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On Speaking Brilliantly with Your Slides

January 21, 2021 | Beth Singer, Principal

There’s a new normal. We never seem to detach from our devices because they provide the most direct pathway to colleagues, donors, our communities, and our friends. Our online personas and the quality of our “screen sharing” have become part of our identities. 95% of business meetings take place on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. And when we are off the clock, we take virtual trips to foreign countries, cook on live-demo video calls, and shimmy around our living rooms with fellow Zumba dancers who could be anywhere in the world. We are used to this new standard now, and can easily discern the good from the not-so-good online experiences.

As a presenter, advocate, or fundraiser, your job is to ensure that your colleagues, followers, or students want to soak up your message — a tall order, especially in a digital environment.

To help address this challenge, I am thrilled to partner with public speaking coach Eileen Smith of Spokesmith to give you these six incredible tips that can elevate you to rock star status in your circles, AND keep your audience fully focused and enthusiastically spreading your key points through their networks.

1. Walk in their shoes!

Ask yourself some very simple questions:

  • Are my key points really what my attendees want to know?

  • Is this information truly useful to them?

  • Will my explanations keep them interested?

Placing yourself in the role of your audience will allow you to think outside of your own box. Looking at your entire presentation from their perspective will not only encourage you to cut any excess information, but also help you to design more compelling slides.

As you develop your presentation, notice whether your mind wanders at moments where information isn’t easily digestible or understandable — either in your slides or in what you are saying. Pay close attention to this because it is likely that you will lose your audience’s attention at the same moments. Cut out all extraneous details so that you get to your point clearly, quickly, and above all, dynamically.

2. Go deeper — use empathy

Use a “design thinking” technique called audience empathy…

In your mind, establish how you want your audience to feel during your presentation:

  • Enthusiastic?

  • Inspired?

  • Deeply connected to your topic?

  • Armed with greater knowledge and ready to take action?

  • All of the above?

Design thinking uses empathy to make an emotional connection with target audiences. Demonstrating that you have values in common will assure them that they can trust what you are saying. And when your audience has these positive feelings, they can authentically connect with you and your organization.

Eileen Smith of Spokesmith, on empathy:

“A great way to demonstrate you have values in common is through storytelling. At the beginning of your presentation, it’s wonderful to tell your own story that relates to the organization’s cause or mission. If you don’t have your own story — retell someone else’s. Choose a narrative that signals you are dedicating THIS presentation to THIS particular audience, and you and they are on the same page.”

“Additionally, if the attendee list is less than 30, I will ask for a bio or information on members of the group, so I can really see where people are coming from or if there is something in their background I can reach out and talk about. Giving someone a shout-out and saying ‘I heard you did this great thing,’ helps bring the group together. In reaching out to one person, the speaker is actually reaching out to the whole audience and making an emotional connection.”

3. Make your points memorable

The goals of any online presentation are for your key takeaways to (1) be cemented in the minds of your attendees, (2) be shared with other interested parties, or (3) inspire action in support of your cause. Every decision you make should be in service to one or more of these three goals.

Stories, data, and explanations are your tools.

Each of your key points should rely primarily on ONE of these tools in order to be clear and cohesive. But you may want employ more than one to build a pathway leading up to your point and make it resonate more deeply with your audience.

Eileen on data:

“As the presenter it’s your job to bring a statistic to life. When you can make it relatable to your audience, it’s much more memorable and powerful. Are we talking about a population the size of Rhode Island, or the number of people who can fit inside a stadium? Are we talking about a distance that equals three Eiffel towers stacked on top of each other? Give your audience a real life comparison to your statistic so they can grasp it immediately.”

Eileen on sound bites:

“If you are watching an interview on TV and some brilliant sound bite rolls off the person’s tongue, chances are very high that did not happen by accident. Have a brainstorming session with your co-workers and say, ‘This is the message I want to get across. How can I say it in as few words as possible?’ Short and even rhyming is best if you want people to repeat it. A great example from last summer is from an opioid law suit — the State of Oklahoma v. Johnson & Johnson. In the prosecutor’s opening statement, he said ‘If you have an oversupply, people will die.’ Those words were quoted across the media coverage repeatedly.”

Put the soundbite on the screen. Leave it up a while you are speaking so people can soak it in. As the presenter, your role is to add color and context to the written statement while you are speaking.

4. Crank it up!

Did you know that when you speak through popular online video platforms there’s a good chance you can come across as low-energy, even when you are think you are dynamically making a point? That’s because the cameras on our laptops and desktops are not nearly as sophisticated as the broadcast equipment we are used to seeing on TV, nor is the lighting in your home or office.

Before your presentation, take the time to record some video tests on the platform you are using with a few parts of your presentation. Experiment with your body language and speaking volume, and try these:

  • A natural energy level

  • A slightly elevated energy level

  • An exaggerated energy level

Ask a friend or colleague to give you honest feedback so that you know what “version of you” works best to capture people’s attention, particularly when your slides are up on screen.

Being an effective presenter requires enthusiasm for your topic. Make it obvious that you have passion for your subject and great confidence in what you are saying.

Eileen on energy levels:

“You want to change up the sound of your voice and the visual variety of the slides, so people stay with you. Assume your audience is distracted by at least one other thing — the cell phone, dog, or a child coming into the room. They may even be ordering groceries or answering email at the same time! You have to rein in their attention by varying the pitch of your voice, your posture, and energy — in addition to beautifully and thoughtfully designed slides — to keep your audience engaged.”

For one recent presentation, I drew a large E on a paper plate and taped it to my computer — a constant reminder to keep the energy up and use vocal variety while my slides were up on the screen.

5. The perfect blend of visual and verbal

What is the best ratio of spoken language to visual slides in your online presentation? Well, that depends.

Eileen on using slides most effectively:

“The purpose of the slide is a visual aid for the audience. It’s not your script. It can be a nudge to remind you what you want to say, but you need to have practiced your point so that it’s delivered as dynamically as possible.”

Think about the slides and the speech as complementary to each other, not redundancies. Sometimes you will do the talking, and sometimes your partner — the slides — will speak for you. To be effective, both partners need to be highly engaging and clear.

For information that is best conveyed on a slide — a visual metaphor, bulleted text, or an infographic — use less detail in your spoken words in order to let the visuals make your point. Take out extraneous details in your spoken words — whatever is not necessary — to illustrate your point through the slide, and get there directly.

For example, the heading of a bar chart can state the specific interpretation that you want your audience to see, making it unnecessary to go into great detail about the data.

A second example would be a slide with bulleted text. Use the bullets as a jumping-off point or to augment your narration — do not read exactly what is on the slides! That is the best way to put your audience to sleep, or cause them to go do other things on their screen. They can read just fine! Your job is to take a deeper dive and make the information in the bullets energetically come to life.

This leads us to our last point…

6. Make it visually stimulating

If your spoken presentation is truly compelling, how many visuals do you really need?

We live in an uncompromisingly visual world. There is an expectation of entertainment throughout the digital realm. So don’t underestimate the importance of using a variety of visually stunning slides to flesh out your presentation.

Aim for changing your slides every 15 seconds to keep your spoken explanations short and to the point, and to make the presentation visually exciting for viewers.

If you don’t have enough visual content to accompany a great story you plan to tell, consider augmenting with stock photos. They are easy and inexpensive to purchase, and can significantly enhance your presentation.

For example, you may have only one photo of Joyee, an organic banana farmer in Borneo whose business was supported by a micro-grant from your organization. But you have a great story about Joyee’s success that demonstrates the impact of your organization’s work. Consider using stock photos of banana plants and banana production throughout your story to intensify the inspiring and touching story about Joyee, his family, and his community.

Here are some great (cheap) resources for stock photography, illustration, and infographics:

Final Words

The goals of any online presentation are for your key takeaways to be cemented in the minds of your attendees so they can be shared with other interested parties, and to inspire action in support of your cause through an emotional connection. Every decision you make should be in service to one or more of these goals.

Eileen on engaging your audience:

“Remember when you are using slides in your presentation, you are in control of the pacing. People have to go at your pace, which is great for the presenter, but it increases your responsibility to engage the audience and keep them with you so they don’t go off and do other things!”


Beth Singer is Principal at Beth Singer Design, LLC – a design and communications firm specializing in nonprofit organizations to help them fundraise, educate, and promote membership and events though design solutions.

Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach and former diplomat. She helps nonprofit executives, think tank experts, and university students deliver their message. Click here for more tips.




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