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What Makes a Great Presenter?

by Lori Gracey
great presenter

As someone who’s been around for a few years, I’ve heard my fair share of presenters. Some were amazing and made me want to weep with joy and follow them to the ends of the earth. Some were unbelievably bad and made me cry for other reasons. And most were very well-intentioned people who, unfortunately, just never caught or were able to keep my attention.

The Science of Being a Great Presenter

What I’ve learned from all of these presenters is that there is definitely both an art and a science to holding an audience’s attention, whether that is audience of two or a group of 2,000. The science is fairly easy to duplicate:

  1. When asked to speak or present, find out what the audience really needs first. You may be asked to talk about Chrome extensions for literacy; but what they don’t tell you, unless you dig a little, is that they are really looking for innovative ways to restructure learning in their ELA classrooms. So don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions to find out their true desires and what they are really looking for.
  2. Plan your content in the way that you are comfortable. I myself think in PowerPoint. That helps me organize my content and makes sure that I don’t miss key concepts. But the bullet points are just for me and not for my audience. How does your mind like to plan?
  3. Over plan. I have never had someone complain to me that I had too much content for them. If I don’t get to it during the presentation, I can always share it with the attendees through a Google Doc later.
  4. Make it interactive. Regardless of how many people will be listening to you, you have to plan opportunities and ways for them to get up, mingle, talk to each other, think, reflect, and experience. It doesn’t matter how hard that is to work into your content, just do it.
  5. Arrive at the presentation site early, get set up, and mingle. My staff will tell you that I am always early, and that is true. But there is nothing more irritating for a district or campus than a presenter who’s late. So get there before you have to be there and get set up. Test your equipment and the Internet. Then, spend the rest of the time before you start talking with the attendees. Find out the mood of the room and what they think they will be hearing. See if they’re having a good day. Let them get to know you a little as a person and not just the “head” who’ll be talking to/with them for the next X hours. Laugh. Smile.
  6. Don’t spend a long time introducing yourself. A good speaker introduction should, in my opinion, take no more than 20 seconds. That’s because the audience won’t be impressed by your credentials. What they will be amazed by is your content. So get into it as quickly as you can.
  7. Have fun. No one wants to listen to you be serious for any length of time. Even if it’s a serious subject, you can allow a little smile to come in once in a while or even a laugh. Learning resonates more with adult learners if we can tie it to a strong emotion. Other than fear (and no, you don’t want to scare your audience), joy is the next strongest emotion. So help your audience experience joy while learning.

The Art of Being a Great Presenter

Now that you’ve got the science of presenting down, it’s time for the art. This is much, much, MUCH more difficult than just following the steps above. What really what makes a great presenter is (drum roll, please): the ability to tell a powerful story that your audience can relate to, that is interesting, that is moving in some way, and that makes them want to change. After all, that’s why they’ve come to listen to you because, at some level, they (or their boss) want to see change take place.

So take a close look at your content and the audience’s needs and determine what the story is that must be told. What will move them? What will excite them? What is the most important concept that they need to take away with them? How can you craft all of that together so that it is memorable and makes them want to take action? While thinking through this process, I find it helps me to look at photos on the Internet about the key ideas. I want to see what moves me and then think about how I can use that idea (but not necessarily those photos) for my audience.

Once you have your story, then you create whatever you’re going to use to present it with. Don’t get hung up on whether it’s PowerPoint or Prezi or Google Slides or whatever. Just make sure it is visual. Great presenters tell their stories through the use of pictures and not text.

 Our visual system evolved to process images essentially in parallel, whereas text, which only appeared a few thousand years ago, requires our visual system to scan individual characters, one at a time, recognize them, and piece them together into words, then sentences, and so on… (source).

The final piece of being a great presenter is passion. In order for your audience to believe you, to buy into what you are “selling,” and to be willing to change because of what you are saying, you must be passionate about it. The content you are providing must matter to you greatly and you must show your listeners that it matters. They can probably get the same content from 100 people on YouTube. So what makes you different is your belief that this is truly important and life changing. (If it isn’t life changing, then why are you spending your time sharing it with them?)

You Can Be a Great Presenter

Practice does make perfect, even in presenting. The science of being a great presenter can be easily mastered. And even the art can be improved upon.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what makes a great presenter. What lessons have you learned? What ideas do you have to share with others as we all strive to become better at sharing our message? Please share with me at lgracey@tcea.org.


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