What’s more important in a presentation, your style or your message?

Alena Huberova, communications strategist, speaker and trainer

Remember the last time that you were giving a presentation and had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t going all too well? Blank, unemotional stares from your listeners only confirmed your worst fears. Your point was lost and you weren´t impacting anyone…

In the last issue of this magazine, I talked to you about empowering your presence as a speaker/presenter in order to captivate your audience, i.e. your delivery style. Today, we’ll look at the other side of the spectrum, the content of your message.

Many experts attribute a major part of our success in presentations to our delivery style and a small fraction only to the actual content. The legacy of the widely misinterpreted communication model by Albert Mehrabian, I would imagine (the “7%-38%-55% Rule”, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice and body language respectively, when speaking). I used to share this belief myself, until my own experience proved me wrong; available research seems to confirm it.

In a study conducted with students at Stanford University, researchers came to a surprising conclusion. Students were asked to give a short presentation and were evaluated on their performance. As expected, the students who were the best speakers with the most captivating delivery style got the best evaluations. But here comes the surprise. When the evaluators were asked what they remembered from their presentations, they weren’t able to recall! They forgot what their presentations were all about. Interesting, is it not? This study is mentioned in a book “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers (a read which I highly recommend for any public speakers).

If your prime goal is to entertain your audience, then fantastic! Your delivery style will help you do just that. If your goal however, is to convey an important message which you want your audience to remember, then you’ll need to pay equal attention to the content of your message. Think about it, some of our ideas influence important decisions and we need these ideas to live on because decisions aren’t typically made on this basis straight away. You want your management, team members or business partners to remember what you said until such time as they are prepared to make those critical decisions, which could last a week, a month but also a year from now…

So what is it that you can do to engage people with your message, to get them to remember and act on it?

3 characteristics of an effective message as mentioned by Carmine Gallo in his book Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

1. Make your message understandable

Remember the quote by Albert Einstein about how everything should be made as simple as possible? Very true and especially so when you communicate ideas to an audience.

What happens far too often is that we overcomplicate things. With the intention of giving our audience all the information they might need to fully comprehend the subject, we give them a little too much…

As our audience tries to navigate through the wide array of informational bits and pieces we put at their disposal, they loose thread and then? They switch off and disappear into the depths of their own worlds. And our hope of getting our message across is gone forever!

Forget the details. Get to the point, get there fast and make it easy for your audience to understand. What they (and their brains) crave for is meaning, not detail. They want to understand the big picture and how it relates to their own life experiences.

The devil is NOT in the detail…

At least not in this case. When you’re preparing for a presentation, ask yourself:

  • What’s my core idea/message?
  • How does it relate to my audience?
  • How can I make it short and concise?

To help you do that, think in tweets: if you had to tweet your idea, what would you say? Remember, Twitter only gives you space for 140 characters.

Once you have your core idea defined, select 3 to 5 secondary ideas that you wish to convey. Ideally these should support your core idea but they can also take on a life of their own.

When I was preparing for my TEDx talk, there were so many ideas floating around in my head, notions that I wanted to share with my audience. Luckily, I chose otherwise. After an intense brainstorming session with myself (and making some tough choices) I settled on one core message: “Your body is an expression of who you are”. I then focused all my attention on making my audience see why it is so and why they should care. I used the following supporting ideas:

  1. Your body is shaped by your life experiences.
  2. Your body shapes your mind and
  3. Your body reveals a story that shapes your results.

Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef and a TV personality is someone I deeply admire. Not only for his culinary skills but because he’s an amazing speaker with a mission. He wants to influence change in the world! If you watch his TED talk, you’ll understand. This was the core idea of his talk: “We need to educate every child about food!” He used the following structure to support his argument.

  1. Our diet kills us! Today’s children will live a life 10 years younger than their parents!
  2. How did we get here?
  3. All this is preventable, here’s what we can do about it.

A very clear and simple message using simple structure. There’s beauty in simplicity. Don’t overwhelm your audience with details. Remember, if you state 10 things, you may in fact be saying nothing.

2. Make it memorable

As we’ve already seen, for your message to be effective, it must live on in the minds of your audience. How can you achieve this?

Surprise your audience. Intrigue them. Spark their curiosity!

  • Is there an unexpected implication in your message?
  • Is there something you may say that violates people’s beliefs?
  • …or their preconceived ideas or habitual patterns of thinking?

Let’s go back to Jamie Oliver for a moment. This is the opening line of his TED talk:

“Sadly, in the next eighteen minutes that I do this chat, four Americans that are alive today will be dead through the food that they eat!”

Wow, there you have it! Not a particularly optimistic statement; but hey, did he grab our attention? That opening line was packed with a huge surprise factor and it sparks our curiosity. Impactful indeed! So much so that, to this day, Jamie is on my mind every time I order a giant chocolate croissant for breakfast!

Make it real!

The more concrete, tangible and multi-sensory your message, the more your listeners will remember. If you catch yourself trying to come up with elaborate explanations as to how something works, don’t. Demonstrate it instead!

  • Are you presenting a product? Create a demo. Let them experience your product.
  • Do you have happy customers? Share your customer stories with your listeners; tell them how customers use your product/service, why they use it and the results they’re getting.

Avoid abstraction

Whenever you’re tempted to say things such as: “We provide you with leading edge technology to increase productivity, quality and reduce manufacturing cost.” Or “We help you improve the customer experience”; please don’t, I beg you!

Such phrases are completely void of meaning. Even if they are true, don’t use them! Show it, prove it, demo it! Remember, abstraction is the biggest enemy of all effective communication.

Once again, we can learn from Mr. Oliver.

In his TED talk, Jamie talks about the outrageous amounts of sugar contained in flavoured milk, which is being consumed by primary school children every day. To make his point, he could choose to say something like this: “by drinking one bottle of milk a day, your child consumes 28 grams of sugar.” All right, that could work but… Do you know how much 28 grams of sugar actually is? Can you picture it in your head? I can’t. The concept is too abstract for me.

Jamie knows that to make his point, he needs to go a step further. He holds a glass containing 8 sugar cubes and throws them onto the floor: “This is how much sugar your child consumes at school every day through milk only!”. He then takes a bucket full of sugar cubes, throws them on the floor and continues, “and this is how much sugar they’re taking in per week, and per month!”. Finally he takes a wheelbarrow overflowing with sugar cubes, “and this is your child’s sugar intake in a year through milk consumption!”

Amazing, impactful, memorable! Would you believe how much we can learn from a chef? Jamie’s amazing presentation tactics lead me to my final point.

3. Evoke emotion

Making your message emotional. If you manage to evoke emotion in your audience, you´ve done it! They’ll pay closer attention to you and will remember everything you said! Emotions move people, they trigger a release of certain chemicals in the brain which affect their state of mind and their feelings about themselves and the world around them (including you – the speaker!). What I am about to say should be no surprise to you. One of the best strategies to evoke emotion is storytelling.

Tell stories…

Your presentation should be a sequence of concrete stories and examples that snap together to form a compelling argument.

What stories, you ask? There are stories everywhere around you! All you need to do is take a look. Think about your own experiences at your company or about your products and services. Think about your customers, how they found you, what their world may have been like before using your products/solutions and what that world is like today?

Stories are the best mechanisms for persuasion; they inspire people and make them want to be better and do better. Stories drive concrete action. Think of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and other icons in business. They are all brilliant storytellers.

There you have it. Next time that you’re prepping to communicate an important message or idea, reference these three characteristics and see for yourself. I will be very surprised if you experience blank, unemotional stares ever again.

I wish you lots of success and if you want to brainstorm ideas for your next high-stake presentation, drop me a note. I may be able to help!




Alena has a professional background in sales, marketing and communication in a variety of sectors including IT, travel and tourism, wellness and beauty. With over 15 years of experience working in corporate business and living in 5 countries across Europe and Asia, she embarked on a quest to discover her mission. Diving into entrepreneurship, she developed an online portal to promote healthy living. Later she built a team of 50 sales consultants in the beauty sector and became a role model to her peers.

Working with hundreds of professionals and through overcoming her own struggles as an entrepreneur and introvert, she was inspired to start her communication business, which has since turned into a lifelong passion.

Today, she assists business leaders in developing a powerful personal presence on and off-stage, delivering presentations that capture the hearts and minds of their audiences and to inspire action. She also acts as a mentor for startups, helping them design and deliver winning business pitches. In collaboration with Presentation.com, she coached the X.GLU Czech Team to win the world title at the Microsoft Imagine Cup in 2017.

Alena is regularly asked to speak at industry events and conferences in the Czech Republic, France and Spain. She participates at The International Board of Entrepreneurs, Entreps.org, runs The Public Speakers, Trainers and Coaches Club in Prague and is an active member of Toastmasters International, regularly participating in public speaking contests.