PowerSpeak: Forgotten Fundamentals of Presentation Speaking

2001 – If you had to do a presentation to the city council regarding radioactive emissions from your local nuclear plant, first you’d do a bunch of research and then sit down to create your presentation. Although your material may be important and your research thorough, you may not be able to get your point across unless you know how to present the information.

Sit through enough high-powered business and education PowerPoint or AppleWorks presentations (see my earlier article on how to create an AppleWorks presentation), and you’ll find that the technology has advanced to the point that users can easily present the equivalent of a nicely typed report in a fancy see-through cover: It looks good, but there’s not much substance. What follows is a guide I am writing for my students to use in preparing computerized presentations for my classes. I hope you find it useful, too.

I’ve sorted the tips into categories based on the problems I saw in my 9th grade science and my 10th and 11th grade astronomy classes last year. These categories are tech tips (acting on the assumption that the viewer is seeing the presentation on a television or projector), presentation style, and a category often overlooked, speaking style.

Students on a technology-science track often ignore or are steered away from the arts (unfortunately), so their training on how to speak in public is often lacking. Business executives were often trained on financial topics and public speaking left as an afterthought (if it was thought of at all).

It’s the Content, Stupid

First lesson: Don’t forget who your audience is and what message you are trying to convey. All communication requires a transmitter, a medium, and a receiver. Hopefully the communication is two-way, so you can use cues from the audience as to whether or not they are bored, confused, or simply tired.

Above all, don’t forget that your purpose is to convey information. You may be trying to explain something, convince someone of a point (persuasion), or elicit a response. Keep that in mind as you decide whether or not to keep particular points in your presentation.

Tech Tips

Aside from simply learning to control the software through practice, as teachers we ought to also give students assistance in making the message they present clear and effective. These tips have to do with making the equipment cooperate.

Some Things You Should Do:

  • Don’t make a presentation that is overpowered for the host computer. If your home computer can play MP3s and stream video simultaneously, the computer you run the presentation on for the group might not be quite so speedy. Keep your expectations modest.
  • Save the file in multiple formats if it is mission critical. If you have PowerPoint 2001 and the host computer has PowerPoint 6, make sure your bases are covered by having the file converted (and inspected) in a number of different formats. Theoretically, if the host machine is the latest version, it’ll open anything; but it’s best to match because of those little glitchy things that always happen.
  • Make transparency overlays just in case, especially if money is involved. If the computer doesn’t work, there’s invariably an overhead around somewhere. Recovering gets your message across and makes you look good too.
  • Avoid the use of odd fonts – especially if you will not be presenting on the same machine as you composed with.
  • Design the presentation to the same resolution as the equipment you plan to use. If the projector can only project 640 x 480, don’t design for 800 x 600 – all of your careful spacing of graphics and text will be thrown off.
  • Keep colors for the background darker than you think you need; keep letters brighter than what seems normal. Most projectors operating in rooms that are less than light-tight tend to wash out presentations.
  • Test your presentation in advance if you possibly can. If not, at least find out what kind of system it is.
  • Use remote control slide advance if available to disconnect yourself from the host computer.

Style of Presentation Tips

  • Provide compact notes with room to write for your audience, but don’t provide them until your primary point is made.
  • Tell them what you plan to say, say it, then summarize it. Don’t dwell on details at the beginning and end. Try to be creative in your phrasing. Don’t say, “I am going to show you how to change a tire . . . here is how you change a tire . . . I have shown you how to change a tire.” Instead, say “You’re going to learn how to change a tire . . . first jack up the car, then remove the lug nuts . . . and now you know what to do when you have a flat!”
  • Practice, especially if there are words or names you don’t know how to pronounce.
  • If you can’t control the presentation remotely, act like a bigwig and get someone to advance the slides for you. The technology should be invisible to the audience, and they shouldn’t see you manipulating it because it distracts from the message.
  • Keep the number of words on each slide to a minimum. For example, if presenting a report, display a summary of what you intend to say. For example, if you were planning to say this:

In my experiment the independent variable was the brand of dog food I fed my dog. The dog tried Alpo and the generic store brand. I bought them the same day.

Your presentations should display

Independent Variable: Dog Food Brand

(next slide)

Brands Tested: Alpo and Generic

(next slide)

and so on.

  • Use large sans-serif fonts for titles and large serif fonts for body text. Within certain limits, you can break this rule – for example, using a fun font for the title of the presentation – as long as you remember that the viewer is going to see it on a lower-resolution screen from farther away than you see when sitting at your computer.
  • Keep transitions simple and predictable. If you use every available transition and special effect, viewers will cease to pay attention in anticipation of the content in favor of the next neat effect you present.
  • Keep sound effects relevant and to a minimum. The same rule as described for transitions applies here. Think of transitions, animations, and sound effects as seasonings and the content as the meat. If an example on your screen says “car crash,” it will be entertaining to see the words slide across and hear a car crash. If your text reads “biennial report” with the same effect, the reaction will be, “What was the point of that?” Several of my students used the “typewriter” effect on long passages that grew, well, tedious.
  • Make font colors bright and background colors dark or vice versa. Use high contrast colors when possible; red and orange don’t show much difference; yellow and black are the most contrasty combination possible.
  • Keep the use of inserted photos and video direct and to the point. Don’t add video just to show you can. If something can only be illustrated with a video because the effect is change over time, use a movie. If the movie is just there to show you can insert a movie, people will roll their eyes when they see it.
  • Stay within your time limit. The only acceptable exception to this is if you get so many important questions you’d feel rude in not answering them.
  • Don’t fight with the equipment. Not only is it embarrassing, but if there are techies in the audience, they’ll completely forget your content in their eagerness to help you.
  • Cite references (and don’t plagiarize). Students like to copy entire websites and present it as if they wrote it. Don’t do it; no one believes you wrote it. Teachers love to ask detailed questions to show you don’t know what it was you copied, and corporate audiences are no different. Even the pictures must be cited, and strictly speaking you need to ask permission if the material is not in the public domain. (By the way, permission is hereby given for you to reproduce this list of tips for your own purposes if you cite the source and drop me an email.)

Speaking Tips

  • Have an opening to break the tension – especially yours. That may be a joke, a cartoon (used with permission), a story, or a demonstration.
  • Face the audience and look them in the eye. Forget the stuff about imagining the audience in their underwear; if it works, you’ll either laugh or grin, and they’ll want to know why. Instead, face you fears and get up and just talk to the people. You’re trying to convince them of something. Talk to them. If you must do something rather than look them directly in the eye, focus on the tops of their heads (up is better than down). From a distance they won’t be able to tell. Also, look at everyone; don’t just talk to the boss or to the guy in the third row. Turn around, talk to everyone.
  • Move. Disconnect yourself from the computer and walk around the room. Use hand gestures and body language to show your confidence in the material. If necessary (and this bears repeating), get someone else to push the button. You don’t have to push the button. Pushing the button is fun. Let someone else do it.
  • Use variation in your voice. If you emphasize certain words, say them louder and slower. Listen to yourself on a tape recorder if you aren’t sure there’s enough variation. People like this just cannot tell a story – their voice is basically a steady tone and doesn’t convey the excitement or interest it should.
  • Speak loud enough to be heard. Don’t be afraid of microphones, either. If you get feedback, move away from the speaker. If it is well adjusted, you won’t hear it as well as everyone else, so get someone to help you set the level. 99 times out of a hundred, when someone says, “I don’t need to use this,” they really do. (I use a microphone in my classroom – even though I don’t “need it”. The acoustics are horrible, and students in the back say it really helps.)
  • Enunciate. Don’t mumble.
  • Talk more slowly than you think you need to. Especially if the people you’re speaking to are taking notes.
  • Avoid “nervous crutches.” Nervous crutches are little things people to do stall for time while they think of something to say or to give themselves a little break. These include the use of the word “Uhm” and “You Know,” and my uncle’s favorite, “YouknowwhatI’msaying youunderstandwhatI’mgettingat knowwhatImean,” which he says several times before making his next point.
  • You may also have nervous habits, such as playing with your hair, fiddling with a pencil, or (my typical Modus Operandi) shifting from left foot to right foot, which my wife calls “weaving.” All these things distract from the message. Have you ever counted how many times a speaker said “uhm”? Do you remember what the speech was about?
  • Have something to do with your hands. As above, if you don’t have a place to rest your hands, from nervous energy you may begin jingling things in your pocket or tapping a pencil. If you’re too self conscious about it, you might let your hands just hang there like big hunks of ham (Ham Hands, my speech teacher used to call it [Hi Miss Combs!])
  • Provide time for questions during and after the presentation.

Don’t make excuses or whine. Don’t say, “This is my first presentation,” or “I have a PC at home,” or “It worked in the office,” or anything like that. The point is, you’re here, and this what counts.

Standard Ending

These tips should give you some food for thought when preparing your next presentation. Overall, what it boils down to is: When giving and planning a presentation, pretend to be a member of the audience. Would you be interested?

Student Ending

In my article, I hope I have helped you learn how to give a good presentation. I hope I get an A.

Scooby-Doo and Simpsons hybrid ending

And so, Mr. Smithers was hoping the presentation would get people to move away from the nuclear power plant, so Mr. Burns wouldn’t get in trouble. That’s why he dressed up like the Creeper during his presentation . . . to scare people off!

Keywords: #presentations

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