Presentations

by Steve Roche

The structure

You can’t give a presentation until you have something to present – the material. So how do you begin?

Objectives

What is the primary aim of your presentation? The first step is to be very clear about the objectives of your talk – to persuade, to explain, to sell, to inform, to get a decision or to change behaviour (and always to be interesting). Only then can you decide on the pitch of your talk and keep to the subject.

When you are sure of your objectives, structure the content to meet these objectives. It is helpful to write out in a short phrase or sentence exactly what is your main message – and keep it by you throughout.

There are often constraints as to how you structure your material, usually arising from

  • Logistics, such as the space or equipment that’s available to you
  • Audience requirements, expectations or nature.

Structure

All speeches and presentations should have a definite structure or format. If you do not order your thoughts in a structured way, the audience won’t be able to follow them.

Organise the material into big chunks first, then break them down into detail. The hardest way to write a presentation (or anything else) is by starting at the beginning with a blank sheet.

Beginning-middle-end format

Just as a story needs a beginning, middle and end, your presentation needs an introduction, body and conclusion. This basic format works well for shorter talks, or for sub-sections of longer ones:

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Point 1
  • Point 2
  • Point 3
  • Conclusion

What’s in the introduction?

Your introduction should include the following points:

  • Rapport-building
  • Greeting and scene-setting
  • Who you are and why you are here
  • What’s in it for the audience.
Sample introduction

...Opening remarks (see Establishing the relationship) and then...

Thanks for inviting me to your monthly meeting. I’m Chris Bloggs from the Operations department, and I’m Project Manager for the XYZ Development.

Today I will explain the system we are implementing in your area, and show you what you need to do now in order to make the changes problem-free.

Handouts are available at the back, with a summary of the talk and more information. I will be speaking for about 20 minutes, after which there will be time for your questions.

What’s in the body?

This is where you make your main points. Depending on your purpose (to inform, influence or persuade), they may include:

  • Facts and information
  • Questions and arguments
  • Case studies and stories.

What’s in the conclusion?

The conclusion should be prepared and learned by heart. It should contain the following elements:

  • A summary of the talk
  • A repetition of the main message
  • What you want to happen next.
Sample conclusion

That’s all I want to cover. Today I’ve explained aaa and bbb, and demonstrated ccc. I’ve shown you how you can ensure a smooth take-up by putting xxx and yyy in place now.

The main thing to remember is this: all the problems can be avoided if you prepare thoroughly and begin now!

All the information is summarised in the handouts. They also show how to contact me if you want to follow anything up. We have five minutes left, so I’ll take brief questions now.

The beginning-middle-end format is effective and easy to learn, and will serve you well for most situations.

Sequential argument

Another simple structure is the sequential argument – a series of linked statements ultimately leading to a conclusion. To make this structure work, you need to delineate carefully between each section, giving reminders of the preceding points and explaining how the next topic will follow on.

Pyramid

Other effective formats include the pyramid, a style commonly found in newspaper stories.

The story is introduced in its entirety in a catchy first paragraph. The next few paragraphs repeat the same information but give further details on each point.

The following section repeats the entire story again, but develops certain themes within each of the sub-points, again adding more information. This is repeated until the reporter runs out of story.

The editor decides on the newsworthiness of the story and simply cuts it from the bottom upwards.

The pyramid style has two main advantages.

  1. Greater audience receptiveness: at every stage your audience is already familiar with the main ideas and knows what is coming next. This sense of déjà vu can create the impression that what they are hearing is their own ideas.
  2. The duration of the talk can easily be altered by cutting it in exactly the same way that an editor would cut a news story. This flexibility is particularly helpful if the same presentation is to be used in different situations.

Construction

Collect more material than you can use. It will increase your confidence. Like novelists who know far more about their characters than ever gets onto the page, it will add authenticity. Also, changing the analogy, like the racing driver who knows he has reserves of power, having plenty of information to hand will give you a sureness of touch.

  1. Identify or create the material needed to achieve your objectives.
  2. Gather this material – through research and analysis for example.
  3. Construct the talk from your material.

It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

Mark Twain

In the beginning

It is crucial to have a good opening, something that will seize the attention immediately.

  • Never begin with an apology or by drawing attention to your nervousness.
  • Beware of starting with a humorous story.

Below is a list of possible attention-grabbing openers; it’s a matter of choosing the best option for the particular circumstances.

Example
  • Begin with a specific illustration (then go on to general remarks).
  • Use an exhibit – show them something.
  • Arouse their curiosity.
  • Use a story from your own experience.
  • Address the personal interests of audience.
  • Use a relevant quotation (there are many books and websites that provide quotes).
  • Ask a question – the surest and simplest way to engage.
  • Start with a shocking or startling fact: ‘Two hours after an average presentation, 80 per cent of people cannot remember the main point’.

Structuring the body

You need to plan the overall structure of the body carefully so that you maintain interest and get your points across, but it is not helpful to learn this section off by heart.

  • Limit the number of main points.
  • Break each one down into sub-points.
  • Keep visuals simple, readable and relevant.
  • Seek every opportunity to use pictures and graphics instead of words.
  • Put detailed information, statistics, diagrams and examples in handouts.

Here is a simple practical plan for formatting:

Example
  1. State your facts
  2. Argue from them
  3. Appeal for action.

Here’s another that works well:

Example
  1. Show something that is wrong (here is a situation that ought to be remedied)
  2. Show how to remedy it (we ought to do so-and-so)
  3. Ask for cooperation (you ought to help for these reasons).

Mind maps

A mind map can be a very helpful way of constructing and organising material.

  • You are not constrained by a list mentality: there’s always space to add new ideas.
  • Mind maps show clusters of ideas rather than a linear sequence.
  • They offer a concise visual summary of the whole subject, which makes remembering easier.

Humour, jokes and stories

By all means use humour when

  • It’s natural and comfortable for you
  • It’s appropriate and relevant
  • It helps you to make a point.

Don’t try to be funny just because you think you should. Be especially careful with jokes. A joke that falls flat loses you credibility and sympathy. Many jokes also carry a risk of offending somebody. Ask yourself: will this make my point in a helpful and amusing way? (see Humour)

Stories and anecdotes are often safer ground. If they are amusing, that’s a bonus. They are stronger if they come from your personal experience.

People respond well to a story as an enjoyable way to assimilate ideas and relate them to their own experience. Stories must be relevant and clearly illustrate your point. Like the rest of your material, they need to be planned and rehearsed (see Storytelling ).

Exercises and demonstrations

Look for opportunities to liven up your presentation by increasing audience involvement and enjoyment.

Is there an exercise you can use to get people doing something? It must

  • Be quick and simple to explain
  • Be easy to organise and carry out
  • Show them something relevant and interesting.

Can you demonstrate your product, artefact or system? Or some part of it? Like a picture, a demonstration can be worth hundreds of words of explanation. Using props can also add interest and entertainment value.

Your audience will have varying preferences for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning. By giving them things to look at, listen to, engage with and experience for themselves, you cover the main sensory systems. Depending on your subject matter, it may even be possible to give them something to smell and taste! (see Representational systems)