Giving a presentation is hard work. You gather information about the event. You research your topic. You write and revise material. You develop powerful visuals. You try on multiple outfits before you find the perfect one. You practice for hours and hours to get it just right. You arrive early to set up and make sure everything is perfect. Public speaking is no walk in the park.
But have you ever stopped to think about the effort it takes to be an audience member? I’ll be honest. I never thought about the energy audience members put out until I became a professor and experienced it myself. On some days, I’m listening to 50 or more speeches in a row, and on my commute home, I’m exhausted. Like, roll down the window, chug some coffee, slap myself in the face exhausted.
Active listening is hard work. So part of our job as speakers is to make the presentation easy for the audience. We have to recognize and respect the energy our audience expends. Following are 4 specific things you can do the next time you present to reduce the burden on your audience.
1. Preview Your Main Points
You’ve probably heard some version of the old adage, Tell them where you are going, go there, and then tell them where you’ve been. When you give a brief overview of the organization of your presentation, it gives the audience a map. They’ll know where you are headed, and they’ll be able to locate where they are in the presentation. This makes it easier for them to follow along.
2. Use Repetition
Repetition is extremely helpful for your audience because it illuminates what is important and helps them remember key points. Professor of English and rhetoric, Richard Norquist says, “Used strategically, repetition can wake our readers up and help them to focus on a key idea.” In his article, he goes on to explore seven different ways you can work repetition into your next presentation. When you use repetition, you do the work of showing your audience what is really important.
3. Simplify Graphics
Presentation aids cans be a big help to your audience if they are designed thoughtfully. Presentation coach and author Jerry Weissman says we need to minimize the “eye sweeps” that our audience members have to make. “When your eyes shuttle across a page in a book or magazine, they move only five to eight inches at a time. In a presentation, when they have to leap across a large screen in a conference room or auditorium, they move anywhere from two feet to 20 feet, depending on the size of the screen . . . For every graphic, keep the number of times their eyes must go back and forth across the screen to an absolute minimum.” In other words, only use graphics that really help the audience. Edit out anything that might be a waste of their processing energy.
4. Vary Your Content
In an article published in Time magazine, researchers studying traditional lectures and student attention spans found that audience members can usually focus for about 10-15 minutes before they need a break. Researchers “recommended that teachers insert ‘change-ups’ at various points in their lectures, ‘to restart the attention clock.’” Speakers should take note of this advice. Content that is overloaded with statistics and charts and data is heavy and exhausting to process for extended periods of time. Break up heavy content with lighter material. Insert stories, humor, or a question posed to the audience to give them a brain break every so often.
Audience analysis is a huge part of the communication process. The more we keep our audience in mind, the more effective we can be as speakers. When we recognize and respect the effort they put in, we can craft presentations that make it easier for them to listen and respond.
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