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A Guide to Presentations

Getting Started

A presentation is like a poster beside a motorway. It has to communicate one clear, bold message, and it has to do it first time. Therefore, the first thing to do is ask yourself, 'What is it I really want to say?'

Then ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to talk about it?
  • Why will the audience want to listen?
  • What is the one thing I want them to remember when I sit down?

Next, produce an outline of what you want to say on a single sheet of paper. Begin by setting out your message. Then, briefly, sketch out a theme or conceptual framework to convey that message. Follow this by outlining, in order, the points or arguments you believe put your message across most forcefully. Under each point or argument, set down the best selection of information, facts and statistics that will help drive home the message.

Generally you should tell your audience what you're going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. But you should also keep them with you by using phrases such as:

  • "I'd now like to talk a little about...."
  • " Let's now move on to...."
  • "As I mentioned earlier.."

Close a presentation the way a pilot lands an aircraft. First, signal your intention to land; then land; and then tell them what to do now the flight's over.

Above all, keep your presentation short. It’s always good to remember that no one is as interesting as they imagine they are. With presentations, less is always more. We live in a sound-bite age of information overload and short concentration spans.

An hour is a very long presentation. Aim for 25 minutes of closely argued, action packed, easily digestible, useful and relevant information.

A Few Notes on Style

In all presentations follow the KISS rule: Keep It Short and Simple. The optimum time for a presentation is about twenty minutes. One page of double-spaced large type equals roughly one minute's speaking time.

If you are planning a presentation that is substantially longer, you must have a rich and varied menu of audio-visual support. You must also make doubly sure that the structure is crystal clear and that your audience knows from the word go exactly what ground is going to be covered.

Speak Don’t Read

Presentations are written to be heard, not read. Write in the active rather than the passive voice. i.e. 'We must communicate better' as opposed to 'Communication must be better'. As a rule of thumb, the more you use the words 'you' and 'we' the more likely you are to keep your audience engaged.

Don't use words that you wouldn't use in conversation. Break grammatical rules if it makes your meaning clearer. And there's nothing wrong with using 'And' or 'But' or 'Because' to begin a sentence. Worry about understanding, not about grammar. Short sentences are best. They work. Use them.

Humor is a very useful way to help establish a rapport with the audience. But if you're not naturally funny, don't make jokes.  The best humor arises naturally out of the subject matter.

88% of Statistics are Meaningless

Avoid statistics. If your presentation is packed full of statistics you might as well send a letter. Statistics should be used to make single powerful points. For example. "Our success rate is 98%. That sounds pretty good. But if DFW's air traffic control's success rate was 98% there would be seven crashes a day." Up to the minute facts and personal references help a presentation seem fresher and more alive.

Kill your Babies

When you're writing your presentation, you need to be hard on yourself. If you think something is particularly witty and clever, make sure it's not also self-indulgent. As they say in advertising, 'Kill your babies.' If in doubt, leave out.

Visual Support

Slides and visual aids can help make a good presentation even better. They can also ruin a good presentation, and make a bad presentation buttock-numbingly dull.

Slides will help you make your point if they are simple, uncluttered and underline the point you want to make. Too often, people pile on the information in their slides, thinking that the more information they put over, the better the presentation. That's a big mistake.

Keep the information to a minimum. Two or three points are all an audience can take in while you're talking. If you have a complex point to put over, build it up over two or three slides. Never, ever turn spreadsheets into slides. They will be worse than useless.

Allow a maximum of one slide per minute of speaking.

Photographs, cartoons, diagrams, bar and pie charts - anything truly visual - will help you make your point more effectively than plain numbers or words ever will.

When you are preparing information for slides remember that they are landscape format rather than A4 portrait format. Never put information on a slide that has no relevance to what you are saying in the presentation.

Video – Big bucks, low impact

Having video inserts can give you and your audience breathing space in a longer presentation. Avoid talking heads where possible: there’s no point in trying to make your presentation interesting if you’re then going to put a boring presentation on video in the middle of it.

Prepare well in advance. The more time you allow for people to help you, the more creative and professional your presentation will be.

Stand and Deliver

Unless you are delivering the budget, a prepared statement or other detailed information, you should try not to read your presentation. No one asked you to give a reading – they wanted a presentation.

Ideally you will talk directly to your audience without the benefit of notes. This takes considerable practice and confidence and therefore you should normally try to talk directly to your audience using prompt cards (with the main messages in bullet points). Your slides should also give you a logical narrative to guide you.

When you’re very confident in yourself and your material you can leave the lectern and stand center stage; but don’t be in a hurry to do this – the lectern is very useful for confidence and for resting notes on.

Practice what your Preach

Before the day, do your presentation to someone else. Tell them to stop you whenever they don't understand something. Simplify and clarify anything that is misunderstood. When you're speaking aloud, if you find you have to pause for breath in any particular sentence, then that sentence is too long.

Rehearse until you are comfortable and familiar with the whole structure. If you're stumbling over a particular bit or it doesn’t seem to flow, change it.

If you are using a microphone, make sure it's at the right height for you to stand up straight. Talk to your selected audience as if you were in a large meeting room. Project but don't shout. Let your voice tell the story just as you would to a friend. Relax. Your delivery will be more conversational and you'll sound more genuine.

Whoa there!

When you first begin to talk, try to slow down your speaking pace. This will give you a chance to flush adrenaline out of your system. It also gives your audience more time to settle down and begin to listen. Vary your pace. Pause after major points, and look up at your audience - as if to say 'Did you get that?' Even if you are apprehensive, look happy. Relax, and your audience will relax with you.

Always look your audience in the eye, and that means picking out individuals and looking them in the eye. Good eye contact will help you control and involve the audience and allow you to get their feedback.

Taking Questions

At the beginning of your presentation, make it clear how you want to deal with questions. With smaller audiences it is generally a good idea to allow clarification questions during the presentation and general questions afterwards.

Prepare for the questions as much as you prepare for the speech. With a bit of thought you will be able to anticipate what the most likely lines of inquiry are going to be.

Questions come in three sorts:

1. Request for clarification

2. Requests for more information

3. Opinions

Listen carefully to the balance between information given and information requested. Questions will always tell you what the person is thinking. Address their issues before you get back to your own.

For example:

What do you think about the illegal American bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam war?

I think the U.S.  was wrong to bomb Cambodia; do you agree with me?

Don’t rush to answer questions; a pause makes it look as though they’ve asked a really good question and gives you time to think.

Finally

Never say ‘finally…’ in a presentation unless you are within two minutes of finishing. If you say it two or more times the irritation level of your audience will increase dramatically – especially if you are being followed by coffee, lunch or the bar.

Always check whether your presentation will benefit by reference to what has come before and what will come after.

When you think you've finished preparing your presentation, ask yourself once again, 'What is it I really want to say?' and check to make sure your presentation actually says it.

And remember the 5Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents  Poor Performance. Enjoy it.

 

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