Communication is not a one-way street: interactive presentations can be amazingly effective and interesting
“Human actualization happens through dialogue: in the dual ability to speak and to listen; to respond, while letting others’ words in. Dialogue, in other words, is the ability to cooperate.”
(August Heinrich Henckel von Donnersmarck, theologian and business ethicist)
Presenting: someone talks, others listen . . . hopefully!
“Oh lord; a colleague is giving yet another presentation at this afternoon’s meeting. How many is that this month? Six? Seven? I can’t remember; they were all the same. I kind of snoozed through all of them. Even that one that was pretty well prepared with a decent topic. Ah well, what can you do? When it’s my turn the audience can have a good sleep . . .”
We’ve all felt this way and asked ourselves,“Do we have to do this?” But what’s the alternative? Veto presentations? Just cut them out? Maybe just send all the information by e-mail? No, that would be too complicated, too time consuming and also too non-committal. And what about communication and interpersonal relationships? The robust question and answer sessions? So, presentations have their use after all – but could they maybe be designed differently? The answer is yes.
Presenting in today’s world: what do you need to do?
Although many of us are sick of them, presentations are more in demand than ever. They are simply too good a means of getting information over concisely to convince and communicate. And the more the medium of presentation spreads, the more complex the requirements become. It is no longer enough to enter a few text modules into a PowerPoint presentation and read out that text if you want your presentation to go down well.
You need target group relevance, images, storytelling, rhetorical skills, a slick design and much more. Presentation has become a combination of science and infotainment, and the speaker has morphed into an entertainer. But one thing has remained the same: the role of the audience, which is pretty much to listen passively. Thinking about this, then, an approach that fundamentally changes the idea of presentation yet again has emerged . . .
A different path to presentation: dialogue instead of monologue
We know from experience that our minds are especially active and attentive when they are challenged. Passive activities, such as listening to a long monologue, often lead to us drifting away in our own thoughts. This effect can be observed in many presentations: at the beginning everyone is interested, then the sly glances at smartphones, the clock or out of the window start…
At the end, during the question and answer session, people are usually concentrating again. Interaction and participation have an activating effect, as learning research confirms. So why not use this effect in the presentation as well? This is exactly what an interactive presentation does. The entire presentation is designed to get the audience actively involved. The presentation becomes a dynamic process between speaker and audience.
How does an interactive presentation work?
Many presentations fail because the presentation and the target group are not a great fit. This can happen despite good preparation and planning, because you can never quite predict how your audience will think. So the concept of interactive presentation starts way before the presentation begins. They are specifically designed from the ground up to be flexible. The path of a conventional presentation is linear and determined by the speaker; that of an interactive presentation is unpredictable and determined by the audience.
What path a presentation takes is only decided when it is up and running. The first step in such a presentation might be to ask the audience about their areas of interest, problems to be solved or current concerns, allowing the speaker to set out how they would meet such needs or solve those problems. This principle runs through the entire presentation. The whole concept is based on mutual questioning, sharing views and opinions, and opportunities for discussion.
How to keep the conversation going:
- Ask introductory questions:
What do you hope to gain from this presentation? What do you want to know? Which aspects of this topic are particularly relevant or interesting for you?
- Clarify your audience’s reactions:
What’s your experience been with this? Do you feel the same way? When you say X, what exactly do you mean?
- Ask for opinions:
Do you think that makes sense? How do you think the market situation is going to develop?
- Ask for descriptions:
What are your processes like? What problems do you tend to have with them?
- Poll your audience (e.g. by a show of hands):
How many of you have come across this problem? Who’s worked with this method/technique before?
- Encourage the audience to question and comment:
Tell me if something is unclear or if you have any objections! Please feel free to ask questions during the presentation.
What can interactive presentations do and what are their limitations?
An interactive approach sounds terrifying to many speakers. Potential members of the audience may also wonder whether it’s possible to communicate a topic properly like this. The uncertainties seem overwhelming: doesn’t the fluid structure automatically lead to a mess? What if you forget an important point? How can a speaker stay calm when they don’t know how the process will unfold?
Let’s put the question another way, though: how efficient is a presentation that hardly anyone follows attentively throughout and that loses the audience’s interest?
Admittedly, the interactive approach is somewhat unusual and can be a challenge for both sides. But that is the huge advantage of this type of presentation. Real attention is required, and targeted interests are the focus of attention; this makes the exchange profitable for both sides. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s worth considering.
Overview of the Pros and Cons:
The pros of interactive presentations:
- They allow precise and flexible adaptation to the needs of the target group.
- They automatically attract attention and interest.
- They make a more intensive and individual examination of the topic possible.
- The focused approach can save time.
- The interaction creates a sense of community.
- There is no script to get tangled up in.
- Objections or criticism are easier to respond to as you go along, rather than being bunched at the end.
- The speaker needs spontaneity – and courage!
- Thorough preparation is necessary.
- There’s no linear script to follow.
- The lack of a clear procedure can (but need not) unsettle some people.
Conventional or interactive presentation? Which is best, when?
It must be said here that the two forms are not automatically mutually exclusive. In principle, both forms are open and can be combined to suit your needs. A presentation can usefully consist of parts of both. The ability to deal confidently with both forms can be a great advantage if it becomes apparent during a presentation that one variant works better than the other.
Just because interactive presentations are possible, it doesn’t make a classical presentation a worse or superfluous choice. A well-designed classical presentation can be extremely interesting, captivating the audience. In some situations, it may well be the better choice – for example when a clearly structured argument is important.
However, in many contexts, especially in a business environment, interactive presentation can offer great advantages and is worth considering.
An interactive presentation works particularly well when…
…the focus and interests of the target group can’t be accurately predicted.
…individual problems and possible solutions need to be addressed.
…the subject is particularly complex, or allows different approaches.
…the target group is not homogeneous so various approaches to the topic are needed.
…success depends on the targeted communication of information.
What makes a good interactive presentation?
Anyone who wants to lead an interactive presentation needs to design it properly. Admittedly, there’s a certain amount of effort needed here. The presentation has be created in such a way that “jumps” can be made easily and spontaneously without losing the overall context. Materials, images, links – everything must be prepared just in case. There still has to be a structure, but it must be flexible.
The advantages are that whilst it takes work to prepare in this depth it can also save you work. If you’re dealing with a topic which you intend to present again and again, to different audiences, it makes sense not to “recycle” the presentation, but to adapt it to the needs of your target group. The open design of an interactive presentation means that the work needed to adapt the presentation each time is much less arduous, since the needs of the target group are not defined rigidly beforehand.
Speakers need to be absolutely on top of their topic and prepared to navigate through their presentation in all the ways they can think of. Since there’s no linear script, the presentation must allow topics to be cycled through spontaneously.
A speaker who feels too insecure without notes can use them in interactive presentations, but they need to be impeccably organized, because searching frantically through a bunch of notes comes across as unprofessional and ill prepared.
The interactive approach also depends on being able to present the content in a lively, gripping way. A fixed, predetermined “storyline” is of course impossible when the process is so open. However, anecdotes, pictures, videos and other creative means can be on hand to create an emotionally coherent presentation. A uniform design is particularly essential here to unite potentially fragmented ideas.
The courage to face the challenge
Particularly insecure speakers will probably break out in a sweat just thinking about interactive presentations. Everyone knows, after all, that it’s detailed preparation and a clear sequence of events which provide security. But it’s worth taking on this challenge. Thorough and detailed preparation still provides security, and experience shows that other fears often disappear by themselves.
It can actually turn out to be a huge relief when speakers find that they are no longer standing alone in front of a silent and evidently bored audience, but are instead involved in a much more natural discussion with a really interested group of people.
Proximity to the audience
The interactivity of the presentation should be reflected in the spatial set-up, to make it clear that speaker and audience are on the same level here. For the audience to really experience the situation as interactive, there should be no barriers between them and the speaker. A lectern, a gaping distance or a high stage can stop people feeling that they can communicate openly with the speaker. A smaller room (or online call) with a limited audience promotes closeness in more ways than one.
If you have to present in a large room, try to create a sense of closeness despite the physical set-up. Avoid using a desk or pulpit if possible. If you have to be on a stage, then get as close as possible to the audience, and leave the stage now and then to be on the same level as your audience, if you can. How about sitting on the edge of the stage? You’ll find that a sense of closeness is automatically generated by interested questions from your audience, and your targeted response.
Prepare for anything that could go wrong!
The nature of interactive presentations means that speakers must prepare for and be able to react to any deviations from the plan. You may be faced with a very silent and reserved audience, for example – so you’ll need to either break the ice somehow or move to a more conventional presentation.
You also need to plan for very cheeky participants to try and take the floor, meaning that the rest of the audience – and maybe even the speaker – don’t get a chance to speak. Friendly, but determined counter-steering is needed here, but you need to get your mind around it in good time.
Be prepared for people to argue back, but remember that there will always be one objection you haven’t thought of; no one’s perfect! The general rule is to always stay calm, friendly and respectful, but also keep your hand on the rudder. Yes, it’s interactive – but the speaker is still in charge.
Prepare for criticism
This point applies to every presentation, but doubly so to an interactive one. In a conventional presentation, questions are only allowed afterwards and usually time is limited.
In an interactive presentation, though, there’s much more room for the audience to criticize your points; it’s vital to play devil’s advocate as part of your preparation, so you can anticipate and answer any objections. However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Even if it’s potentially uncomfortable for the speaker at first, an audience that has been allowed to speak and has been heard will end up more satisfied.
Presentation design matters
Yes, you’ll probably get a lot more interest from your audience with an interactive presentation than with the conventional route, but it doesn’t mean that you can afford to ignore the design of your presentation. Keeping your slides uniform, uncluttered and clear is particularly important here, since the presentation is less structured.
Trends also come and go in presentation design. While 3D effects were the ultimate design element just a few years ago, people are now focusing on simple, modern presentations in flat design again. Morph effects, animations and videos are also useful options. You can use all of these – but you don’t have to. Far more important than being trendy is simply a professional quality design, fitting the content, appealing to both speaker and audience.
Skilfull management of the conversation
Speakers find themselves in a changed role here, as they are perceived not just as a speaker, but as a human being. Maintaining an interactive conversation means not just talking, but also listening, asking questions, responding, and sometimes being unable to respond to something at all. Interaction requires conversation and conversation requires communication. This is far less difficult than it sounds, though, because it is exactly what we do in everyday life.
The key aspect to this is respect. An interactive presentation is only meaningful if the audience feels that the speaker takes them seriously and recognizes them as a partner in the conversation. You need to be able to maintain that respect whilst steering the presentation along.
A few techniques to help maintain a good conversation:
- Paraphrase, repeat and mirror: This is about summing up what you think someone has said, and repeating it back to them; it’s a useful way of clarifying what they’ve said, checking you have their meaning right, and allowing the question to be heard if you’re in front of a larger audience. An example would be: “So you think the product is unsuitable for this application, right?” You can also subtly mirror posture, intonation, facial expressions or gestures to signal harmony with your conversation partner. So, a smile is reciprocated with a smile.
- Verbalizing: This is where you try to put into words what you sense others are feeling. It can help to clarify the situation, but needs to be handled with care. An example of this might be “It must have annoyed you that it didn’t work out.”
- Structural comparison: Repeating statements and making a comparison is well suited for accepting objections and criticism, but at the same time putting them into perspective. For example: “Yes, it may of course be that in individual cases there are problems with the product, but statistically speaking it is very safe. I can show you some figures on this.”
- Grounding: This involves taking up a particular aspect of the topic to deepen it or to direct the conversation in a certain way. You can use this to focus a slightly incoherent question or objection back to the here and now, and to move the presentation on. Examples of this would be “Well, you’ve obviously had a bad experience with this this technique in the past. What are you now looking for in a product?”, or “You mentioned that X aspect causes you particular problems: I’d like to know more about that.”
Tact and sensitivity
Wherever you start a conversation, the usual pitfalls of communication are lurking in the background: misunderstandings, blunders, misjudgements – many things can irritate and cause problems. This is normal in human interaction, though, and happens in conventional presentations too. In an interactive presentation, the danger is greater because communication is more direct and does not follow a pattern. A bit of tact and sensitivity can’t hurt here.
This is especially true for questions – they can become inappropriate, related to confidential information, unanswerable or frankly idiotic. Again, preparation is the key here; a calm, measured response is the way to get things back on track. Speakers should also make sure that they remain professional, despite being closer to the audience. Yes, you’re seen as a person and not just a speaker, but there’s such a thing as being too personal!
Direction and goals
Even if structure and process are handled very differently in an interactive presentation, your goal is still to convey content. The audience mustn’t start to feel that you’re just having a chat. Conversation therefore needs to be focused, serving to select and convey content in a targeted manner. Try to avoid drifting into fruitless arguments – respect your audience’s valuable time.
Visualization can be very helpful here. For example, if you start with a question about your audience’s interests, you can write down the points mentioned on a flipchart or blackboard, refer to them during the presentation and tick off the points. This means that nothing is forgotten or passed over, and the presentation becomes more relevant for the audience.
Interactive presentations follow a very different approach to the presentations you’ve been used to, and the way technology is used is also slightly different. Since you can’t plan exactly how things will go, you really need to practice this unusual approach to gain confidence. This includes total familiarity with your own content, knowing exactly what’s where in the presentation, and how to call it up. A few run-throughs with different friends or colleagues are essential, so you know how everything works.
As interactive and conventional presentations are totally compatible, you don’t have to dive in at the deep end (unless you want to). It is perfectly possible to start by including only a limited amount of interactivity.
It doesn’t matter whether your presentation is conventional or interactive if the basic design fails. Don’t forget:
- Structure your content
- Focus your key messages and highlight added value
- Don’t overload your slides with text
- Present only essential, relevant points
What about the technology, then?
Seasoned speakers are familiar with working through prepared slides in a linear fashion. Graphics, videos and effects are also part of most people’s repertoire by now and usually not a problem. But when it comes to the looser structure and non-linear design of an interactive presentation, people can panic. How on earth do I actually DO this?
With a few tricks, you can create interactive presentations with existing presentation software. Incorporating links makes it possible to navigate between individual slides. Hiding slides is also really useful; it means you can use your slides as needed without your audience getting the feeling you’ve skipped something. Infographics can be great for presenting complex contexts. The zoom function can be used to create slide overviews; you can then zoom in on whichever aspect of your topic you want. Non-linear presentations are totally doable!
A lot of people recommend Prezi for interactive presentations; PowerPoint 365, however, is also great for creating them, with a little know-how. You don’t have to buy in a new program. Even on a technical level, moving from conventional to interactive presentations is no problem.
Interactive presentations: the courage to work together
Interactive presentations offer numerous advantages and meet the requirements demanded of today’s presentations. Creating them is really not as difficult as you might think; you can do it with common software like PowerPoint.
So why is it still such a rare thing? Many people simply lack the courage to deviate from the familiar – although this is exactly what makes such presentations so exciting and interesting. So why not simply step boldly into the future and try a different way of presenting?
This could help to revive interest and pleasure in presentations, on both sides: both audience and speakers will see that they are actually not dealing with something new and dangerous, but with one of the most natural processes in the world – talking to each other.