28 January 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 37: What makes a good speaker?

When I teach a seminar class, I start off by asking the students to name a speaker they have seen who gave a great presentation, and describe what made it memorable. As they go, I write down the things they mention as why this presentation was so good.

I might not end up with exactly the same words every time, but the concepts listed are consistent. The last time I did this, this was written on the board at the end of the class:

  • Empathy.
  • Simplicity.
  • Humour.
  • Feeling like the speaker was talking to you specifically.
  • Confidence.
  • Mastery of the material.
  • Energy.
  • Engagement.
  • Emotional.
  • Credible.
  • Stories.
  • Surprise.
  • Sincere.
  • Different perspective.
  • Passionate.

What I find interesting is that people are so reluctant to do the things as a speaker that they themselves just told me that they enjoy as an audience member.

Humour is the most obvious example. My students consistently bring it up as something good speakers do. But I’ve sat through an uncounted number of student talks without any hint of an attempt at humour.

I suppose that the reason people don’t do these things is that underlying many of the concepts on that list are risk and hard work.

You take a risk when you tell a joke. People might not laugh.

You take a risk when you try to get people to empathize. You have to expose what you think and feel.

And there are no short cuts to mastering the material or establishing credibility.

This time, a few specific talks got mentioned, including Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s conversation with Richard Dawkins on The Poetry of Science (not really a presentation in the usual sense). One person mentioned Isabelle Allende. You can see her here on TED, though I don’t think this was the particular talk the student had seen. Garr Reynolds comments on her talk here. So it’s getting easier and easier for these best presentations to spread now that online video is finally ubiquitous.

Still, many people mentioned people they knew personally; preachers or pastors came up several times this session. Good presenters are everywhere, and don’t need a million hits on YouTube to make an impression and make a difference.


Unknown said...

I think stories are key. Student's love it when you digress on a related tangent about the material – some factoid about some creature you just talked about, or some story about some scientist who you just mentioned, or even something that happened to you this morning that was somehow related to the topic.

Humor is key too, and I find the bar for funny gets pretty low during an intense lecture.

Zen Faulkes said...

I did this exercise again with a group of students in my seminar class, and here’s what was on the board by the end of class this time:

Useful / relevant
Call to action
Forward looking
Genuine / authentic
Detail / credible

Pictures did end up in the list this time, but it was in on of the last speakers, and even then, it was the third item that came out of his mouth. Graphics are not what people are responding to,