Presentation Skills

Humor in a Presentation

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Don't Force It.

People love to laugh! But you don’t need to be funny to be effective. If being funny isn’t your thing, don’t force it. Forced humor is painful for everyone involved!

If you’re considering using humor in a presentation, ask yourself a few questions first:

  1. Are you funny?
  2. Will your audience think you’re funny?
  3. Are you comfortable being funny?
  4. Is the humorous content you’re considering relevant to your overall topic and appropriate to the setting?

If your answer is “no” to one or more of these questions, then you may want to reconsider your approach.

Humor is often most effective when it finds its way spontaneously into a presentation and shows the speaker’s personality. The more connection listeners feel to a speaker, the more they will care about what he or she is saying.

The best gift you can give your listeners is to engage them and make really good use of their time. Sometimes that will be funny. Sometimes it won’t.

The Eyes Have It

Skip the tips and tricks and look people in the eye.

You may have heard that you should focus on a spot in the back of the room when speaking to a group. Or that you should look at people’s chins or the space just above their heads, instead of looking in their eyes.

It’s bad advice.

Whether you are speaking to one person or a group, eye contact makes the experience more personal, natural, engaging, and confidence-inspiring for your listeners.

If it’s a very large group, you may not be able to look directly at every single person. But the connection you establish through eye contact with some will be appreciated by others. The more specific your relationship to your audience the better.

Look people in the eye.

Be an Autodidact

Supplementing classes with teach-yourself materials is a powerful approach to lifelong learning.

In recent years I have thought a great deal about how people learn as adults.

In the past, when I wanted to improve my skills in, say, a foreign language, I would automatically sign up for a class. Now, especially with the proliferation of web-based resources, I have realized how much I can learn on my own.

Classes are great. They are, however, a small percentage of your overall lifetime. If you care about improving your oral or written communication skills, we would be delighted to have you attend our workshops, but it would also be an excellent idea to get some teach-yourself resources so you can learn on your own. Commitment is key.

To assist with self-study, we have put the entire contents of our four Syntaxis Press books online, and you are welcome to read those for free. They cover grammar, business writing, email etiquette, and presentation skills — the same content we distribute in physical book form to our corporate clients.

Many adults tell me they wish they knew more grammar. What they often do not realize is how much grammatical knowledge they can acquire on their own.

Besides our books, there are all kinds of resources on written communication skills that could be very helpful. I recommend going to your local bookstore and opening different books and seeing which ones appeal to you.

Such choices are very personal. They depend on what you know, don’t know, and want to know. They depend on aesthetic tastes. Sometimes a book that is highly esteemed just won’t appeal to someone that much.

No matter how esteemed a book is, you will acquire nothing from it if it simply sits on your shelf. It is important to take control of your own learning.

What Is Professionalism?

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Skip the act. Focus instead on making good use of your listeners’ time.

Participants in our presentation skills workshops often cite professionalism as a primary objective. That’s a reasonable goal, but what does it mean?

Too often, people think professionalism involves adopting a formal or tightly controlled persona. Such an approach can result in stilted language, constrained physical and vocal expression, and a veneer that keeps others from having a genuine sense of the speaker.

What, then, does define a professional interaction? In large part, it has to do with time.

In our personal lives, we like to spend time with people we care about. When we are with friends or family (if you get along with your family), it feels good to spend time – just spend it – without any particular return in mind, other than the positive experience of being together.

In our professional lives, however, time is currency. If you are speaking to me in the workplace, you are using my time. Make sure the value of our interaction compensates me for that cost.

Think about what your listeners need, care about, don’t care about, understand, misunderstand, are sensitive to, etc. Make good use of their time. If you can communicate an idea in fewer words, in less time, do so.

When you demonstrate that you are a responsible steward of your listeners’ time, they will be more likely to want to give you more of it. They will be more likely to want to give it to you the next time they see you. They will appreciate your taking good care of what may well be their most precious and limited resource.

As you show respect for your listeners’ time, you show respect for your listeners. And when you do that while also speaking naturally and giving a genuine sense of who you are, the result is a powerful, compelling communication.

That is professional.

Listen to Your Audience

Even when they're not speaking out loud.

Preparation is critical to ensuring that your presentation goes according to plan. But don’t let your plan get in the way of a flexible and responsive communication.
Sometimes you will learn over the course of a presentation that what you prepared to say isn’t actually what would best serve your listeners. Your content may turn out to be too detailed, too general, or just not especially relevant.
Sometimes your listeners will tell you what they need with their words. If not, you may have to glean it from their body language or facial expressions. In any case, when you become aware that your audience would benefit from something other than what you prepared, resist the urge to forge ahead with your material anyway — even though you may have worked very hard on it. Instead, leave the safety of your preparations and forge ahead with what will make best use of your audience’s time.
This shift will come naturally if your primary focus is on your listeners and what they need, rather than on yourself and what you want to say.

Put Away Your Smartphone

Pay attention to the people around you.

As our love affair with smartphones has intensified, so has our emotional attachment to them. This is no casual fling.

I can appreciate the attraction. They are there when we need them (until we misplace them). They’re sleek, sexy, and of course, smart. But by interacting too much with these charming electronic companions, we cause our in-person interactions to suffer.

Meeting someone in person offers the opportunity to connect in a way that you cannot from afar. However, such a connection requires that you be present, available, and focused on the other person. If I am ostensibly listening to you speak, but actually timing my next glance down at my phone, I am not really listening. We are not really connecting, and an opportunity to further our relationship has been diminished.

This behavior is not limited to conference rooms. Hallways, elevators, and lobbies are clogged with emailers, texters, and tweeters paying scant attention to the those around them. In these contexts, too, opportunities to engage with real live people are lost.

Resist the urge to reach for that device. Who knows, maybe you’ll actually strike up a conversation with the person standing next to you, and maybe you’ll be glad to know that person down the road. Business is built on relationships, and not all relationships have yet migrated to cyberspace.

Your Earliest Convenience?

This phrase is not always as polite as people believe.

The phrase at my earliest convenience shows up frequently in business communications, often in a way that is less courteous than the user thinks it is.

For example, the phrase can sometimes be heard at the end of outgoing voicemail greetings, as in: “This is Mary Jones. I’m sorry I missed your call. Please leave a message, and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.”

Mary may think the phrase demonstrates her responsiveness, but let’s say a client calls Mary and gets her voicemail. Even though Mary is offering to call the client back at her earliest convenience, she is still essentially saying she will not call back before it becomes convenient for her. And wouldn’t the ideal of good customer service be to base the timing of the return call on the convenience of the client? It may well be convenient for the client to hear back from Mary long before it actually feels convenient to Mary to make that call.

Better, then, for Mary to end her greeting with something along the lines of “I will call you back as soon as possible.”

What Are You Doing with Your Hands?

This is not a question your audience should be asking.

During one of our presentation skills workshops, a participant (let’s call him Harold) described to the group his boss’s rule about hands: If you’re speaking from your seat at a table, keep your hands under the table.

Harold’s demonstration of this technique prompted several in the group to ask, “What are you doing with your hands?” — not exactly what you want your audience to be thinking about. Furthermore, by keeping his hands under the table, Harold became less expressive; his hands were less available to participate in the delivery of his ideas.

So what should you do with your hands? Whether you’re sitting or standing, leave them relaxed and available (not tucked under a table or gripping onto each other). This will allow your hands to respond freely and naturally when you have the impulse to move them.

“Look”: A Favorite Word of the Political Season

Too many sentences are launched with this imperious imperative.

In this election season, politicians and pundits have been holding forth on issues ranging from health care and national security to the state of the economy. Regardless of topic, they often begin their comments with Look.

Look, every American deserves affordable healthcare.
Look, we need to protect our national interests.
Look, the fundamentals of the economy are strong.

I have even heard Lookit. Look has a perfectly legitimate place in our language, but it’s overused and misused.

If you intend to establish a confrontational or condescending tone, express frustration, or have someone’s eyes turn in a particular direction, look may be just the word you need to start your sentence. However, if you are using look to fill space, consider a pause instead.




Carole Peretti • Tue, May 17, 2016 - 12:05 am EDT

I almost started my own blog about “look”. Hopefully it isn’t only six of us made nuts by that awful word. OH how I yearn for the days of my youth, when gifted speakers like JFK gave us something to really listen to. I will never get used to the way our modern society has stripped us of the arts. Yes, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and human beings were moved to draw, decorate, cook, write, build and sew-what a more interesting time to be alive and just observe!

Brandt Johnson • Tue, May 17, 2016 - 6:45 pm EDT
A “look” blog would have plenty of material to draw from these days! Thank you for your vivid historical perspective, Carole!

Roger Argo • Fri, April 15, 2016 - 12:14 am EDT

Thank you thank you thank you. I thought I was going crazy!  And I was every time I heard “LOOK” You are right on when you say it is condescending and arrogant. Paul Ryan uses it nearly every chance he gets. I like Speaker Ryan, but nearly as much as I would if he’d humble his language a tad.

Brandt Johnson • Fri, April 15, 2016 - 9:01 pm EDT
No, Roger, you are not going crazy! Thanks for your comment.

Liz P in MT • Mon, February 22, 2016 - 7:29 pm EST

I see your post is several years old, but it’s more relevant now than ever. I don’t EVER remember hearing “look” used as much as it is now, in 2016. It makes me feel like the speaker is physically “grabbing my face” and forcing me to “look” at them speak. Very rude. Does it make them feel more knowledgeable? Superior? Please, make it stop!

Brandt Johnson • Wed, February 24, 2016 - 9:31 am EST
Liz, what a vivid description of how “look” makes you feel! I wish I could stop all the face grabbing! Thank you so much for your post.

Minerva Moser • Thu, November 12, 2015 - 9:25 pm EST

Thank God I finally found this webpage!  I had been trying to find some recognition by other people that they are just as sick of hearing politicians, specifically, prefacing so many of their statements with “Look,...”  It seems rude to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  It has become so overused.  Journalists on television are doing it, too.  It’s like an infectious disease.  Every time I hear it now, I can’t help thinking, “There’s someone declaring his or her status as a politician.”

Brandt Johnson • Tue, November 24, 2015 - 9:25 am EST
I am glad you found this page, Minerva! I definitely share your disdain for over-“looking”!

susan • Wed, November 12, 2014 - 8:25 am EST

I am getting very annoyed at hearing too many media people and politicians peppering their comments with “look” continuously.  I stop hearing what they are trying to relate when they command me to “look”.

Brandt Johnson • Fri, November 14, 2014 - 2:46 pm EST
I agree that it can be annoying and distracting!
Thank you for your comment, Susan.


Multilingualism: Good for Business

Foreign-language skills help you compete in a global economy.

I am concerned about the poor state of grammar education in many American schools, for multiple reasons. One is that I believe a solid understanding of grammar is critical to good writing. Another is that having a grasp of your own language’s structure helps you when you try to learn others.

Monolingual English-speaking Americans are notoriously bad at picking up other languages. Part of the problem is that so many people in the U.S. — again, I am speaking here of monolingual users of English — have a limited understanding of how languages are and can be constructed.

This is a shame. A familiarity with one or more foreign languages can be a career enhancer. After all, not everyone speaks English!

Far from it, in fact. Despite the increasing dominance of English around the world, multilingual employees can deploy their skills in a global economy to communicate more effectively with clients and overseas colleagues alike. In addition, besides bringing possible professional rewards, learning a foreign language is tremendously rewarding personally. It expands one’s understanding of other modes of communication, of other cultures, and therefore of the larger human community.

There are many language courses out there, but busy professionals don’t always find it convenient — or pleasurable — to be tied to someone else’s class schedule. Fortunately, another option is self-study products (audio lessons, grammar books, multimedia applications, etc.) that people can use on their own, and at a pace that suits them, to develop their skills. Even learning just a few key phrases can be fun and helpful!

The Power of an Apology

Customer-service contrition is negatively correlated to the strength of the economy.

When the economy goes down, apologies to clients seem to go up. In economic bubbles, however, they plummet — and fast.

During the recession, a security company was supposed to do an installation for Syntaxis. Their technician didn’t show up, and when I called to check about the appointment, the person I spoke to admitted he had forgotten to pass along the job information.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before promising that the technician would arrive shortly (which he did).

The very same week, I got a second apology, this time from a shipping company that had made a mistake with the mailing address on a package.

Although these two experiences do not constitute a statistically significant sample, an increase in apologies may well be part of a larger trend towards courtesy and accountability in a challenging work environment. Even extremely conscientious people make mistakes from time to time, so perfection is not a reasonable expectation — but a courteous I’m sorry is. Unfortunately, pre-recession customer-service apologies were often hard to come by.

A number of years ago, for example, upon discovering a significant technical glitch, I sent an e-mail to the vendor responsible for that system. Our contact there never apologized, instead writing back simply, “This has been fixed.”

The unwillingness to say the words I’m sorry is a major customer-service failing, yet many people seem to believe they should never apologize to customers, because that would mean admitting a mistake. If a customer knows a mistake has been made, it is unproductive to pretend it hasn’t. In fact, pretending it hasn’t is an excellent way to infuriate customers, even drive them away altogether. (This technique has a similarly dismal record in people’s personal lives; if you are skeptical, try it out with a loved one and see how that goes for you.)

In a recession, when firms in many industries are competing for scarce business, it is natural that the quality of customer service would receive more attention. As the economy shrinks, you see growth in the apology sector.

Now that the economy is stronger again, perhaps the apology sector will once again show signs of decline — although I will hope for a hangover effect from harder times.

Good business etiquette, after all, is always good business!