Spice It Up: 5 Methods For Bringing Dry Subjects To Life

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli

We’ve all sat through that kind of presentation… you know the one:  the person standing next to their carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation, clicking from slide to slide and essentially reciting for you what’s written on them.  Or this kind: you’re learning a new subject that’s complex and has many parts, and the person teaching it to you just stands and talks, maybe occasionally writing key words onto the board. Or how about this? You’re the student in a class where the teacher follows the exact same pattern every.single.session. Nothing ever changes, because really who believes in that nonsense that variety is the spice of life?

Except, here is the thing:  Our brains disagree. Our brains say that Indeed! Variety is Spicy and Spicy is GOOD.

So, as a presenter, how do you bring subjects to life? How do you treat your material like it’s a living, breathing thing? How do you give as much care to your presentation as you do to those you are presenting to?

Here are a few keys to success, no matter what your topic is.

  1. Consider the Environment

The environment sets the tone and the mood, and will impact your participants before you even start talking. I once attended a parent meeting hosted by my kids’ school district where the room was already dimmed in preparation for the PowerPoint presentation when we walked in… and it was an evening session. After a long day of work the last thing I wanted was to sit in a dark room for two hours. So, as a facilitator don’t forget that you’re also facilitating the mood of the room. How is the lighting? Do you have music playing prior to the start of your presentation? How is the space set up? Do you have materials pre-set for your participants? What might they need to make them feel more comfortable? The more you think about this, the more likely you’re setting yourself up for success without even saying a word. And, even if you have absolutely no control over the environment and can do nothing to make it “better,” acknowledging that to your participants is considering it… so, a simple “I know it’s cold in here, everyone, and I wish I could change that. Hang in there with me!” goes a long way in showing your participants that you are aware of how they might be feeling.

  1. Get Moving

Who can sit still for long periods of time without getting restless or tuning out? Just about nobody, that’s who. It can be tempting as a facilitator to set up your presentation and then just talk at your participants, but their level of engagement won’t be as high as it could be if you do. No matter what your topic, look for places where you can get the participants moving. This could be high-stakes movement, like actually playing a game or activity, but it could also be low-stakes movement, like having your participants walking around the room and simply greeting each other or talking about a question you’ve posed. Or even lower stakes movement, like having your participants stand up if they would like to answer “yes” to a question you ask.  You know who else needs to get moving? You! Don’t get trapped in the “I must stand by the podium/I must stand at the front” mindset. Moving yourself around the room keeps your participants’ brains active and attentive.

  1. Tap Into the Senses

If only my brain is engaged during your session then you are competing with all the other thoughts pulling at my attention, and that probably means you’re not getting all of me. But the more you tap into my senses, the more fully present I will be. What sounds might get me hooked, whether it be music or a bell to signal a change in activity? What scents can you incorporate? How can you visually demonstrate what you are teaching, with pictures or symbols? How can I be experientially involved in what you are teaching so that I can feel what you are saying rather than just be thinking about what you are saying? Can you have me close my eyes to visualize something? Can you have me moving about the room and shaking hands with my fellow participants? Can I be asked to look them in the eye? Can you play a song with lyrics you’d like me to think about that are relevant to your topic? Can we use playdoh to create something related to the topic? Can you print your agenda on colorful paper or leave crayons or colored pencils at my table so I can doodle while you talk? Can you bring tangerines or lemon water for me to enjoy during your session? The more you think about different ways to ignite all of my senses, the more fully focused you will have me during your presentation.

  1. Think About Your Participants

Who is your audience? What do they care about? How do they like to receive information? We can’t always find out everything there is to know about our audience, but we can always find out something. A facilitator’s ability to speak to their audience from a place of common understanding/connection can make all the difference in the success of their presentation. So, if I am talking about the subject of conflict with high school students, I might do well to listen to some of the Top Ten songs topping the charts right now, and bring some of those lyrics as a jumping off point for the conversation. Or, if I have to update my team on new company policies that I know they might be resistant to, I might set myself up for success if I start by commending them on their professionalism, acknowledge that change can be difficult, and make sure I allow plenty of time and space for them to voice their concerns and ask their questions, validating everything that they are feeling. Some of the worst facilitator moments I’ve been witness to involve a facilitator who “sets their script” and never strays from it—never bending to the actual audience before them, but remaining rigid and unchanging.  Your participants want to know you’ve thought about them. How can you show them that you have? 

  1. Untether Yourself

PowerPoints, videos, mixed media—oh, my! There are so many technological options available to us these days that it’s nearly unheard of to see a presenter that is completely tech-free. And that’s okay… but, as a presenter it’s important to not get so tethered to your technology that a) your presentation will be a bust if any of the technology goes awry or b) your technology requires so much attention from you that it actually gets more of your attention than your crowd does. It’s a fine line, and so I just urge facilitators to remember to stay as un-tethered as possible, that the human to human interaction is much more important than anything fancy that you’d like to flash on the screen. 

What would you add to this list? What has helped you, as a presenter, bring any topic to life?

Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.