  8. Illuminate your points with real life examples. Stories and humor fit well with the delivery of technical and intricate information. Use the framework of making a point, telling a relevant story, and then demonstrating how this can be practically applied by the audience. The most effective stories are those that the audience can relate to.
  9. If using PowerPoint or other type of slide presentation, put effort into providing visual information rather overloading with technical data. If possible, design your slide color scheme so that you do not have to dim the lights to see them and/or use a high lumen projector.
  10. Use interactive techniques:
  • Get the audience brainstorming on a subject, then choose the ideas you want them to “drill down” and explore in more detail.  The initial brainstorming could be conducted on a flipchart if the writing is visible to the audience.  Another way would be to have a projector and assign an assistant to type in the ideas.
  • Ask them to form groups to brainstorm a point. Ask them to assign a leader to summarize the group’s thoughts.
  • Ask the audience (or separate groups) to discuss the pros and/or cons of a specific idea.
  • 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.
  • A simple way of getting audience members focused on the best choices is to give them a choice of several answers and ask them to identify the least effective ones.
  • When I have a presentation or keynote speech that uses a handout, I may have some pages with sentences that are missing key words.  Audience members fill in the words as the information is given to them.  This technique provides you with a “cheat sheet” so you do not need to remember the content and order of the information.  It also helps the audience retain the information.
  • Research indicates that when audiences hear information, they may remember about 20 percent after a week; if they listen and see information, they may remember about 50 percent; 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 percent.

Final Note: Next time you feel yourself nodding off or losing interest during a presentation, ask yourself, “If I was this presenter, what would I do differently to make this more effective?”