8 Presentation Tips for beating Audience Boredom

I asked you, my readers, to tell me about the challenges you have with presenting on “boring” topics.  Ann Hemplemann wrote to me:

Oh, Olivia, you are ringing my bell on this one! I’m an environmental engineer and educator, and my topics range from dull to confusing. I give presentations designed to help plant operations people comply with complex air quality regulations, which require a lot of technical detail. I can’t say I think the topic is inherently interesting, but I do thing the outcome – improved environmental performance at large facilities – is very important. Thanks for any suggestions you might have!

Amy Sutton is a Human Resources Manager:

I have to do presentations about company policies or new laws that impact the workplace.  Often this is somewhat tedious subject matter.

So here are my 8 presentation tips for keeping your audience engaged when you’re presenting legal and compliance-type topics.

Presentation Tips

1. Reassess the purpose of your training session or presentation

Most of us labor under the wonderful illusion that if we say something, the audience will get it. Magic injection from our brain to theirs.

Sorry, it’s not true. Dumping all you want them to know will just lead to overload and boredom. This is particularly so with  legal and compliance topics. So reassess what you can achieve from a presentation. Here are some more realistic objectives:

  1. Motivate them to want to comply with the regulations, policies or laws
  2. Have them feel that this is something that they can do (ie: it’s not overwhelming or too hard)
  3. Have them recognise when they need to take action
  4. Ensure they know where to find what they need to know, when they need it.

When I did my law degree, the professors didn’t attempt to teach me everything there was to know about law. That would have been impossible. The most important thing they taught me was the process of the law. 20 years later I’ve forgotten most of the facts – but I can still apply a law to a set of facts and give advice accordingly. That’s what you want your audience members to be able to do with your subject matter. You want them to be able to deal competently and confidently with the issues when they arise in their work.

2. Don’t go wide, go deep

If you try and cover everything you can only skim over the top. But it’s the nitty-gritty details and issues which makes things interesting. So cut down on the breadth of your information, and go deep on what you do cover.

I was helping a client plan a presentation for an induction course for a government department. She had to introduce new employees to the legislation that applied to that department in 30 minutes. She had picked out eight of the most important Acts. Take off a few minutes for the opening and closing of the presentation and that leaves only three minutes for each Act. There’s very little that you can say that’s interesting about an Act in three minutes. I advised her to only cover three Acts, but for each Act to give an example of a time when the department had got into difficulty with it and how it had been resolved. Far more engaging and memorable.

3. Be short

The longer you go on for, the more risk of audience boredom. As Penelope Trunk put it:

Be short… if you are short then you are more likely to be interesting the whole time.

4. Use handouts

So far I’ve told you to attempt less, go deep, and be short. This means cutting heaps of information from your presentation. Where’s it all going to go? Put it in a handout, so that people can refer to it later.

5. No bullet points

Bullet-points are boring. Watching many, many boring bullet-point presentations has created an association in our brains:

Bullet-points = Boring

Can a presentation on environmental compliance be made without bullet-points? Yes, it can. Norman Wei is the principal trainer for Environmental Management and Training and delivers two-day training sessions on environmental compliance. He says:

When you do a PowerPoint presentation without those dreadful bullet points, you will find that your audience will pay attention to you and at the end of the presentation, they will come up to you and compliment you on keeping them awake.

This happened to me when I did my 2-day seminar on environmental regulations in southern California a month ago. The topic of environmental regulations can be deadly dull. An attendee came up to me at the end of the two day seminar and said:” I don’t know what you did. But I was paying attention to you all two days.”

So – try it. Try it without bullet points and see the results!

There are many alternatives to bullets. Start with this post The top 7 PowerPoint slide designs.

6. Tell stories

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before. And possibly you’ve dismissed it as not applicable to the types of boring presentations you have to do. But here’s Norm Wei again:

I tell a lot of stories that are based on my past experience as a corporate environmental manager. The people in the audience tend to relate to these stories because they can see themselves in similar situations.

For example, I will tell the class that this is what the law requires you to do and this is what some idiot (usually a company executive) is trying to prevent you from doing the right (legal) thing. My story would tell them how I handled it when I was a corporate environmental manager. Enabling the class to understand and see themselves in the same situation is the key. They are not likely to doze off when they can visualize it.

7.  Have the audience do things

It’s difficult to stay engaged for any length of time when your role is passive. Build training exercises into your session which will require people to think, discuss and plan. Legal and compliance topics lend themselves to discussing case studies.

Divide your audience into groups of 3 or 4 and assign each group a case study based on what you have been presenting. (A case study is a description of a situation which they might  face in their work. You can base it on scenarios that have happened before or make one up). Their task is to plan what they would do given that situation. Each group  then reports back their suggestions to the rest of the audience.

8. Have the audience move

On our training courses, we plan sessions so that people are never sitting for more than half an hour. We have two spaces that we work in on our training courses- sitting down around tables and standing in a cleared space. We alternate between the two by having planned exercises which take place in the space. That simple movement helps people stay engaged and focused.

What other tips do you have for beating audience boredom?

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  1. Great post, Olivia! Very specific and useful. I linked it under Masterful Communication in our HUGE PLI Delicious link system – http://delicious.com/pliblog.

    Rhett Laubach

  2. Olivia, I happened on your post from Mike Sansone’s twitter account.

    You are correct, let’s face it: If you can’t be interesting, what is the point of presenting? May as well just give them hand-outs and be done with it.

    Keeping in your theme, have you noticed or do you have any opinions about Power Point / Keynote? You mention don’t use bullet points, and I would almost go a step further and say, don’t use power point. I have noticed that power point becomes a visual crutch. People cannot simply read your slide and listen to you at the same time.

    Power point / keynote seems to be more effective for showing images of relevant data, or necessary photos. But text, in most cases, just detracts from the presentation.
    Your thoughts?

    • Hi Justin, welcome to the site and great to have your comment.

      I think adding PowerPoint or Keynote to a presentation can increase the impact of a presentation. That’s because it uses the visual channel – it’s like going from radio to TV. However, it does need to be used correctly. I agree that’s its effective for showing images and graphs, charts and diagrams. If you use text, I advocate using one carefully-crafted sentence which expresses the point of the slide. When I’m presenting with these slides, I give people a few seconds to read what’s on the slide before I start talking again. As you say they cannot read and listen at the same time.


  3. Thanks Olivia,

    I appreciate your response. I like how you mentioned pausing to give people the opportunity to read the slide. A technique I feel works, is bringing up blank slides when powerpoint is not being used.

    Thanks again!

  4. Great post Olivia !
    I too give my audience about 10 seconds to read the slide and press the B key on my laptop so the screen goes blank and now the audience HAS to look at me ! I press the B key again and the slide is back !

    Better still is a wireless remote through which you can blank the screen !

    Rather than no PowerPoint,I use it sparsely because a well designed visual or bulleted text can add great impact to your presentation, as you rightly said !

  5. Olivia,

    Great post as usual. Allow me to add my two-cents worth to why it is better to use PowerPoint or KeyNote if it is done properly and without bullet points. The visuals serve to reinforce the point you (the presenter) are trying to make. It is like watching a movie. You have the pictures and the narrator – you don’t see bullet points all over the screen. It is also why you should not hand out material to the audience before or during your presentation. You want the audience to focus on you – as CK says. That’s why movie theaters do not hand out the entire story line of the movie they are showing.


    • Hi Norman

      Thank you for your input. There are many people who say that the visual style of PowerPoint can’t be done with “technical” presentations. You and your website prove that it’s not the case. Thank you.