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Smart Presentations: Don't Get in the Way of Your Message

Great content isn't enough when you're trying to influence someone. How we deliver that information is just as important—and some would say even more so. That "how" could range from the look of your slides to the pace at which you speak…even to the way you walk into the room.

I'm not talking about technique, however. If you make a solid connection right at the start with your audience’s needs, interests, and goals, they won’t even notice minor mannerisms.

On the other hand, if you make it harder for you audience to get the message—if your slides are unnecessarily complex or your delivery draws attention to itself—you risk losing them before you can win them over. And what can kill an audience's involvement? What muddles their attention, distracts them, or just gets in the way of their focus? Here's a sampling:

• Overly complex designs or graphics.

• Gratuitous animations or transitions.

• Pictures or clip art that don't add meaning, but fill up space.

• Too much text on your slides.

• Reading the text of your slides.

• Using long, marketing-approved strings of words.

The key to capturing and maintaining an audience’s attention is to simplify. Streamline the look of your slides, your language, and—most of all—your message. Here's how you do it:

1. Simplify the visuals. How simple can you make your slides without having them look anemic? What can you take out and still be able to get your story across? Can you strip down the template? Can you eliminate all the bullet points? Can you leave out your charts or complex graphics?

I realize this might seem heretical (particularly the last point), but try going through your presentation without all the visuals you currently have…or, better, without any of your slides. As you do this, note where you really get stuck, but keep going to the end. You'll quickly discover what absolutely must be included.

Once you've nailed down the essentials, try simplifying them. Fewer words? Simpler charts? Fewer variations in fonts, sizes, and colors? The more you can simplify things, the better.

2. Simplify the language. The best writing comes across like a conversation. You can virtually hear the writer speaking the words in your head. And your presentations need to be the same way. They need to be honest extensions of how you think and express yourself. In doing so, your audience will accept you as more authentic and be much more engaged in your pitch.

Where presenters and writers go wrong is when they talk like a bad press release or marketing pitch. You’ve probably heard and seen more than you’d care to count, but are you sure you're not doing the same (even just a little)?

Here's a little test: Look at your presentation, or one of your company's marketing pieces, or even an e-mail you’ve sent to a prospect. Take one paragraph and count the number of words in each sentence. Now, try expressing the same idea in each sentence in half as many words. Can you do it? How about if you use half as many sentences?

This is a great exercise, because it forces you to be concise. A lot of the words that might be baffling to your audience fall away, and you'll get down to the core ideas that will get through to them.

3. Simplify the message. What's the point you want to get across? Can you say it in one sentence? Better still, can you say it in less than seven words? Remember, if you really want to affect your audience, being concise is critical.

It's not an easy task, but the payoff—for your audience and yourself—is huge. Your message will be much more memorable and compelling when you're this concise.

Simpler is always better, whether you're standing in the spotlight to deliver your presentation, writing press releases, pitching your boss for more funding, or any other situation where you're trying to persuade or influence someone. It's all about getting out of the way of the message.

John Windsor is president of Creating Thunder (, a Boulder, Colo.-based communications training and consulting company and the author of YouBlog, He has held executive positions in marketing, sales, and business development and has worked with companies like American Express, Reuters, Staples, and Knight-Ridder.