When giving a presentation, use the word "YOU" as much as possible. It implies a value proposition for your audience and makes the information relatable to their interests.
No, wait… When giving a presentation, use the word "WE" as much as possible. It builds a sense of connection with your audience and creates empathy, implying shared interests and experiences.
No, wait… When giving a presentation, use the word "I" as you tell personal stories and anecdotes. It places a human touch on the material and makes the presentation feel authentic and heartfelt.
Read enough advice columns and presentation books, and you are sure to come across one of those rules for how to engage an audience. Which is right?
It turns out they all have their place. Your job is to figure out which pronoun to apply at different times, according to what you are trying to accomplish.
AVOIDING THE ACADEMIC
One thing is certain -- Any of the above approaches is better than relying on "IT." The reason all those presentation experts play up the use of the big three personal pronouns is that the vast majority of professional business presentations use none of them. Presenters give recitations of facts, introduced academically and explained impersonally. How many webinars have you attended that sounded like this?
"The new law goes into effect on July first. It has three sections. The first section is straightforward. It says that regulation D13 applies to relevant interests. It defines relevant interests as those which…"
Blah, blah, blah. This is the talking textbook approach to presentation. The presenter acts as an audiobook narrator, reciting facts that would be easier and more comprehensively understood in writing. But that's okay, because the full text is likely also shown on the PowerPoint slide, with the presenter unhelpfully reading it to the audience.
If your presentation is structured in this way, you can forget about engaging an audience. They ask whether the slides are available for download, realize they can read everything you are showing them, and mentally or physically check out. If you are lucky, they hang around to see if you might actually tell them something of personal interest during a less structured Q&A session after you have plodded through your slide-based book.
"You, we, and I" convey a more personal connection to the material. Instead of concentrating on raw facts, they indicate that the information matters. They give your audience a reason to care.
Different types of presentations will rely more heavily on one or another of the personal pronouns. But whichever is primarily most appropriate for your story and your relationship to the audience, you should be ready to apply the other two as well during your talk.
CONCENTRATING ON "YOU"
"You" is the primary pronoun for presenters assuming a role of authority and expertise for their audience. It tells the audience that the information being presented has relevance for them, that they can apply the information for their own benefit. It tells them why they should care. If you aren't sure about which pronoun is going to work best for your presentation, go with "you." It has the broadest applicability and won't steer you wrong.
[Go back for a moment and count the number of times I used the words "you" or "your" in the last two paragraphs. Do you see how I made the advice personal? The emphasis and emotional weight pulled you into an assumption that you could, should, and would apply the techniques and benefit from them.]
RELYING ON "WE"
Using "we" as your primary pronoun is trickier. It carries a lot of implied weight and can come off as insincere if misapplied. I hear vendors giving sales and marketing pitches all the time where they overstress "we" to show that they share their prospects' pain. The problem is that this is clearly untrue. The presenter is obviously in a different business. They provide something they want the audience to buy. They can't be a part of that audience or else they would be on the other side of the pitch.
"We" works well for people giving testimonials or case studies in presentations to professional or social peers. As presenters, we can build empathy and camaraderie with our audiences, conveying that the audience can trust us because of our shared experiences and needs.
The other place "we" comes in handy is when moderators lead a discussion with a subject expert or invited guest. The moderator becomes a proxy representative for the audience's interests and priorities. As the representative of the audience, it becomes natural and appropriate to guide the guest into making his or her information more relatable and applicable for the attendees.
- "Interesting! How would we apply that best practice?"
- "Can you help us understand that concept?"
- "What should we look out for when starting out?"
MAKING IT PERSONAL
"I" is only used as a primary pronoun for personal stories and anecdotes. Motivational speeches, explanatory stories, and life experiences that carry special meaning and emotional connection for the speaker benefit from clearly indicating "This really happened to me. I want to share with you how it affected me." But after employing an "I" story, it is important to shift back to a "you" or "we" perspective so the audience can see how it relates to their own personal or professional lives.
By the way, you want to be careful not to fall into "the royal we." If your story is personal, make it personal and individual to yourself… Own it! I wrote a longer column just on this topic, which you can click here to read.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
A good presentation mixes and matches the use of personal pronouns to build empathy, engage an audience, and make facts relatable and interesting. Think about how you are going to phrase different parts of your story and practice applying the right pronouns at the right time to accomplish your goals.