Can computers put some pizazz into our presentations? On past evidence, you might not think so. The phrase “death by PowerPoint” hasn’t become a business cliché for nothing.
All too often presenters use computers as a shield to hide behind, muttering incoherently as they numb audiences with a barrage of bullet points and bar charts. Once in a blue moon, though, someone will buck the trend and have you gripped by their every word. How do they do it? That’s what one team of data scientists set out to discover with the help of big data analysis.
What Makes a Good Presentation? Big Data Analysis Tells Us All
Most of us have a basic idea of what makes a good presenter – someone whose words are clear and succinct, who comes across as genuine and passionate, who uses body language well to build a rapport with the audience and emphasise key points and whose slides (if any) are limited to simple, memorable images that hammer home their message. There are also plenty of public speaking coaches with their own theories and approaches. Until now, though, there’s been little in the way of hard, data-driven insights as to what works and what doesn’t when trying to engage audiences.
Delving Into the Data
But last month, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University published the key findings of a research program led by Noah Zandan, CEO of Quantified Communications and a regular Stanford guest lecturer, whose team has developed a big data analysis platform to evaluate and improve business executives’ presentation skills. The system was fed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians and keynote speakers. The data scientists used the platform to explore a range of behaviors, from presenters’ choice of words to their vocal style, expressions and body language.
Using the insights gleaned from the big data analysis system the team was then able to rank important factors involved in presenting successfully, such as persuasiveness, confidence and clarity. It also segmented the results into the verbal, vocal, visual and vital elements of communications – or ‘the four Vs’.
Four Vs: the Keys to a Successful Speech
By and large, the findings aren’t that surprising. On the verbal side, you should strip out unnecessary verbiage and jargon to ensure you make points clearly and concisely, using language your audience will understand. Don’t use phrases that make you sound unconfident or unsure (such as “it might…” or “I think…”). Vocally, even a 10% increase in variety when it comes to volume, cadence and speed can lead to a significant improvement on how a speech is received. And don’t “um” and “er” between different points – just pause. (Interestingly, though, audiences don’t seem to mind when speakers mumble mid-sentence – only between points.)
Studies show 83% of learning occurs visually, so how you look on stage is key. Stand big and square, and don’t lean to one side or tilt your head. Use broad, expansive gestures that go beyond your shoulders (gesturing in front of your chest appears defensive). Put your hands loosely at your sides, or clasped in front of your belly button, when you’re not gesturing – and avoid holding any props that you might subconsciously fiddle with. Finally, the ‘vital’ element refers to how authentic you seem. This can be improved by communicating with warmth, energy and passion, using stories and anecdotes that resonate with people, and by seeming to understand your audience. Echo their concerns and use phraseology that shows you relate to them (such as: “Like you, I…”).
Find Your Focus
The big data analysis uncovered a number of nuggets of presentation wisdom and confirmed many others that you’d hear from any good public speaking trainer. Will it bring an end to boring presentations? Of course not, but it can certainly show those who want to improve where specifically they should be focusing.
And while only a rare few seem to have a natural talent when it comes engaging an audience, the big data analysis shows that with learning and practice even someone who is a dire presenter today can improve dramatically by concentrating on just a few simple changes. Now, someone just needs to incorporate these insights into an app that watches people presenting and tells them a few hard truths…