We’ve all witnessed enough presentations to understand the general formula. Audience members wait, quickly scanning handout materials or scrolling on their smartphones. The speaker takes the stage or front of the room. They introduce their topic, cue up the corresponding presentation deck and begin. The first few minutes are engaging—listeners are intent on assessing the materials and getting a feel for the presenter’s style.
But then, no matter how interesting the talk seemed right off the bat, attention starts to wane. At the end of every slide comes another, prompting viewers to slip into the role of one-way, passive observers. Unfortunately, even the most polished and enthusiastic presenters will encounter this pattern if they try to speak at their audience rather than with them.
The Rise of Conversational Presenting
This is precisely why conversational presenting arose as a trend last year. As Hubspot notes, “It signals a change in how audiences want to receive information and reveals a flashy slide deck isn’t enough to win over your prospects anymore.”
Turning your next presentation into a conversation will allow you to truly engage your audience in a two-way dialogue. Here are four ideas for doing so.
#1: Build Flexibility into the Structure
Most presentations are linear. They have a set number of slides in a particular order. Audiences know this; it allows them to slip into the familiar role of information recipient. But conversations are dynamic. They have a starting point, but no set path. There are questions, answers, divergences and connections—and the outcome depends on the participants.
The best way to facilitate a conversation is to build flexibility right into your presentation. One idea is to forgo a traditional slideshow, instead “allowing the audience to explore your ideas in the order they choose.” This will require you to develop strong standalone concepts that are not dependent on one set arc. Another idea is to ask your audience what to cover next, similar to a choose-your-own-adventure format.
#2: Create Something Together
A presentation should not feel like talking to a brick wall. But in order to develop a sense of give-and-take with your audience, they need a way to respond. For example, a word cloud generator allows everyone in the room to create a visual record together using only their mobile devices. You may start with a simple question to break the ice, like asking people to describe their day in one word. Or, you may use a word cloud tool throughout to capture suggestions, opinions and summaries related to the topics at hand. The finished product updates in real time, allowing its creation to become a shared experience.
#3: Take a Break Every 10 Minutes
Conversations contain silences, distractions and breathers. Presentations tend to forge straight ahead without considering the audience’s needs. Building “soft breaks” into your discussion every 10 minutes will help re-engage the audience at key points throughout. Examples include:
- Showing a video clip
- Introducing a guest speaker
- Polling your audience
- Completing a short breakout activity
- Telling a story
- Bringing out a prop
#4: Don’t Save the Best for Last
The idea behind creating a presentation as a long arc is that there is a payoff at the end. However, most audience members will fail to stay engaged until then. Furthermore, it’s hard for first-time listeners to absorb information if they don’t yet know what the larger takeaways are going to be.
A conversational presentation allows for discussion throughout, which is why one Harvard Business Review contributor recommends taking a “punchline first” approach. Give your audience a solid idea of what’s to come. That way, they have a framework for evaluating the specific content you provide. There’s no use sitting on your best material.
At the end of the day, turning a presentation into a conversation fosters more robust, impactful dialogue for everyone involved.