When presenting, watch your audience for these clues and know when to move on

I used to think that presentations were rigid and static. I distinctly remember a few times when I had the audience and lost them, because I talked for too long or ignored tell-tale signs in an effort to stick to my original plan.

Presenting with a firmly set plan is wrong. This brings me to the topic of PowerPoint: when you present using slides, you become a slave to sticking to them. You trudge along with each slide, in order, because it feels safe.

Except that’s not safe at all. 

Do people look bored? Impatient? Confused? Eager? Are they giving each other knowing glances? And what do those glances mean?

All of these factors are external stimuli and data that you should be absorbing when you’re speaking. If you’re completely focused on sticking with your original plan of talking about X then Y then Z, you miss out on a chance to persuade people when you have their attention. 

A better approach is to watch your audience in real-time with what I call the structured flexibility method (SFM).

If the VP has a question about something that is 3 slides ahead, skip ahead.

If everyone understands slides 1-5, skip them.

If people need a lot more time on one particular concept than you were prepared for, figure out what people don’t understand and explain it to them, and disregard what’s on the slides.

I get the hesitation.

If you spent 4 hours putting together a single PPT slide, which I’ve done before, it’s tempting to want to discuss it. You just want the audience to know about all the analysis that went into that elegant, simple table.

In moments like these, remember the SFM: you must cut your losses and MOVE ON.

If you’ve persuaded who you wanted to persuade, your mission is done. The effort you put into that slide is now a sunk cost. You should feel good because you would have been ready to talk about it had the conversation gone in that direction.

Figure out the component parts of your presentation. Organize your notes, slides, or print-outs so you can quickly get from one section to another out of order without getting thrown of.

You are in control here. The SFM applies to small group talks, team meetings, important cross-functional presentations. 

A presentation - unlike a PowerPoint deck - is a living, evolving, dynamic experience. As a speaker or presenter, you should never feel compelled to stick to your slides. The point is to get your message across. If, on the day of, there is another better way to do that, trust yourself and go with it.