We all know by now the cardinal sins of presentations: slides with too much text, or a presenter whose idea of presenting is to merely read aloud the text on the slides, or a presenter who gazes at their shoes… The list goes on. But, assuming you’re experienced enough to not be making those mistakes, what’s next?
How do you get to the next level, where you are routinely giving engaging, memorable presentations in English? Content, obviously, plays a key role in making a great presentation, and as I outlined in a previous post, you need an aim in order for the audience to follow you. However, I’m willing to argue that content alone is not enough to make a great presentation. For me, the one component that elevates a good presentation to one that is memorable is how it sounds. And, for me, it must sound good.
If English is your second or third language, you can easily still sound good
Why? Because, what we remember most after a presentation is how it made us feel: inspired, informed, confused, engaged, satisfied, or let down. Those are all legitimate reactions to a presentation. Say your boss is presenting the new strategy in your organization. You’ll never remember all the details: the matrix, who’s in which box, and the roles and responsibilities. No matter how good the slides, it’s just information overload. But, that’s not really the point of the presentation, is it?
The aim is to inform or persuade. Your boss needs you to buy into the new strategy – remember, the strategic decisions have been made, so you cannot influence them now. But, they can only be implemented with everyone’s participation.
If the audience comes away from the presentation thinking “I feel really positive about this,” then your boss has achieved her aim. She doesn’t need the audience to remember the boxes, just to feel that the boxes will allow everyone to succeed at their job. You were carried along by the presenter – the enthusiasm and confidence she expressed, the clarity with which she moved towards her aim, and how listening to her made you feel.
Morgan Freeman could make the list of ingredients on a box of cereal sound like the Gettysburg Address
So, how do you make a presentation sound good? Stress, intonation, and pace. That’s it – just those three elements. You’ll notice I didn’t write “big words, perfect grammar, and a killer punchline.” Even perfect pronunciation is not essential; so if English is your second or third language, you can easily still sound good.
Now, some of us are blessed with better voices than others. I imagine that Morgan Freeman could make the list of ingredients on a box of cereal sound like the Gettysburg Address with that wonderful gravitas in his voice. Me? Too high-pitched and a bit nasal. But, the right techniques and some practice can help.
This is an easy one. When presenting in English, select the key words in your presentation, and stress them – speak a little louder, firmer, and slower. It will help your audience to follow your important points. If all of the words in a sentence have the same stress, then the audience has to work much harder to decipher the content in order to make a judgement on what is and isn’t important. And to just stay awake.
So, when we stress in English, we stress key words. A little extra pressure, such as “The new strategy will allow us to predict customer needs, rather than just react to them”. The hard part is taking the time to prepare: what you will say, how are your points structured, and what are the key words in each point?
One advantage of this technique is that you can reinforce points for the audience by simply using the sound of your voice: later the same presenter might say, “Predicting our customers’ needs will require each of us to keep accurate, up-to-date information that is…” The stress makes the point about prediction more memorable and connects it with the earlier one, too.
The rise and fall of the voice in English, nothing more. When we are excited, our voices tend to rise in pitch or tone. When we are bored, our voices tend to fall in pitch or tone.
An easy way to demonstrate intonation in English is if you play along and read the following sentences aloud: “Okay, welcome everyone. Let’s get started, shall we? We have some new faces in the room today, Annette, Vivian, Christopher, Pablo…” That is an incomplete sentence, and when you get towards the end of it your voice can either rise or fall.
Now, say it aloud, but make your voice rise over the last four words. It sounds that there are more new people and that the speaker is inviting the audience to interact with them.
Now, say it again, but let your voice fall, or trail away, over the last four words. Doesn’t it sound like you have nothing left to say about the new people and that you couldn’t care less, basically? Not the impression any of us ever want to give (or be given!).
One important realization from that example is that intonation in English carries information. For example, keeping the pitch of your voice up at the end your sentence indicates that you have not yet finished making your point. You’ll lose the audience’s concentration slightly when they think that you have finished making a point; it’s just a natural reaction: they need to divert some resources to processing your point.
The rule of thumb for intonation in English is:
Falling tone: ↓
Most English sentences (neutral statements)
- There are four main issues to cover today (↓).
Wh- questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how)
- What can customers expect from the new service (↓)?
- Great! Wonderful! (If you rise with for example “won-der-FUL”, you will sound insincere or sarcastic.
Rising tone: ↑
- Does anyone have any questions(↑)?
- Thank you for asking. There are many reasons for the change such as cost, quality, availability (↑)…
I suggest that you practice saying these examples out loud with rising and falling intonation to get an idea of the information that intonation really carries.
Finally, we look at how quickly you should speak when presenting in English. It’s a common complaint to hear that the presenter spoke too quickly or too slowly. Speak too quickly and you will probably be swallowing the ends of your words and sentences, making it unnecessarily difficult for the audience to follow what you are saying.
Speak too slowly and your audience may start to fall asleep. If you’re not interested in what you are saying, why should they be?
Keep it to 140–180 words per minute. The only way you’ll know how quickly you speak is to record yourself when you rehearse. And, yes, you should rehearse at least once for every presentation – even ones to colleagues at work. Great presenters just work harder at making their presentations great, that’s all.
Catch the listener’s attention
One other trick that comes with pace is pausing. Think about where to put a pause in your presentation to get your main point across. Of course, you’ll need to know in advance what your main point is going to be in order to pause before it. See, it’s all about the preparation!
People who present or speak in public frequently, such as politicians, often use pauses to get their point across clearly and effectively. When you pause just before making an important point, the break in the rhythm of your speech will catch the listener’s attention. Just don’t overuse it, or you will come across as faltering and unprepared.
Have fun experimenting with how you use your voice when preparing for your next presentation. And if you would like to comment, please comment using the form at the bottom of the page, or you can ask for more information through the form here: