Career Column

Delivering Effective Presentations: Keeping Your Audience Engaged

Nidhi Bhattacharyya

t the beginning of 2019, I walked into the most challenging and intimidating presentation of my life. At that time, I was vying for a fellowship in the pharmaceutical industry and competing against hundreds of pharmacy students from across the country. I was almost at the finish line: After going through four grueling rounds of interviews, I was one of the top candidates. My last and most important step was to deliver a 30-minute presentation.

This was my golden opportunity to distinguish myself and my abilities among some of the top leadership in the company. This could clinch the fellowship of my dreams and jumpstart my career.

But my excitement for this opportunity was also couched by fear: How am I going to stand out? How can I make sure people will remember me?

As I found myself seeking answers to these questions, I searched for guidance from well-known motivational speakers, leaders across all major industries, and most importantly, friends and mentors with considerable leadership experience.

Here’s what I found.

You First

The first rule of presentation is that your audience will not be engaged if you aren’t.

It’s important to deliver a presentation with a great deal of energy, regardless of the topic. The mark of a great presenter is one who makes their audience enthusiastic about a topic in which they previously had little or no interest. Some of the best ways to convey this energy are through your body language. It’s important to smile at your audience and maintain consistent eye contact. The tone of your voice is also extremely impactful: A monotone voice immediately sets the same (dull) tone for the room, while an excited and conversational voice keeps the attention on you. When you speak with excitement, the audience feeds off your excitement and becomes more engaged as well.

It was eight o’clock in the morning when I walked in to deliver my presentation. My audience was just starting their workday, and I was very nervous. But by focusing on my positive energy and body language, I started the presentation with a sincere smile and found that I received many smiles back. I connected with everyone in the room, made eye contact and enjoyed the fact that I was educating the group. I believe this helped the audience enjoy my presentation. To my surprise, I did too.

You Are Your Presentation

There are many different presentation formats and they all require slight nuances in flow and style. One of the most common is a PowerPoint Presentation. Creating your presentation usually takes a significant amount of time and effort. However, it’s important to remember that the PowerPoint is not the star of the show – you are!

If your audience was only seeking content, they could get the information from a book, pamphlet, or online reference, and read it independently. But during a presentation, the audience relies on the presenter to condense the information, so it is easily digested. Your slides should be concise and clear. It’s very effective to provide visual representations of your information such as graphs, charts, tables, etc. Information on the slide should be bulleted; don’t display your supplementary information on your slides but deliver it in your spoken dialogue. Your slideshow is an important supportive tool, but it is only a tool: The responsibility of educating the audience is on you.

The presentation I delivered was on migraines. Most people know what migraines are, but very few understand why they develop and how to help alleviate these headaches. One highlight of my presentation was an illustration of what happens in the body before, during, and after a migraine. Another highlight was a chart that showed the various medications currently available for this condition. Each bullet on these slides was no more than one line long. As a result, the audience sincerely followed every slide; I even received a few questions while I was still presenting because the audience clearly understood the material and started connecting it to what they already knew. This was positive and exciting feedback because that was my goal all along – for them not to just listen but understand.

You are the Leader

The final component of an effective presentation is connecting the audience to the bigger picture. Many people do a great job of speaking with passion and accuracy but fail to answer the question, “Now what?” It is the speaker’s responsibility to elevate your presentation to the next level. One way is to discuss the implications of the content you presented on the company to which you presented it. Relating your material to a real world scenario or otherwise making it relevant to the audience will lead to fruitful and productive conversation.

With my presentation, I realized that educating my audience about migraines was not enough. I needed to share the impact of a new migraine medication on the pharmaceutical industry of which they are all part. I talked about how this drug was being marketed and the business strategies behind its success. This led to many eager questions from, and the full attention of, the audience.

What did I learn? I learned that developing an effective presentation is largely about serving as a leader in communication. Your goal is to take your audience on a journey and make them comfortable on the ride. If your “story” or presentation inspires action beyond the boardroom into the real world, you know you’ve been effective.