We've all been there: In the audience at a dry pitch event or witnessing a lackluster presentation in a work meeting and counting the minutes until you can stop pretending to listen.
It's alarming how common the expectation is for a presentation to be boring, especially when there are simple and concrete tools you can use to be engaging and memorable. So let's scrap the dusty PowerPoint presentations and shake things up!
As sketch comedians who perform text from the internet word-for-word onstage, we've been giving a lot of lessons to techies, entrepreneurs, and corporate folk alike about how to take their content and make it exciting, no matter what that raw material is. And now, we're bringing a few of our favorite tips to you.
1. Use Your Audience
There's no better way to wake up your audience and keep them engaged than to literally use them in your presentation. Don't ask rhetorical questions; ask actual questions, and wait for people to really answer you. If they don't, ask again.
Alternatively, find ways to get creative with audience engagement: For instance, rather than show everyone that 20% of your demographic thinks one way through a boring slide, try having 20% of them move to one side of the room. Or, have the chairs already set up at 20/80 when people arrive, and at some point ask if they know why they're seated that way. (You could also gift prizes hidden under seats to 20% of the audience, Oprah-style, but we realize this might only be exciting when the loot is a budget-breaking Lexus or cruise vacation.)
On a related note, know your audience. You probably already know that you should customize your presentations slightly based on the audience, but we encourage you to go one step further. Are there anecdotes or examples that you can alter specifically based on the demographic? How much or what kind of humor will your audience be okay with? On that note:
2. Don't Fear the Funny
A lot of people come to us because they want to create memorable moments and add humor to their presentations, but then they're afraid that they can't do that. "Oh, I'm not funny," they say. "I'm not an actor; I could never do that."
Well, first of all, you can! What most people don't realize is that adding humor does not mean that you need to start honing your stand-up skills, which sounds terrifying even to us.
There are plenty of ways to add humor while taking the pressure completely off of you. A strategically placed clip of, say, a slow loris eating a banana can introduce a section on internet behavior, or Avril Lavigne's "why do you have to go and make things so complicated" can start playing after you make your point about simplification.
Of course, always abide by tip #1 and know your audience; different levels and types of humor will work with different demographics, while potentially offending others. For stodgier groups, something as painless as a long pause at the right moment (e.g., to illustrate how much time one might waste without your product or service) can leave your audience in titters and remembering that one moment.
3. Incorporate Music. Or Memes. Or a Dance Ensemble.
Maybe your decks are beautiful. Maybe you are a Prezi pro. Nevertheless, we've all seen a million Keynotes and PowerPoints, and at least a dozen Prezis. What will really help you make your presentation memorable? Cat memes. Theme music. Cat themes and meme music!
In other words, don't always rely on the "tried-and-true," as that can be a pretty good indicator that everyone is already doing it. Challenge yourself to illustrate bullet points or guiding concepts in unusual, less literal ways. Turn an idea on its head and get people laughing with a parody video. Call a volunteer "assistant" up to the stage. In creating scenes onstage, we always talk about showing rather than telling. Always ask yourself how can you enrich your message with tools or media that the audience is not expecting.
4. Use Projections Wisely (or Not at All)
We see far too many presentations in which slides are used, well, the same exact way everyone else uses them. Can you project somewhere surprising, rather than on the same screen as the last presenter? Can you inject a little comedic timing into your slide presentation? Oftentimes, you may not need a slide at all and can use your intonation and presence alone to tell your story. Shakespearean scholar and theater director John Barton, for example, recites over 100 Knights of the Round Table in front of a live audience, using the tone of his voice and his demeanor to tell you about the personalities of each knight. Challenge yourself to be communicative without technology at least once in your presentation.
5. Take the Time to Brainstorm
Expecting to be struck by inspiration in the moment is like expecting your mom to understand Tinder. Don't count on it.
Some of us are luckier than others, but most "luck" is a combination of skill and hard work. It's the same for creativity. Cultivating ideas (and ideas that work) takes time. You might just have to take that extra hour or three to plan your presentation's creative move. Don't feel badly about it! No one will know, and the truth is that great presenters are already doing it; you just don't realize it.
Spend time brainstorming all the out-of-the-box things you can do. Do it now. Make a list. Hash out your ideas and revise them. Think in "what ifs." If enough people read this article, tips #1-4 will become cliché, because everyone will be using cat memes and hiring dance ensembles. But only tip #5 will never fail you!
Go forth and entertain!