Designing a presentation is a critical stage in delivering one. We have identified our target audience for our key messages. We have selected a title to really engage our audience. We know the purpose of the exercise—inform, persuade, entertain and motivate to action.
When preparing, the conclusion is always a good place to start, because it is the summary of the key message we want to get across. The actual content of the concluding message may vary from what we settle on to begin with, but it is still good discipline to force ourselves to focus on the one central thing we want our audience to take away from the speech.
Having boiled down the various things we could say to the one most important thing, we can now work backwards and think about how we get our audience to agree with that conclusion.
Too many points and our audience will have trouble following the thread of our argument. Too few points and it may not seem convincing, for lack of depth and evidence.
We may group similar ideas under the one umbrella idea and include those at that point. We have the key points selected that we want to raise and now we have to construct the argument to support the ideas. This would include finding some evidence based on data and expert opinion. Usually, it is easy for an audience to follow three key points, but if the subject matter is complex or if you have been given a longer time to speak, then five may be needed.
There are a number of structures for presenting the individual ideas. It could be a result-problem-solution structure, or you may place the problem at the start, and then outline the solution and the consequent result. The key is having the structure flow logically to make it as easy as possible to follow.
Having decided on the key points we are going to make, we then need to go back and design two different ways to close the speech. One is for the very end of the speech. This is to tie the whole presentation together. We might review what we said, or we might focus on a particular key point.
Having designed that close, we now design a different one to follow the Q&A session. We need this second close so that we can keep the whole of the proceedings on track—we have no control over what people will raise at the end by way of questions, so it often happens that an audience member will take the discussion off topic. If we just allow the event to finish at that point we have lost control of the messaging. We need to wrap up the presentation in a way that leaves the audience with our key point ringing in their ears as they leave the venue.
Finally, we design the opening. This is a tricky one because it is wrapped tightly together with the audience’s first impression of us. If we try a joke that is weak and falls flat, the initial impression is negative. If we start rambling, we lose the audience’s attention. If we commence with something very strange, we are going to have trouble breaking through the noise that is humming away between the ears of our audience. We need to grab their attention and capture them so they are receptive to our key message. Questions are very powerful. These should be asked rhetorically, but in a way that means the audience is not actually sure if it is a rhetorical question or something they actually have to answer. This creates a certain amount of tension that drives their attention to what the speaker is saying. They are curious to find out what you meant.
Quoting some relevant expert on the subject is also good, because it references the topic and gives additional authority to your message. Statistics are powerful because they are hard evidence and tell the audience this is going to be a fact-based presentation, and not just opinion. Something shocking is a good way to grab attention, so make a provocative statement—and then explain what you mean.
We can always flag our conclusion at the start, and then spend the rest of the time justifying our interpretation. This is a standard ploy and, for that reason, we should use it sparingly. Audiences are already distracted and anything that smacks of predictability sees them drifting away from us and straying into unrelated thoughts.
The title of our talk is usually selected before we get down to the nitty gritty of the speech design. We may have been requested to speak on a certain subject, so our ability to use our title to intrigue may be limited. It is not such a problem because most people will have forgotten the exact title of your talk, and unless there is a PowerPoint slide with the title listed, they will have trouble recalling it word for word.
The opening, therefore, is the opportunity to break through all the audience noise—all the screaming monkeys running around inside their brains. This should be designed with great precision and delivered the same way. Don’t digress or comment on something that has happened in the lead up; get straight into the designed opening and grab the audience.
Before the start of the event get there early and mix with some of the participants. Get them talking about the topic—this is a good way to connect with the audience by referencing what a couple of them said in the moments before the speech started. The person referenced feels very special for the recognition and the imaginary boundary between the speaker and the audience disappears as the speaker becomes one with the group.
Only at this point should we start playing around with the slides to support the presentation. Once you approach it this way, the need for a lot of text on the screen disappears. We know what we need to say and so we can start introducing pictures and diagrams as well as text. Even the text can be just one word because we are able to talk about the key points covered by that word. This is very powerful because it keeps your eyes on the audience and off your text.
When we are designing the talk, there will be key words that lend a lot of weight to our argument. These may be something we want to emphasise on the screen through a video or image.
Everyone is used to seeing lots of text on the screen, and when you present in a different way you remain memorable. The audience will not remember the details of your speech, but they will remember their impression of the speaker.
Japan may be the land of Zen, but there is very little Zen influence going on when it comes to slides. Baroque, with its ornate details, is more the flavour here, with many competing colours and screens packed with information spread across an astonishing number of different fonts and font sizes.
Japan has a love for detail but we don’t have to put it all up on the screen. The country also has a love of the written word, and what is written down carries a lot more weight than in non-Western countries. The point here is that Japan is still some way behind the rest of the world in this aspect of clear communication.
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