The next time you set out to develop a professional presentation, you might want to look to the theatrical world for inspiration. This advice comes from Erika Bailey, a professional dialect coach and the Head of Voice and Speech at American Repertory Theater. She recently shared her expertise with scholars in Harvard Medical School’s Effective Writing for Health Care certificate program.
Bailey explains that using a theatrical lens can provide a valuable framework through which to organize information for your presentation. In fact, she thinks about preparing her own presentations in two steps: first she crafts as a playwright, and then she presents as a performer. Mastering both roles can be essential to achieving success.
Here are some of her favorite tips to create powerful presentations:
Tip #1: Craft a good story to engage your audience.
Whether you are sharing research findings or talking about a new service or need, it’s always a good idea to think about the story you want to tell. “The story is a powerful way to share ideas and bring people and communities together,” Bailey says. You can think about the plotline, the characters involved and their needs, the setting and the back story.
The story could be a mystery (a problem occurs, and you need to solve it), a romance (you have two problematic ideas that come together in a marriage), a revolution (fighting against an established idea) or a crisis (tragedy may occur if you don’t act now).
Once you have your story, you might memorize the full script, or use a teleprompter, or have cards with an outline and speak in more free form. Regardless of how you present your information, just remember that the story should be at the center of your efforts to engage your reader in the experience.
Tip #2: Use simple language that is easy for people to follow.
The words you select, and how you use them, will make a big difference in how well people hear—and remember—what you tell them. This is especially true in oral presentations. “When we write sentences for people to read, we can add more complexities. But when writing for presentations, we need to simplify, since the listener has only one time to hear what you are saying,” Bailey explains. This makes it important to craft ideas and sentences that are short and succinct (preferably with more periods and fewer commas for ease of listening).
For example, Bailey works with Harvard faculty who are filming on-demand courses and often must help them adapt their well-crafted essays to work for an oral presentation.
She helps them to make sentences shorter and more active, add pauses, slow down the pace, and insert gestures to make the material more engaging. She says that these same tweaks can also translate to many types of presentations and settings.
Tip #3: Use cues to guide your readers through your speech.
In writing, people can go back and read something twice. But in a presentation, they only listen once. Therefore, you need to guide them with strategic cues, so they don’t have to work so hard to follow you. This can be adding simple language, such as, “This is what I am going to talk about today,” so they will know what to expect and what you want them to take away from your presentation.
You can also use repetition to make sure they will hear—and remember—your main points. For instance, she suggests saying: “I am going to talk about public speaking. You can look at yourself as a playwright and a performer.” Then repeat these ideas three times throughout your presentation to make sure people grasp the idea and will be able to recall it later.
Finally, you can give a signal of where you are in your speech to grab people’s attention as you wind down your presentation. “For example, I suggest saying, ‘In conclusion,’ to let your audience know when you are finishing up.” This signals them to listen carefully because you will be summarizing the takeaways again and you don’t want them to miss it.
Tip #4: Use non-verbal clues strategically.
“Make sure you use your body for inflections and gestures and think about how to move your body in space,” Bailey says. “Think about standing tall, lengthening your spine and stretching your tailbone and you will be perceived by your audience as more energized.”
She also recommends using non-verbal clues to punctuate (literally) your words.
“You can use pauses in your speech, and use gestures to act out periods, commas and semi-colons when you talk,” she points out.
“Gesture fully. I encourage as much use of movement as possible,” she says. With many presentations taking place over Zoom these days, she says that thinking of using your space more fully (extending your movements beyond the small box you show up in on the screen) can help you be perceived as more confident and more engaging, too.
Tip #5: Develop stage presence to be more memorable.
Some presenters stick with you longer after the presentation ends.
“In my role at American Repertory Theater, I would go across the country and see 50 people a day audition. Then I would look at their headshots later and I could not even remember seeing some of them. But others, I can still remember now exactly what they did in that room. They were able to come alive in the moment,” she says, crediting their stage presence to making their performances so memorable.
While stage presence comes more easily to some people than others, Bailey says there are three things you can do to increase your presence:
- Be really connected to your subject matter—be interested, curious and want to share what you know.
- Connect to your audience in the moment.
- See the audience and let them see you.
This commitment to connect with the audience and awareness of self can be especially essential to making that lasting impression, she stresses, and can truly set you apart from everyone else in the room.
Tip #6: Prepare for success.
“When we write or edit, we edit until 5 minutes before a paper is due. But as a performer, you first need to write and edit your script days before the presentation so you can rehearse it,” she says.
Before any presentation, Bailey says she reads her script out loud at home and plays around with vocal variety, including the volume, the pacing and the pitch. This helps her feel more comfortable and allows her to determine the right mix for her presentation in advance.
If you want to increase your comfort level, she recommends joining an organization like Toast Masters to get more practice.
Tip #7: Cut yourself some slack.
“If you find public speaking nerve-racking, it’s okay. It does not have to be perfect. Just find a way to be as expressive as possible (within your comfort zone) to engage your audience,” Bailey says.
Also, remember that you don’t have to suddenly become a performer. It is okay to start off small by adopting some of these tips and continuing to build on them over time as your confidence grows.
Written by Lisa D. Ellis