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The Missing Link in Presentations

Mark Twain's 19th Century adage, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," is applicable to 21st Century business presentations.

What everybody talks about in business today is Microsoft PowerPoint, the medium of choice for presentations, and how to avoid making a visual hindrance of what is supposed to be a visual aid—e.g., how to avoid being guilty of that all-too-common opprobrium: Death by PowerPoint.

Multiple Amazon listings, abundant bookstore shelves, countless Websites, and numerous state-of-the-art graphics studios are all bursting at the seams with advice about how to design slides for presentations. Yet nobody is doing anything about the other vital element that is meant to complement graphics: the presenter.

Oh yes, there is ample advice about body language, but nobody is providing advice on how to integrate the body language with the slides and the narrative.

This missing link creates a distraction during presentations as disconcerting as watching a film with an out-of-sync soundtrack. The movie audience, irritated by even the slightest mismatch of picture and sound, is likely to call out to the projectionist or even to ask for a refund.

The business audience, struggling to relate what they are seeing with what the presenter is saying, is likely to interrupt or simply to tune out, rejecting both the presenter and the message.

Such negative reactions occur because asynchronous sights and sounds are a challenge the sensitive neurology of the human perception system. Audiences find it difficult to process multiple sensory inputs…a difficulty compounded when the images are in motion. Hence, the irritation caused by the slipped soundtrack.

The equivalent of motion in presentations is the animation feature in PowerPoint. We've all been victimized by the flying bullets and spinning pie charts that tumble helter-skelter onto the projection screen like circus acrobats during presentations.

Presenters must exercise restraint in animation, but that is another subject for another time. For now, let us accept that well-designed animation can help tell and propel a story, and turn our attention to how a presenter can incorporate animation into a presentation effectively.

The instant the animation begins, the audience suddenly shifts their attention to the screen and away from the presenter, and they do so involuntarily—that sensitive neurology at work. So focused is the audience on the animation, they do not hear the presenter's words, nor do they see what the presenter is doing.

Moreover, anything that the presenter does or says creates additional sensory data that conflicts with the enlarged activity on the projection screen.

There is a simple solution to all of this: pause.

How will the pause feel to you, the presenter?

Awful. An eternity.

How will your discomfort appear to your audience?

They won't see it, because they will be focused on the screen.

What might you, the presenter, be doing during this eternity?

• Looking at your slide.

• Refreshing your mind.

• Taking a breath.

Think of that: three big benefits for the price of doing nothing.

Therefore, whenever you introduce animation, stop talking, stop moving, turn to the screen and let the animation complete its full course of action. In fact, whenever you introduce any new graphical element—even a static image—pause and look at it.

Look at the image as if you have never seen it (even if you have), giving your audience time to see it (because they most certainly never have). At that moment, you and your audience fall into lock step.

This seemingly obvious recommendation—to come to a full stop—is as rarely observed in presentations as it is in response to those red octagonal signposts at street corners and crossroads. In traffic, the rolling stop has become the norm out of practice.

In presentations, it is due to a stronger force: time warp. Time moves differently in front of an audience. Every presenter understands this dynamic and feels powerless to the relentless urge to keep talking.

It may be impossible to slow down time, but it is possible to control—and the secret to doing so is pausing.

Adapted from "The Power Presenter" (John Wiley and Sons).

Jerry Weissman is a noted corporate presentations coach and author.