Why do you want to know how to improve presentation skills? Is it because you’ve started a new role that involves much more verbal communication and presentations? Is it because you’ve had some poor feedback about a presentation and your voice sounds monotone? Is it because you’ve got someone on your team who is great at their job but could be better at communicating with colleagues or clients? Is it because you need to speak clearly and stop mumbling?
Let’s be really honest, verbal communication is hugely complex. Whether it is spontaneous - like chatting socially - semi-prepared - like giving feedback in an appraisal - or highly organised - like a presentation - the sheer number of things that are involved in successfully connecting with other people and communicating your thoughts clearly and effectively is utterly breathtaking! So how do you make a presentation interesting?
I'm guessing this isn't the first article you've read about how to plan a presentation. You might of even read a few books on presentation skills - it seems to me that the world and his wife are offering top tips for effective presentations these days. So how are you to really know what are the good presentation skills techniques?
If you’re hoping this article is going to give you the definitive answer for how to give a killer presentation, you’re not going to find it here because it is more nuanced that a superficial quick trick. However, what you will find, is one of many simple and easy to implement techniques which I share with my coaching clients that will make you feel more in control of verbal communication - whatever the context - and give you a structure on which to construct your thoughts.
Presentation Skills - Start With The Brain
The human brain is remarkably complicated and yet a renowned neuroscientist whom I was recently coaching suggested that “in essence, the brain is interested in two thing: the first is the efficient consumption of calories and the second is survival”.
If you think about the brain of your listener/s through that lens it means that when you speak they’ll be asking themselves “is this easy for me to grasp (so I don’t have to consume too many calories), and does it aid my survival?”. By ‘survival’ we’re not talking about physical life or death, but instead a sort of professional life or death or social life or death: “is listening to this going to help me do my job better; get on with my peers better; make me look smarter; more interesting; more useful; more valued in my tribe?”. And by ‘easy’, we’re not talking about dumbing-down the way you express yourself, but how to make your thoughts easier to digest.
In this article we won’t get into the nitty-gritty of how to ensure that what you say has survival-worthy value (I’ll write about that soon). But let’s talk about step one in your presentation skills training: making thoughts easier to digest.
Now there are a myriad ways to do this, and we’re going to focus on just one that you can apply straightaway in your next conversation or presentation: the rule of three and the rule of three plus one.
How To Structure Your Presentation - The Rule Of Three
It’s simple: speak in threes. You may already know about this, but wait there! Not everyone knows how to use it well in all contexts. So keep reading. Three seems to have real potency. It seems to be just enough information before the brain worries about whether or not it can remember what’s been said (more than three starts to sounds like a list), and if it were the rule of two then your content could sound like you’re talking about opposites: left and right, up and down, right and wrong (this is called antithesis - I'll write about this soon). Communicating in threes allows us to offer the listener/s just enough information that sounds clear, manageable and interconnected.
So to make what you say in a presentation or prepared conversation more easily digestible, you might consider organising your themes, questions, points, statistics and conclusions into threes. And you can even have threes within threes: “I want to talk to you about x, y and z. We’ll start with x. Now the first thing about x is this, the second is this and the third is this. Let's move onto y...”. It makes what you say seem neat and tidy and therefore easier to digest which conserves the calories they consume (as well as making you seem like the kind of person who is in control of their thoughts and the way they communicate them). Another reason for this is that it can help your listener/s to build clearer expectations in the conversation and manage their energy and time more effectively. For example, if you say that you want to talk about three things in relation to your subject, immediately the listener knows what to expect. If you then talk for a minute about the first thing, they assume that each of the other two will take the same time and can therefore plan how much attention/energy to offer you and your thoughts (tip: never make the second and third thing longer than the first - in fact try to make them shorter).
It might be interesting to know that Aristotle spoke about storytelling as having a three act structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. Maybe this is part of what makes threes so satisfying and therefore one of the fundamental ways to improve your presentation skills.
The rule of three plus one follows exactly the same principal but you add an unexpected fourth point. For example, “There are three things about a plant-based diet that I love: I feel healthier, I feel more ethical and I’ve got more energy. PLUS it’s cheaper!” Here, the cost-saving benefit which could sway more people’s opinion given that most of us worry about money to varying degrees, carries extra punch as an unexpected extra. It can make you sound more in the moment.
You might be thinking, “that’s great advice Ashley if I want to know how to write an effective presentation, but what about in spontaneous verbal communication?”. The rule of three is a way of thinking. And when you start thinking in threes it shapes how you structure your thoughts and engage in any conversation. But to begin with, you might want to try enforcing it on yourself whether or not you are sure if you have three thoughts or questions to offer. Try this: when you next find yourself being asked your opinion or wanting to volunteer your opinion, start by saying, “well, there are three things I want to share about that...”. In my experience, most people have normally got a least one thing that is clear in their mind that they want to say. Start with that and as you’re speaking you’re very likely think of a second thing and third. But let’s say that you go blank after the first and can’t think of the second or third thing to say. In that case, after saying your first thing you say, “and come to think of it, the second and third thing better relates to something that I’d like to talk to you about in a minute/or another time, so this [your first point] is the most fundamental/important thing. What thoughts do you have about that?”.
It will sound as if you are thinking very quickly and clearly but want to keep on track and keep moving the conversation forward by only picking the most important point. It'll also sound as if there is more nuance and detail that you are reserving for later (by which point you'll have had time to reflect and generate more thoughts). The impression this gives is of a clear and confident speaker. If you do come up with a second and third point in the moment, then great, share them and you'll sound even better. But it’s a win win either way!