How to sound smart in presentations

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there – we want to make a good impression when we present.

Munch's The Scream - not the best way to present!

Maybe the boss is there, or maybe it’s our first presentation in a new job… perhaps it’s just that you want to give a strong impression to your audience… or whatever… but the need to be seen to be smart is unnnncoonnntroollllableeee.

And what many of us do, it turns out, is use longer words to boost our credibility. It’s a half way house to using jargon in some ways – in our head

Presentation title with long words

A researcher called Oppenheimer looked into this, and wrote a paper with what I think should be an award-winningly bad or subtle title for his paper. His starting point was that 85% of students in a survey at Stanford University admitted to using long words in their essays to make themselves sound smarter. Some of them even said they used a thesaurus to help them pick up extra words.

I don’t know, but I’m assuming that they’re like me, and work on the assumption that if you’ve got a big vocabulary, you’re more intelligent. (Cause and effect probably work the other way around of course!) The problem with that is that even if it’s true, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how smart people think you are when you’re writing or presenting.

smiley face

By the way, if you’d rather listen to smallSimon talking about this than read on, here you go!

What was Oppenheimer’s expriement?

To test the idea that using simpler words, and shorter sentences, actually makes people sound smarter, Oppenheimer carried out a simple experiment. He created some artificially more complicated and artificially more simple versions of students’ “personal statements”. (A personal statement is part of a university application). Then he asked people to decide whether the authors could go to university and rate the people that had written the originals.

People who read the simple versions of these things, generally believed that the authors were smarter than the people who read the complicated versions of the same document.

What should presenters do?

What that means to presenters is that you should generally be using the simplest form of words and the simplest ways of communicating things that you can, not just to help your audience understand, but also, actually, to make yourself sound smarter.

Obvious really!

There are exceptions, of course, such as if the whole point of your presentation is to confuse people but you get the idea!

A follow on experiment

Decartes - philosopher, not a presenter! :)

Oppenheimer went on to do some follow-up experiments, where he gave people two different translations of some work by the philosopher Descartes. One was a complicated translation, one was a simple translation, and these were given to people who didn’t know that Descartes had written the original.

The results are what you’d expect. People who read the more simple translation thought Descartes was smarter. I’ll say that again because it’s huge for presenters… they thought the author was smarter when they had the simple translation.

So again, it comes back to this idea, you should always use the simplest way of explaining something, the simplest words that you possibly can. For example don’t “commence” your project… just “Start” it.

I do it too…

I found myself doing this very thing the other day. I’d taken a couple of tricky questions during a presentation from someone in my audience who (I later found out) was there because he had a vested interest in what I was presenting about not happening. During his third question I found myself dropping a couple of jargon terms which I explained using longer words than necessary. Effectively what I was doing was saying “I’m presenting; I’m the expert; I’ve done the research; shut up ‘cos I’m smarter than you”.

I’m not proud, because what it also did, was make it harder for the audience to understand my point and, as it turns out, didn’t make me look any smarter after all.


PS Next week’s blog is related, looking at jargon in presentations.

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