Presentation Writing Tips

This will cover verbal presentations without the use of PowerPoint or some other electronic slide software. However, I might bring in a few thoughts about that as well, learned how, class? That’s right: the hard way. With any luck, someone can read these entries and learn things more easily without undue pain or suffering. Let me know how that works out for you.

Preparation

Lucky you! You’ve been asked to give a presentation about “X” for your boss and her peers. Aside finding out who the audience is–one of the two most important questions–you’ll also want to know how you need the audience to react and how much time you’ve been given to talk.

Mind the Time

The amount of time you’ve been given to talk is important because that gives you an idea of how much you have to prepare. If it’s a one-minute status update, you might be able to do that from your chair without even standing up. A five-minute presentation means you might or might not need any visual aids–ask if you need them. At the 15-minute mark, you’ll need considerably more time to prepare because you’ll have more content. In most cases, I’d say Content is King, but when you’re giving a live presentation it’s best to let time be your guide. The more time you have, the more detail you can provide.

Outlining

There are some folks who absolutely hate “outlining.” This is one of those times you might want to hold your nose and do it anyway. You might have the whole thing structured in your head, but it helps to put it on a screen or on paper. Also, there is the chance that your supervisor/manager will want to see what you plan to cover.

While you’re working on that outline…my military friends and family have reminded me more than once to

“Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em.

Tell ’em.

Tell ’em what ya told ’em.”

This isn’t very different from the five-paragraph essay we learn starting in middle school: introduction, three main topics (more on that in a moment), summary. Exit.

Why only three main topics? Okay, sometimes you can’t always do it that way. An all-day meeting might cover five or more big topics. However, your audience won’t remember much more than three, so when possible narrow the topic down to those three. How do you structure those main topics? You might consider my blog entry on how to approach a new topic as a starting point. However, in a business setting, your topic is usually self-organizing. If you’re discussing a timeline, you talk about things in chronological order. If you’ve got a new org chart to discuss, you work from the top down or bottom up, as you see fit. If you’re discussing a new rocket, you might start with the engines and work your way up to the payload. Again, your topic will have its own logic, and if you’re familiar with it already, you’ll know how things work.

Stay Relevant

You might really like your topic, and you might be passionate enough to be tempted to share all that you know. Don’t. Thinking about your audience, you want to make sure you’re sharing facts that matter to them.

This is where context or situation matters as much as your time constraint. Are you making a presentation for informational purposes (a new policy or regulation that affects the work), entertainment purposes (say, informing everyone about the company picnic), or decisional purposes (management needs to decide whether to keep funding your project).

  • If you’re there to entertain, you can keep your tone light.
  • If you’re sharing some new process or regulation, depending on what it’s about, you can keep the content and tone professional. For example, never joke about Human Resources regulations: those folks have little to no sense of humor about the regulations whatsoever because failure to comply can cause the company to be hauled into court or cost the company serious money.
  • If you’re there to persuade, your demeanor and content should be professional, upbeat, and on point. Your audience needs to hear why it’s a good thing and what’s in it for them if they approve your request.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

This requirement will vary from person to person and speech to speech. You can probably give people a one-minute update on your work status without notecards and staying up all night talking in front of the mirror. For five-minute talks, I’ve been known to scribble my outline in my journal and then get up and wing it after that. Of course I also had some time at Disney and other positions that provided good training for speaking in front of audiences. I’m not saying you can go to a meeting with absolutely no idea of what you’re going to say. That’d be silly and more than a little awkward to have a blank look on your face when you’re called upon to speak. Plus, if you’re fumbling around, you’re wasting other people’s time, especially the boss’s, and that’s a Bad Thing.

Anyhow, semper paratus, always be ready.

Finish on a High Note

Your get-of-the-stage line should aim your audience in the direction you want them to go. If you’re they’re to entertain, end on a high note or look forward to what comes next. If you’re there to inform, end on a note of assent, asking everyone if they understand or have questions. If you’re there to persuade, ask for the sale or say something to the effect of looking forward to receiving your audience’s approval.

Delivery

Relax

I had a friend in grad school who would get hives or hyperventilate at the thought of talking in front of the group. Stagefright is no fun, I admit it. I had it when I was younger until I tried any number of tricks to keep my mind focused on the task at hand. Maybe one of these will work for you:

  • Remember that you’re the expert. Your audience is looking to you because they don’t know what you know–if anyone should lack confidence, it’s them–you’re the one with something to share.
  • Assume you’re among friends. Okay, depending on the situation or your relationships with your coworkers, this might not be the case. But if the situation is more or less friendly and you’re on good relations with everyone in the room, then you’re just sharing information with friends, not facing The Spanish Inquisition.
  • Pretend the audience is not there. This is easier on a stage with bright lights and a darkened auditorium.
  • Breathe.
  • Open with humor, but only if or as appropriate.

Presentation Slide Preparation

I try to keep my PowerPoint presentations to one slide per minute. There’s nothing particularly sacred or special about that number. If you talk faster, and the content warrants it, go for it. If you’re showing a lot of images or graphics, you can usually have more slides because your audience isn’t reading them.

Speaking of reading: NASA’s internal presentations are often notorious for being text-heavy as presenters endeavor to get everything on a topic onto one slide. The idea being that the whole story would be in the PPT if someone were to print it out. Again, don’t. Put at least some of your content into the Notes section. If you put all the things you are saying onto the screen, people will read the screen, not listen to you. So if you’ve got a lot of information, provide the main points on the screen and provide the details in your color commentary–i.e., the stuff that is not on the screen. Or, if you’ve got a chart, table, or illustration, the explanation of the chart should go into your notes, which you read or say. If they wanted or needed to read the paper, you’d be giving them the document and not bothering with the talk, right? If you’ve been asked to speak rather than just forward a document, it’s generally because the content will be explained or received better with some sort of immediate, human presence in the room. (For more on delivery media, see my post on “Email, Call, Telecon, or F2f?“)

Prepare for Questions

Again, you’re there to deliver information in person, so the expectation is that you will respond as one and allow time for clarifications. That’s when it’s helpful to know your stuff. If you’re just reporting about your work that week, you can usually answer a question with a minimum of preparation. If your questioner has something more detailed in mind, you might need to follow up with them “offline,” meaning after the meeting.

If you’re presenting a topic that requires a decision, however, you might need to have answers prepared for really tough questions. The more contentious the issue, the more likely you are to have questions that make you uncomfortable. They could be questioning your assumptions, your data, your conclusions, or even your motivations. The trick, as always, is not to look like you’re taking it personally, even if it is personal and you feel that way. Count to ten…and know your stuff. If you know the answer/objection, and know how to counter it, you’ve got it nailed. And you can smile as you dismount.

Minor hints from high school theater: Don’t eat chocolate, milk, peanut butter, or dairy products right before you’re scheduled to go on. Just trust me on this.

Again…relax

No one, to my knowledge, ever died from giving an office presentation. There might be times when you wish that were the case, but stressing or obsessing won’t do you any good. Watch or read something funny before you go on. Imagine yourself giving a flawless performance and winning the contract. Whatever. I’m not a speech coach, I’m an English major. But I’ve had enough experience giving presentations to know that I usually recover from them once their done.

Go get ’em, tiger.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in audience, documents, editing, marketing, meetings, research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Presentation Writing Tips

  1. Great summary for tips on presenting–you mentioned the importance of a strong finish and that made me remember something I heard (but can’t remember where) that said audiences remember the beginning and end of the presentation the most–not to say that the middle part which is the content doesn’t matter–but I certainly think that the lead up to and the final “end on ascent” is key. Thanks for the write up.

  2. Annabella says:

    Thanks so much for this. In relation to rehearsing your presentations, there is a great site called Present.me where you can record a video of yourself presenting your slides. You can practise the recordings as many times as you like, and make the recording in the comfort of your own home, so you’re nice and relaxed whilst doing it. All done through your own webcam as well! Hope this is useful for some of you presenters out there- I highly recommend it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s