- Audience, purpose, length of speech need to be considered
- Stories are more easily recalled than data
- Rehearsing delivery, persuading audience are key
There are a number of common structures for giving presentations, and one of the most popular is opening, key points, evidence and closing. We consider the length of the presentation, the audience and the purpose of our talk. Then we pour the contents into this structure.
Generally, in a 30-minute speech we can only consider a few key points, so we select the most powerful, and then look for the evidence that will persuade our audience. This is where a lot of presentations suddenly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The structural flow is a simple one. The analysis of the occasion is straightforward but, at this next stage, we can get confused about what we are trying to achieve. We might become so engrossed in the evidence assembly component that we forget the crucial why aspect of this effort.
We are not here to produce mounds of statistics, battalions of bar charts or proffer reams of text on a screen. Technically oriented presenters love to bludgeon their audience with detail, usually forcing the font or scale to be so small—in order to fit it on—that it is barely visible on screen.
No, the why is all about persuading the audience to agree with our conclusion or way of thinking. This requires communication skill rather than archaeological or archival skill. Line charts, pie charts and comparison tables are trotted out to do battle with the perceptions and biases of the audience. The errors include a presentation style in which the actual detail is impenetrable, and so is not fully accepted.
The tendency to imagine that this superb, high quality data will stand by itself and not require the presenter to do much is another grave error. “I don’t have to be a good speaker, because the quality of my information is so valuable”, is a typical, if somewhat pathetic, excuse.
Another common error is to invest the vast majority of the available time for the presentation preparation on the accompanying slides for the talk. Digging up the data, tweaking the detail, creating the charts, arranging the order and so on, keeps us quite busy. So busy, in fact, that we forget to practice the delivery of the talk. We find ourselves peering down at our audience, presenting the content for the first time while at the podium. We are practicing on our audience—and this is definitely not best practice.
How should we fix this approach? Some examples of evidence are really powerful if they are numbers but, instead of drowning our audience with too many figures, we can select a gripper and use a very big font to isolate one number. We then talk about that number, explaining what it means. If we want to use line charts or trend analysis, then one chart per slide is a good rule. We don’t split the visual
concentration of our audience. We speak about the significance of a trend, knowing that our audience can see the trend line for themselves.
To improve our communication effectiveness, we go one step further, to tell stories about these numbers: who was involved, where, when and what happened.
We recall stories more easily than masses of data, so the evidence and context are more easily transferred. This helps to get us around to the why of our talk, the key point we want the audience to absorb.
Most important, we practice the delivery over and over until we are comfortable we have the cadence right. We recall the study of psychology expert Professor Albert Mehrabian (1939– ) on the importance of not just what we say, but how we say it.
This includes emphasising particular words, adding gestures to strengthen key points, engaging our audience by using eye contact, allowing pauses so ideas can sink in, and reducing distractions so our words are absorbed.
Structure, rehearsal, storytelling and congruent delivery combine to create a powerful success formula for presentations.