Are you putting lipstick on a pig? Why speech content matters

I recently received a note from a prospective client who wanted to “cut out” the content development portion of a workshop I had proposed and focus solely on refining presentation delivery. My response may be instructive to speakers who want to improve their confidence and dynamism. In a nutshell: content matters. For the full explanation:

You cannot have dynamic delivery without dynamic content. There are several aspects of content development that foster dynamic presentation delivery:

  • Creating an outline instead of a script

For many speakers, they only way they know to develop presentation content is to write out a word-for-word script or break a script into a long list of bullet points (and even display those bullets on their slides). This leads to delivery that is wooden and formal because most people have been taught to write for reading (the eye) rather than speaking (the ear).

This manuscript mode of speech delivery also hinders the ability of speakers to connect with listeners because they can’t make lasting eye contact, which is a hallmark of effective presenters (think of TED Talk presenters who almost all avoid notes as well as government and corporate leaders who can fake making eye contact with TelePrompTers).

My speech outline tool, called the Sandwich Structure, allows speakers to research and craft a memorable and compelling presentation based on an outline that they can rehearse thoroughly and consult occasionally during delivery. This ultimately achieves a confident, conversational style where the speaker is in the moment and capable of connecting with listeners by making lasting eye contact.

  • Keeping the big picture in mind

Another mistake made by many presenters is that they stick to the “facts” and “cover all the material.” This often leads to a dreadfully boring lecture that is focused on what the speaker wants to talk about rather than what the audience wants or needs to learn. A presenter must step back and even conduct research to identify what will be most useful and interesting to audience members and reconcile that with his or her goals and interests. The best presentations take place at the intersection of what the speaker is passionate about discussing and what the audience is eager to learn.

  • Incorporating storytelling and audience engagement techniques

Presentations are most dynamic when speakers are enthusiastic about sharing information and listeners relate to the material. Two ways to accomplish this include telling stories and incorporating audience engagement techniques to support the big-picture objective.

When working on content development, speakers should include firsthand stories and interesting examples to bring data to life. They should also think creatively of themes, metaphors, and analogies to deploy to make material more meaningful and memorable to listeners. Whenever appropriate for presentations aimed at informing or educating, speakers should incorporate strategies for engaging audience members with practical-application exercises, Q&A sessions, video and audio clips, and other interactive activities. The delivery style of speakers is more dynamic when they are telling stories and when their listeners are involved in the presentation.

  • Developing visual slides and / or presentation aids

Yet another way to promote dynamic presentation delivery is through visuals and not “textuals.” A common mistake that leads to lackluster speech delivery is using slides via PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote as a means of collecting talking points. (This generally is happening whenever you see lots of text-laden slides in a presentation.)

When speakers use text-laden slides, they make themselves irrelevant. When words are on displayed on a screen, listeners can’t help but read them (and subsequently ignore the speaker). Instead of making themselves obsolete, speakers should first develop their content with an outline (such as the Sandwich Structure) and then supplement with compelling visuals — using the aforementioned presentation software but also exploring a range of compelling presentation aids including, but not limited to, props, demonstrations, workbooks, handouts, etc. The focus should be on adding creative visuals and other presentation aids to make the content more understandable, more memorable, and more engaging (and not using slides as a place to collect the speaker’s notes).

Without having a foundation of excellent content – that is outlined rather than scripted, that keeps the big picture in focus, that supports the big picture with storytelling and audience engagement techniques, and that is supplemented with compelling visual elements – the final product will not be as dynamic as it could be. In other words, fine-tuning the delivery of content that is missing one or more of the qualities above is like putting lipstick on a pig.