How do some speakers manage to captivate their audiences?  You know the kind of speakers I’m talking about.  People hang onto every word they say, believe every idea they introduce, and walk away from their talks convinced they must do what they were taught.  Some speakers give presentations with punch.  How?

Reverend Dr. Tim Keller shared some great presentation advice in a recent interview about how he teaches people.  Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  New York magazine called Keller “the most successful evangelist in the city,” citing his influence among young professionals.  Redeemer has launched 381 churches in 54 cities worldwide and pastors from around the world flock to the church to learn from Keller.  So although he’s preaching sermons and not delivering talks to businesspeople, we can learn a lot from him.  He clearly knows how to give presentations with punch.

Keller was asked about the most common ways that preachers fail to teach their audiences effectively.  He listed four elements that are often missing from a compelling sermon, and I believe, from any great presentation:

1. Pathway.  Keller says that many speakers aren’t clear about what they’re getting at.  You need to help people feel like they know where they’re going in your session.  He explains, “People need to see that there are stages in the journey and they are moving,” instead of feeling like you’re going around in circles.   You must build a case or unfold a truth in a logical, easy to follow manner.

I try to ensure my talks include a clear pathway by preparing a detailed outline of my content first.  I build in a natural progression between my points and, then when I’m presenting, I connect the dots between them with verbal and visual cues.  I often imagine that I am an attorney arguing a case and building to a logical conclusion.  This mindset also helps me identify “objections” or challenges that people might hold against my points so that I can address them proactively.

2. Practicality.  Teachers sometimes get caught up in showing off their knowledge.  Whether or not they admit it or are even aware of it, they think, “We’re better because we know more,” Keller says, and they try to show off their knowledge.  But the point is not for your audience to just to think or know something; you want to affect how they live.  So speakers must translate their knowledge into practical application.

I’ve previously written about how I prepare to make a presentation by asking myself three questions, one of which is, “What should people know/think/feel/do as a result of participating in my session?”  This helps me ensure that I am conveying actionable insights and practical applications.

3. Persuasion. Keller observes that you can’t just assert your points, you must convince people to accept them.  “The essence of persuasion,” he says, “is to take something someone already believes and use that ‘against’ them…Don’t just say, ‘why don’t you believe this,’ or ‘if you don’t believe this, you’re wrong.”  Instead, persuade people by saying, “If you believe this, then why don’t you believe that?”

Too often I hear speakers state points as if they’re facts without convincing their audience of their veracity or authority.  Instead, I use a combination of logical arguments, social proof, other sources, and stories to make my points more persuasive.

4. Pictures. Speakers must connect their propositions to sensory language.  “Use illustrations as much as you can,” Keller exhorts.  You can explain an abstract proposition with a sensory experience.  Keller talked about how theologian Jonathan Edwards demonstrated the power of pictures when he said, “Your good deeds cannot keep you out of hell any more than a spider web can stop a falling rock.”  It was a vivid depiction of his point.

This is one area I still need to work on.  I try to use analogies and illustrations to bring my points to life, but the practice isn’t something that comes naturally to me.  So after drafting my presentation, I’ll go back through it and identify points where sensory language would make it stickier.

Presentations with punch have these four Ps. Whether you’re a preacher or a public speaker, these four elements are critical to giving a talk that gets people’s attention, keeps them engaged, and sticks with them.

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