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HELP – I have to make a speech and I want my audience to stay awake!

I have been invited to speak at a local conference next month and I’ve been thinking about how to make sure my presentation isn’t boring. We’ve all been there – an interesting topic, a speaker with impressive credentials – so we arrive with expectations for a memorable event. And then reality sets in as we sit passively while the speaker proceeds to read PowerPoint slides for 45 minutes and then says, “I want to be sure this is an interactive experience so I’ve left plenty of time for discussion and questions.” Since the speaker lost me after the second slide, I have no way to ask an intelligent question or add to the “discussion.” I feel appropriate amounts of guilt over my failings as an attentive audience member and promise myself that I will do better next time. And I do try as I prepare for the next presentation by taking out a notebook with pen poised at the ready to document nuggets of wisdom as they fall from the speaker’s lips….after about two minutes of rapt attention I’ve resorted to drawing sunflowers across the margin of the page while thinking about what I’ll eat for dinner.

I’m going to be speaking about an interesting topic but I won’t flatter myself by suggesting I possess impressive credentials so the bar is low since most of the participants won’t have heard of me and therefore, should not have any pre-conceived ideas about how great this next hour is sure to be. I’d like to at least keep them awake, so I’m definitely looking for new ideas about how to engage them.

I typically conduct workshops so I was a bit taken aback when the conference organizer informed me that I will be speaking to a fairly large group of faculty and administrators in a theater-style room making interaction difficult. YIKES !!! What am I going to do? How am I going to engage these people and create if not an actual dialogue, at least an internal one where they think about what I’m saying and find ways to use some of the tips I’ll be suggesting throughout my presentation? (Notice I’ve still not moved all the way to thinking of this as a speech?)

I’ve decided to follow some advice I found while reading through some recent blog posts made by a few of my colleagues (thanks Jennifer and Jeff) and I thought I’d share my plan in the hope that readers will add to this discussion and offer additional suggestions and stories (and please, do it fast because my presentation – I mean speech – is at the end of September.)

I’m not going to prepare a PowerPoint. Yes, you read this correctly – NO PowerPoint! I’m going to move away from trusted bullet-points and try to incorporate purely visual cues using a few simple pictures or images with Prezi as suggested in Jennifer Golightly’s recent blog.

I’m going to follow Jeff Borden’s reminder to “Tell, Show, Do, Review, and Ask in a multi-modal way.” I’ll begin with a high-level overview describing the three key points I plan to speak about. I’ll follow this up by speaking about each point in more detail using several rich descriptions and a few well-timed visuals (Prezi slides) as my showing/doing elements. Ask is the easy part - I plan to encourage interactivity by asking questions that can be responded to by a show of hands. Review will be a summary of the key points along with a few sentences linking the salient points together. I will revisit the ‘Ask’ portion of the presentation by allowing time for participants to pose questions. I will also be prepared with a few questions of my own designed to encourage further discussions during the rest of the conference.

Well, wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it went in a future blog post. And please accept the invitation to share your own ideas and suggestions for making presentations more interesting and engaging for our audiences whether they be our students or our peers.

Kimberly Thompson
Assessment Consultant
Academic Training & Consulting
Pearson eCollege

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  1. Here are a couple suggestions that come to mind:

    1. Begin your more detailed discussion of each point with an ‘Emotionally Competent Stimuli’. This could be a story, a call for the audience to imagine something, or a strong claim that will create a sense of incredulity and prompt the audience wonder how you are going to back it up. The goal is to create an emotional ‘hook’ which research has widely found is the most powerful way of gaining and keeping audience attention. If you want to be memorable, evoke an emotional response in your audience.

    2. Introduce these emotional hooks every 10min or so– it is difficult for people, even those who are very interested in the topic, to maintain attention for more than 10min without a strong emotional hook. If your presentation is roughly an hour, you might want two emotional hooks for each of your three topics.

    3. Eschew numbers and statistics in favor of anecdotal stories that embody the math for the audience. Politicians are extremely good at this when discussing statistically complex information.

    4. Ensure that the images you display are highly relevant to the content you are discussing and the relationship is clear for the audience. It takes a lot more effort to find strong visual aids, but including merely decorative images distracts the attention of the learner and increases extraneous cognitive load– avoid the quick Google search for generic clip art.

    5. Talk directly to the audience– use the pronoun “you” generously as the brain is wired to pay greater attention when it thinks something is relevant to it and studies also show that the brain will pay greater attention if it believes it is in an active conversation as opposed to simply absorbing information.

    6. Employ schemas and hierarchies whenever possible. The brain unconsciously craves and creates categories for the information it receives. As a result, if you can meaningfully create categories in your own presentation you will increase leaner retention, improve audience attention, and reduce cognitive load.

    7. Finally, the human brain is addicted to seeking out knowledge. One powerful way of creating and sustaining learner attention is to offer a tantalizing bit of information that triggers the dopamine system and engenders a strong desire on the part of the audience to know the rest. Yahoo and other news websites are the masters of this. Consider the following examples: “The new rules of dating” or “Value-killing home projects”—even if you aren’t particularly interested in the topic, there is a strong yearning to know the answers when you read these titles! Leverage this innate human curiosity.

    Good luck in your presentation; you are already WAY ahead of the curve.

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