There are a number of common structures for giving presentations and one of the most popular is the opening-key points/evidence-closing variety. We consider the length of the presentation, the audience, the purpose of our talk and then we pour the contents into this structure. Generally, in a 30 minute speech we can only consider a few key points we can cover, so we select the most powerful and then look for the evidence which will persuade our audience. This is where a lot of presentations suddenly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The structure 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, 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 is communication skill rather than archeological or archival skill. Line charts, pie charts, comparison tables are trotted out to do battle with the perceptions and biases of the audience. The errors though include a presentation style where 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, tweeking the detail, creating the charts, arranging the order etc., 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 up while at the podium. We are in fact practicing on our audience and this is definitely not a best practice.
How should we fix this approach? Some examples of evidence are really powerful when they are numbers, but instead of drowning our audience with too many numbers, we can select a gripper and use a very big font to isolate out that one number. We then talk to that number and explain 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 to the significance of the trend, knowing that our audience can see the trend line for themselves.
To improve our communication effectiveness, we go one step further and we 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. And we practice the delivery over and over until we are comfortable we have the cadence right. We recall Professor Albert Mehrabian’s study about the importance of not just what we say, but how we say it. Emphasising particular words, adding gestures for strengthening key points, engaging our audience by using eye contact, allowing pauses so ideas can sink in and reducing distractions so our actual words are absorbed.
Structure, rehearsal, storytelling and congruent delivery combine to create a powerful success formula for presentations.