Business Presentations: 5 Tips to Engage Audiences

Business presentations are a part of the routine at virtually every office. Occasionally, employees will get excited about seeing a presentation, but more often than not, they expect to be — and dread the thought of — sitting through an endless series of PowerPoint slides and bad jokes.

Why don't most business presentations land? Why do speakers so frequently face tuned-out listeners who are too busy checking their phones and watches to pay attention to the important information being conveyed? In an age of constant distractions and shrinking attention spans, it seems that giving an engaging presentation is an art that few have been able to master successfully.

"Presenters often put too much value on being funny or charming," said Bill Burnett, co-founder and CEO of presentation software company PointDrive. "On the other side of things, the value of data is overlooked."

With a combination of powerful data and the right messaging strategy, you can hold your audience's attention and make your business presentations a success. Follow these five expert tips to keep all eyes and ears on you:

Know your strengths as a presenter

Before you begin preparing your slides and notes, take the time to analyze and reflect on your own personal style of presenting. Edward Schiappa, head of MIT's Comparative Media Studies/Writing department and a professor in the MIT Sloan Executive Education program, advised against relying on gimmicks like forced humor and over-enthusiasm, and instead remaining true to yourself.

"Audiences tend to like speakers with a lot of energy, but not so much that the speaker can't focus into a compelling message," Schiappa told Business News Daily. "The key is to learn what your particular strengths are, and then put together the necessary pieces to craft a presentation that grabs attention, maintains it and ends strongly."

Tell a story

Statistics and facts are important to any presentation, but without a good story behind them, the charts and tables you painstakingly created will mean nothing to your audience.

"Using a story is a great way to make an audience receptive to the content," said Sheldon Senek, executive vice president of Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau. "It relaxes them and lets them know you're real. Stories are also a way of creating an example of the content a speaker is talking about."

But don't tell stories just for the sake of telling them: Make sure they have a point. A confusing story will only lead to a disengaged audience, Senek said. Most importantly, don't just read off of your slides. Your presentation should support the slides, not the other way around.

Be aware of your body language

It's easy to let nerves get the best of you when you're speaking in front of a large crowd, but remaining calm and in control of your body movements, general appearance and tone of voice is imperative to establishing yourself as a strong presenter.

"When standing in front of a room, that time should be used connecting with those that are listening," Burnett said. "Look people in the eye, smile, and don't be scared to use your hands and move."

Senek agreed, noting that being "natural" — instead of being stiff or robotic, or clinging to the podium — is a big part of engaging your listeners. He also recommended taking the time to look professional in terms of dress and grooming.

Let the situation guide you

The circumstances for every presentation are different, and as the presenter, you need to be aware of those circumstances ahead of time. The three basic factors affecting a presentation are the speaker, the message and the audience. Schiappa advised asking yourself the following questions as you craft your presentation:

"As a speaker, are you already well known and respected by the audience, or do you need to take steps to establish credibility?" Schiappa said. "What are the goals of your presentation? The purpose of the presentation should drive the design of your message. Finally, what is your audience like? Are they knowledgeable about your message topic? Is there an opportunity to have a dialogue with the audience, or will you only have a chance for a monologue? The success or failure [of a presentation] depends on how well presenters adapt to the particular needs of the situation."

Practice, practice, practice

They say that practice makes perfect, and this is especially true for presentations. Before you go up in front of the audience, go over the data you're presenting and the notes you've written. If possible, test out the technology you'll be using to make sure it works. Rehearse your speech in front of a test audience, and ask for feedback. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to gracefully handle any unexpected hiccups, tangents or audience questions.

Finally, whether you're giving a guest lecture at a convention or just presenting some company data, remember to be passionate about it.

"Treat every presentation like it's your last one," Senek said. "Remember, an audience member who attends a conference will forget about the food they ate, but they will remember the speaker for many years to come."

Originally published on Business News Daily.