How to capture your audience’s attention


Dan Bricklin

Presentations by their very nature are not interactive. They are remnants of the old broadcast one-to-many model. Think television, radio, movies, newspapers – all the old media were designed to be sent out to an audience for their consumption. No feedback required, expected or even considered, with the slight exception of letters to the editor in newspapers.

Presentations follow that model, whether the audience is a few investors in a VC’s conference room or dozens of investors and other interested parties at a demo day type presentation.

You know how it goes, the lights go down, the slides go up, and the eyelids start to droop. That is if the eyeballs aren’t fixated on their smartphones.

Not all presentations are deadly. TED has done an amazing job training and preparing its presenters to present captivatingly. I just watched Dan Bricklin, inventor of VisiCalc and my former colleague, do a TED talk and he did a great job. He had excellent slides illustrating his talk and used several of the techniques listed below to help make his presentation engaging. But Dan is both an exceptional photographer, historian of technology, and a very experienced presenter. But you too can do a lot more than just show a bunch of bulletpoint-laden PowerPoint slides.

Much as I might dislike presentations and greatly prefer conversations, presentations are not going away soon. They are a necessary evil in the startup culture. Everyone is expected to have a “pitch deck.” And the good news is that pitch decks have replaced the long, tedious, and rarely-read business plans that were required back in my day.

How can you make your PowerPoint more engaging? Here’s a few tips, ranging from the easiest to the most difficulut.

  • Use slide builds. Virtually every presentation software program has this feature. Yet far too many presenters hit their audience with a single slide full of a list of bullet points, rather than a series of slides, making one point at a time that reinforces – not just repeats – what they are saying.
  • Tell stories, don’t just make points. If you are a founder, origin stories are always of interest (even if in the case of companies like eBay and Uber, the stories aren’t totally accurate.) By definition a founder has to have a story about founding the company. If you aren’t a founder, tell a story about the founder or how and why you joined the company.
  • Draw some slides. Bill Warner hated PowerPoint as much as I do. And while he’s far from a professional illustrator, at the time I was working with him, all his presentations were hand drawn. You don’t have to go to this extreme, but interspersing a hand drawn figure or a diagram or two will get your audience’s attention if only to laugh at your lack of drawing abilities.
  • Ask your audience questions. The best questions aren’t simplistic – like “how many of you are from San Francisco?,” but ones highly germane to the subject you are talking about. Note the questions Dan asks the audience in his Ted talk. Breaking up your presentation with a few questions can help keep the audience involved. And if you are really desperate for an answer either answer it yourself, or resort to the nuclear option: cold calling an audience member, as they do at Harvard Business School classes.
  • Poll the audience. Asking a “how many of you ….” type question, as Dan Bricklin did, (“How many of you use Excel?”) has two benefits: one, it helps get the audience engaged, and two, it provides you with some useful background knowledge of your audience. Polling by asking for a show of hands is often best done at the start of a presentation to get baseline data that may help during the rest of your talk, but don’t hesitate to do it more than once, or in the middle of your presentation.
  • Show a short video. Breaking up a series of PowerPoint slides with the motion and sound of a video that’s highly illustrative and relevant to your presentation is a great way to up the attention level of the audience. Just make sure the video is short, pertinent, and that it will play with the sound at the right level for the audience.
  • Show and tell.  If there is any kind of object – a tool, a book – anything you can hold up that’s related to what you are saying, bring it and show it. For example, hold up a book that’s highly relevant to your talk and that you recommend. Dan could have brought his old TI calculator to show the audience or even pass around, rather than showing a slide of it.
  •  Animations. Virtually all businesses and products involve a process – something dynamic that changes over time. Yet slides in a deck are by their nature static. If you have the graphic artist chops and the software, build an animation or two that illustrates a business process of importance, like your unique supply chain or how your product is integrated into the workflow of your users, like a new diagnostic tool for doctors. If you lack the chops, try to find a student who does, or if you have the money, but not the talent, hire a professional.  You can also use your presentation software to to do a simple animation using a series of PowerPoint slides. This can be a good way to simulate a product demo by animating a series of screen shots. Animations add dynamic content to your presentation.
  • Draw diagrams in real time while you talk. Watch the video linked to in my post How to do a great presentation without a computer or any electronic devices. This works well if you happen to be in a conference room with a white board. Practice drawing a simple flowchart of your business, say the flow of funds, until you are confident you can do it live. But what if you are presenting at a pitch event where everything has to be projected on a screen? Here’s where we add some technical complexity to the already difficult task of drawing while talking.  You will need to make arrangements to hook up your your iPad Pro with Apple Pencil or Samsung Note 8 smartphone to the projector. Or you might need to arrange to borrow a graphics tablet and stylus. This is a tougher one, but it’s degree of engagement ranks as high as its degree of difficulty. One approach is to have someone record a video of you drawing at the white board and integrate that video into your slide deck.

And here’s the trick to gaining the attention of your audience: make them so some work! Like answering a question or even raising their hands. The audience has to spend some of it’s valuable attention responding to you. And that’s why showing bullet point after bullet point fails. You are aren’t asking anything of your audience and you won’t get their attention in return.

Finally whatever you do, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If you are using video or a live drawing, if at all possible rehearse with the same hardware, projector and device you will be using before a live audience. Try to get to the presentation site early to run through your presentation to ensure everything works as it should. That’s one reason bands always do sound checks well before their live performance.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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