How to Keep a Presentation … and your Audience… On Course

Congratulations! Your presentation is on the calendar. You’ve done your homework by talking with a sampling of your audience, to find out how you could speak to their interests and needs. All you have to do now is plan the best way to get from  “Good morning” to “In conclusion… .” In this blog post we’ll review some tips on how to navigate that journey by developing clear objectives and a solid structure.

Name the objectives

When a presenter rambles, he or she has lost sight of the objective (if it was ever clear to them in the first place). Is it your purpose to persuade the audience to take action? Prepare them for change? Justify a decision? Update, educate, or entertain them? Your objectives will inform the content and structure of your entire presentation, so be clear about what they are.

But I’m “merely informing” them

If your primary task is to inform your listeners, how do you want them to feel about the information? How do you wish to interpret the information for them? Example: In his position as Senior Director of Finance, “David” gave presentations that were dry, highly-technical reports of his company’s figures and projections. His Senior Management was considering him for a significant promotion, but it came with a condition: David had to move beyond his sleepy “just the facts” presentation style and find ways to better engage the audience by making the information consistently clear and meaningful, if not actionable.

His company assigned him a coach who taught David how to connect with his listeners in a more personable way while still being true to his analytical style. He learned as well how to guide his audience skillfully through the various number trails, helping them make sense of special terminology and daunting charts that had formerly left them feeling lost. He also discovered how to integrate the company’s big picture messaging into his “numbers-based” presentations, thus enhancing his audience’s perception of him as a leader, as opposed to a bright, yet boring, financial reporter). The result? He got the promotion.

Structure: Chronological or Contrasts?

No matter the content, presentations are, at their heart, storytelling: you structure your message in an order that makes sense, is easy to follow, and has the impact that will meet your objectives. The most common presentation structures are built on either “chronology” or “contrasts:”

Chronological. Choose a chronological structure if your aim is to show the linear development of something, such as products or initiatives. This structure is effective when you want to show timelines, processes, or any topic involving “how we got from A to B.” A physical therapist, for example, might share the story of her patient who had been crippled in a car crash, and the weekly efforts that got him walking again. This presentation would be considered chronological even if it began by detailing the outcome—the fully rehabilitated patient—and then guided listeners back through the story of what it took to achieve that outcome. If your topic is best understood by using a logical progression, a “chronological” structure is the logical choice. (No pun intended)

Contrasts. If your content includes many comparisons or opposites, such as A vs. B or A in light of B, you may want to use a structure that highlights and builds on contrasts. Consider the contrasts inherent in the following:

  • Myths & Facts: exposes a series of falsehoods or misunderstandings about the topic, followed by the facts and realities
  • Pros & Cons: presents the carefully researched benefits and costs of a subject under evaluation
  • Today &. Tomorrow: depicts what is vs. what could (or will) be, the ideal structure for presentations conveying goals and vision
  • Problem & Solution: the most common structure for sales and other persuasive presentations involving a call-to-action
  • Challenges & Opportunities: similar to Problem & Solution, but could be evaluative or persuasive

Naturally there are times when the two categories of structures overlap. For example, a chronological structure might also reference contrasts such as Myths & Facts; a Today & Tomorrow structure may include a chronological timeline. Once your topic and objectives are firm, the right structure will become apparent.

The Rule of 3

Our brains are wired for triads. We expect, and respond well, to stories that have a  beginning, middle, and end. We remember our SSNs not as nine continuous digits, but as three sets of three digits. Marketers promise “in just 3 simple steps,” or “3 easy payments” so they do not scare away customers.

The Rule of 3 applies to presentation structure as well:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them (including its importance to them and the actions, if any, you’ll want them to take)
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you told them

You are probably familiar with this tried & true “newspaper article” strategy. That doesn’t make it any less effective.  It works because it creates an instant comfort level for the audience by setting, and then meeting, their expectations.

The Rule for 3 also applies to the proven reality that audiences, in general, tend to remember only three key ideas from any presentation. More, and retention fades fast.  Therefore … create a presentation structure that gives them three major ideas to remember. It is best to keep this in mind when working on your outline. But remember … keep it simple and direct; If your goal is to tell them what time it is, you do not need to also tell them how to build a clock!

Prove It!

It’s not enough to simply state opinions or make assertions. You owe it to your audience to be credible. Validate your points through facts, evidence, case studies, examples, personal experiences, testimonials, the conclusions of experts, and other supporting data.

Wrap it Up

Audiences tend to remember the last things they heard the best, so be sure to end strong. Here is an example of how to do that:

  • Summarize Key Points: Example: “I’ve shown you how this program will enable us to bring critical health care services to rural Africans living in poverty, especially in Malawi, one of its poorest countries. We also looked at how the health needs of women, in particular, are underserved, and the devastating impact on children when their mothers fall ill. And as we saw in the video, this health initiative is projected to reduce the mortality rate by up to 40 percent.”  This is essentially the entire presentation in a nutshell.

I’ll end this blog in the same way:  if you want to keep your audience interested and engaged, make sure you use an appropriate story structure (mixing and matching when necessary); apply the Rule of 3 whenever you can, and support your assertions with credible proof.

And may be throw in a few jokes … it couldn’t hurt.