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November 2001
Vol. 10, No. 11,
pp 25–26.
Workplace Perspectives
John K. Borchardt
Don’t lose your listeners

Follow these 10 tips to make your oral presentations more effective.

opening art
Illustration: Bruce MacPherson
Even accomplished speakers sometimes find that they are not holding their audience’s interest. What can you do to prevent your audience from losing interest and “spacing out” during your presentation?

Organizational psychologist Judith Tingley (Tucson, AZ), author of The Power of Indirect Influence (AMACOM Books: New York, 2000), notes, “Prevention is easier than cure.” Once your audience begins losing interest, it is almost impossible for even accomplished speakers to recapture it. Fortunately, you can take 10 positive steps to hold your audience’s interest and prevent this dire situation.

Understand your audience. Meet audience members before your presentation, if possible. Arrive at the site early to talk with people, or do so at any available social events before the presentation.

Review any notes you may have from previously speaking in front of the same group or similar groups. For example, when you give a paper at an ACS national meeting—say, at a Division of Polymer Chemistry symposium—and you have given several other papers at previous symposia sponsored by this division, you are familiar with the interests of the audience. Also, background research can yield a good understanding of the audience even if you know few of its members as individuals.

Seize their attention. Remember what Tinsley said about prevention being easier than cure. Capture your audience’s attention immediately when you begin your presentation. Effective ways to do this are with a rhetorical question such as, “What is it worth to the company to reduce Product Y manufacturing costs by 10%? I ask because I think we can do this.” If the answer to the question is a lot of money, you have your audience’s ears.

Another way to immediately grab your audience’s attention is with a good joke or anecdote. However, the joke or anecdote should be relevant to and flow into your main subject (see “Use appropriate anecdotes” below).

Tailor your talk. Your presentation—even if on a scientific subject—should be customized to the audience. For example, suppose you are discussing polymeric surfactants. The relative emphasis you give various points would differ if you were making your presentation before the ACS Division of Polymer Chemistry, the ACS Colloid and Surface Science Division, or a group of engineers using polymeric surfactants in industrial processes.

Convey excitement. After all, if you are not excited about your presentation, why should your audience be? To help convey excitement, keep your voice tone upbeat.

Because there is normally no emotional content, scientific presentations are typically given in a flat tone of voice with few variations in pitch. But just as an actor uses voice tone to project emotions and hold audience interest, so should a speaker. Varying your pitch or tone appropriately can help emphasize when a result was unexpected or very important. This helps drive a point home and hold your audience’s interest. They soon learn that a variation in your pitch and tone means important information is on the way and they’ll remain focused to catch it.

On the other hand, don’t overdo your changes in voice tone. This is like overacting and can turn an audience off.

Avoid passive verbs. Although some use of the passive voice can lend variety to your speech, overusing the passive tends to emotionally distance you from your subject. “Having things happen” to your chemical reaction or the process you are describing is relatively boring. Compare the passive-voice statement, “The rate of stirring was raised to 2000 rpm to increase the reaction rate” to the active-voice statement, “To increase the reaction rate, we cranked the stirrer up to 2000 rpm.” Which sounds more interesting to you?

Personalize whenever possible. To further enliven an active-voice statement, you can take advantage of personalizing the description: “To increase the reaction rate, Jim cranked the stirrer up to 2000 rpm.” If Jim was the technician or graduate student performing the experiment, the statement helps define Jim’s contribution to the work. When audience members know Jim, as would be the case in an internal company presentation, such a statement definitely helps keep the audience focused on what you are saying.

State the main points clearly. Too often, speakers make their points in a roundabout way, using more words than are needed to emotionally distance themselves from the work being described. Audience members value the time they are spending listening to your presentation and have a limited attention span. So it is really a matter of courtesy for the speaker to also value the audience’s time and not waste it by taking longer than necessary to make a point.

Carefully planning your speech and rehearsing it orally or mentally will help you finish within the time allotted for your presentation.

Remember that you are much more familiar with the main points of your presentation and the supporting information than is the audience. Consequently, a highly intelligent listener may not see a connection that seems obvious to you, the speaker.

Use appropriate anecdotes. Anecdotes can personalize your presentation and clarify the information you present, but like opening jokes, they must be relevant. In fact, when the anecdotes come within the presentation, they must be more carefully woven into the subject matter than an opening joke.

Of course, anecdotes should be in good taste and at no one’s expense, except possibly your own. Self-deprecating humor in moderate amounts appropriate to the subject is almost always well received by audiences. For example, in an attempt to personalize a presentation, a speaker I once heard related an embarrassing story about a laboratory accident he had. The story illustrated valid concerns about handling an organometallic compound. The speaker told this anecdote in a self-deprecating manner, amusing the audience while alerting them to safety concerns involving the compound.

Make eye contact. Eye contact with audience members is, of course, critical. Try not to look at your slides or computer screen any more than necessary. (An exception to this is when you must take the audience through a complicated diagram.) Look an individual in the eye for several seconds and then focus on another person. Move your eye contact around so it includes audience members in all parts of the room. Don’t focus on the rear wall or pieces of furniture instead of making eye contact.

Good eye contact with audience members is important in holding their attention. Recently, I had to suffer through a one-hour presentation by a speaker who resolutely kept his back to the bulk of the audience nearly the entire time. The speaker seemed like a nice fellow and his voice tone did not suggest that he was nervous or frightened. Yet he did not share himself with the audience. It was a frustrating and often boring experience.

Actively involve people. Ask audience members questions if the subject and context of your presentation lends itself to this and the room illumination is high enough so people can clearly see one another. Direct involvement with the audience is best used at small internal meetings; it doesn’t work well for technical presentations or large groups.

Follow these steps and you more readily hold your audience’s interest, thereby persuading them to accept your main points and follow your recommendations.

John K. Borchardt is a research chemist who has published more than 120 technical papers and has been awarded 30 U.S. patents. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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