Capture The Audience And Keep Them Awake

Photo via (by?) OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS. (I don’t get the all-caps choice either.)

To prepare for a presentation or any kind of talk, you need to consider the basic principles of human attention. Whether your goal is business success or delighted applause, being pragmatic is essential. Maybe you’re intuitively awesome at this, in which case GO YOU, but most people aren’t. Regardless, blind luck is not a repeatable strategy. Here’s what you need to remember: Your audience is not very smart and they don’t care about you.

It sounds cynical, but both things are true most of the time. The majority of people aren’t intelligent — the concept of intelligence relies on that — and a lot of people are outright stupid. Being relatively dumb does not mean that your audience is bad or unworthy of being addressed. It means that you have to connect the dots for them. When you’re in the audience, you are equally unintelligent and in need of clearly connected dots.

Even if you are speaking to an exceptional group of people who you would guess are smart, you are probably wrong. Don’t dumb down your content — this kind of stupidity is more of an intellectual laziness, a tendency toward indifference and inattention. Your audience has the capacity to engage complex topics; the challenge is to present your information in an easily digestible way. (Obviously this is context-dependent. You can have a wonderful stage presence and lay out really clear points, but explaining higher math to a lay audience will still be impossible.)

Lead the horse to water and explain what water is, then try to coax the horse into taking a drink.

Even more crucial than people’s idiocy is the fact that they don’t care about you in the slightest. Your ideas may be phenomenal, but if you don’t present them phenomenally, you will be ignored. Not much to elaborate here. There are some exceptions, like opening your PowerPoint to announce, “Let’s discuss hardcore porn.” Most presentations don’t feature such inherently riveting subject matter.

So how do you design a talk that primes the audience to not find you boring? Simplify your presentation. Simplify some more. Consider, perhaps, simplifying. After you simplify the simplifications, evaluate whether everything makes sense. Answer the question, “Why am I even talking about this?” Build your presentation like a story — there has to be something at stake. You need risk, conflict, or else everyone will doze off in their chairs. For more specific guidance…

Watch Action Presentations, a video series that my dad made. I wouldn’t have watched the videos if the maker weren’t my dad, but that doesn’t make the advice any less useful.

I’m Sonya Mann and I write a lot of stuff. If you think I’m brilliantly correct or horrendously wrong, hit me up on Twitter.