Making Effective Presentations: The Spoken Presentation of Technical Information
The spoken presentation of technical information is an act of communication, usually between one speaker and many listeners. The principle objective of such a communication is to convey information which the audience will (hopefully) retain, if only the major themes of the presentation. Obvious considerations such as content, organisation, pacing, structure and emphasis will be considered. The problems of personal speaking style will be discussed. The use of audio and visual aids will be evaluated, and the basic rules of use and format listed. The note set is intended to form a basic framework from which the presenter can develop his/her skills.
The aim of the work is to enable the reader to make more effective presentations, and to impart the basic framework for the development of a good personal technique.
Making Effective Presentations
1. Understanding the Audience
It is crucially important to be aware of the interests of the audience, and their level of understanding of the subject to be presented. They may be expected to listen only if the subject matter is relevant to their interests, and it is the obligation of the speaker to make the reason for listening obvious as early as possible within the talk.
The most important part of any presentation, therefore, is the beginning. The interest of the audience must be engaged in the talk. They must be told what the purpose of the talk is to be, and how it relates to their interests. Failure to do this renders the remainder of the talk pointless. Incorrectly judging the level of the presentation is equally unsuccessful. An audience ‘blinded by science’ is most unlikely to absorb even a fraction of the material. When faced with material of too low a level, patronised people become fractious and unwilling to listen, as it is beneath their dignity to do so.
Consider then the need for the following points to be adopted:
The speaker must demonstrate awareness of the audience as people, and explain how the topic or subject of the talk relates to their interests. The connection with the audience is crucial. It might be achieved by explaining the speaker’s interest in the subject area, and why this should be of interest to the audience.
The purpose of the talk must be explained. If the intention is to present some revolutionary new concept which will modify the perceptions, behaviour or thinking of the audience in some way, indication that this is the case is entirely appropriate. The speaker may be introducing some new application or system, or some new approach to solving an existing problem. It might be appropriate to show how use of the product or method will enhance the listener’s performance, reduce the costs of operation, or benefit the company or society in some broader sense. People relate well to ideas involving increased profit, reduced costs, or easier delivery of objectives. One well-used method is to discuss how a problem was overcome or a disaster averted.
The introduction should therefore indicate the topic of the talk, explain the purpose of the talk, and relate it to the audience interest through some interesting example or problem. The simplest source of interest to tap into is self-interest. Initial attention is generally assured if the talk can be linked to personal benefit.
2. Basic Structure
The structure of a talk can take many forms, but the basic approach may be given as:
The introduction indicates the themes of the talk (as discussed above), the main content is self-explanatory, and the summary is used to restate the main points of the theme. This is occasionally expressed as:
“Say what you are going to say, say it, then say it again”.
3. Pacing and Volume of Material
The commonest fault amongst inexperienced speakers is to attempt to cover too much ground, and therefore too much material. This may include covering a reasonable topic area in too much depth for the time allowed. Research shows that even an interested audience is likely to offer its attention for at most twenty minutes. It is all too easy to lose them well before that time has elapsed. If too many significant points are contained in a presentation, they tend to blend into each other, and required excessive attention to pick out from the general matrix of the talk. If the information content is too small, the presentation will be boring and unlikely to hold audience attention.
How, then, can we prevent this problem? The only sure method of evaluating the length of the material is to use a trial run. This at least enables the presenter to determine the content and quality of the presentation material. Inexperienced presenters tend to err on the side of too much material. Typically, unprepared presenters are unpleasantly surprised as to the level of information required for a given length of talk.
Too Much Material
Having marshalled the facts to be given the talk, and found it to be overlong, it is a good idea to review the material as to what might be omitted. Particular points or specific facts can be removed to reduce the overloading. To ensure the purpose of the talk is not compromised, the best method of reviewing content is to simply ask the question posed below:
“Is this material essential to the theme and the delivery?”
In the reduction of the core content of the talk, the padding is certain to disappear in proportional quantities.
In technical presentations, particularly technical papers, the greatest problems lie with mathematics and diagrams of complex electrical / mechanical / software systems. In a short talk it is almost impossible to convey the importance of sophisticated mathematical points. Such work is better dealt with through hand outs for later review by the listener. Detailed descriptions of software operations, unless kept to a purely conceptual level, are both tedious and difficult to follow. These two areas are likely to lose an audience with alacrity. The best methods for handling them will be dealt within the sections on visual aids later in this course.
It is not wise to attempt to cram more facts by speaking more quickly. The audience will absorb less than originally might have been the case.
Too Little Material
It is no great pleasure to be faced with a limited time to prepare a talk. Such is the stress generated that this is one method used by interviewers to put candidates for jobs under pressure. (A local IBM office recently offered an industrial placement student ten minutes to prepare a five-minute presentation on black fishnet stockings...). It is no overstatement to say that preparation is the essence of a good talk. Given adequate preparation time, if the material to be presented significantly underruns the scheduled duration of the talk, then the value of the talk might be open to debate. If short of core material, review the talk content to ensure all the relevant questions have been answered and the useful examples have been explored. It is not sensible to diffuse the focus of a presentation by dragging in irrelevant or unrelated facts in order to fill the time allocated.
Pacing of Material
Many people find their speed of speech increases when nervous. This is entirely natural, but can cause a well-prepared presentation to underrun. If excessive, the talk may become virtually unintelligible.
Use of audio visual aids to pace the material can help. Experience can help. However, for the inexperienced presenter, there is no substitute for rehearsal. It is necessary to ensure that key facts are appropriately separated and correctly emphasised by supporting examples of their relevance.
4. The Organisation and Clarity of Material
At the end of a good technical presentation, the key point or points should be clear in the minds of the audience (not just in the mind of the presenter). The achievement of this aim is supported by the organisation of the talk and by the emphasis given to the main points in the introduction, the body of the talk and the summary.
The main point must be clearly defined and the talk structured to reinforce that point. Subsidiary points are usually numbered for clarity.
There are many ways of organising the material of a presentation to achieve the desired goal of imparting information to the audience. One metric that might be adopted as indicative of a good technical organisation is the ease with which the talk can be followed. A logical structure and careful positioning of facts can greatly assist the flow of the material.
For description of processes and systems, the usual method adopted is broadly as follows:
· Introduce the problem
· Describe the conceptual basis of the approach
· Use a generalised flow diagram showing how the concepts are embodied in the design
· Use a detailed flow diagram showing the actual physical implementation or organisation of the component parts
· As with any talk, summarise the main points
Many sales presentations adopt a slightly different approach, in that the real emphasis is on highlighting the problem to be solved, the effects of the problem on the listener’s business and the real benefit of the solution offered. Consider the following structure (which is based on the “pyramid” structured sales methodology).
· Introductory statement, about company background and product range (extremely brief)
· Solicitation from audience as to what they hope to gain from the talk (attempt to assess needs, particularly problems with process / product)
· Procedural statement indicating what the presenter hopes to achieve
· Highlighting of problems in process / product (which are usually real)
· Explain the product, using the features, advantages, benefits approach *
· Summarise (and, if a small group of the appropriate level in the company, gain commitment to solving the problem)
* A feature is a characteristic of a product or service, an advantage shows how a product feature can be used or may help the customer, and benefit shows how a feature / advantage meets an explicit need expressed by the customer.
The expectations of the audience as to structure can be used to provide emphasis and attention to a talk by their adoption, and by deliberate use of unconventional methods.
5. Dramatic Shape
Having discussed what should be in a talk, we must now consider the form of the presentation. The structure must both reflect and complement the context in which the technical information is being conveyed. It is obvious that the structure appropriate to the presentation of a written technical report to be read at leisure may not be suitable for a talk, where usually the material is covered rapidly with no opportunity for revision or consideration. The level and type of audience is similarly important. It is unlikely that the form of presentation used for a class will meet with the approval of a board of directors. The informality common to presentations to colleagues will not sit well with a less familiar audience.
Part of the objective of a speaker is to give the audience a sense of occasion and perception of a quality job, done well. Amongst the more elementary techniques most observers would include an effective introduction, a clear statement of the purpose of the presentation, some indication of how the presentation is to be organised, and distinct division of the material into major points and sections. Many speakers will attempt to organise their talk into a series of questions which they then attempt to answer, rather than simply making statements.
As is well illustrated by the annual televised Royal Society lectures, demonstrations and illustrations can add weight and substance to a discussion.
Where relevant, a talk can be based on some accident or disaster caused by the problem to be discussed. The speaker forms the discussion around describing, analysing and demonstrating the cause of the problem, then relating the key point of the presentation (ie the solution of the problem) to the previous accident and showing how the new device or technique could viably prevent or mitigate its effects.
There are more exotic techniques for giving a presentation shape. Whilst not particularly relevant to technical presentations, the building of a sense of occasion can be done in theatrical and ritualistic ways. The setting of the talk can relate a specific agenda of itself: the trappings of ritual can be used to form a special kind of atmosphere. If in doubt of this, some of the techniques used in ‘stadium rock’ concerts (and equally in the theatre) make clear an intention to influence the audience to a degree of awe. The banners and open torches are common to many forms of liturgy. The positioning of the speaker/performer above the audience (causing a need to look up, as child to parent) is an elementary psychological trick. The ritual of waiting then introduction (usually with the lights out) are carefully calculated to build expectations and to release that expectation suddenly. It is interesting to note quite how many of these same tricks are observed in the film footage of Hitler’s set piece speeches during the 1930s.
· The speaker should explain how the talk is to be organised
· A demonstration, example or exhibit can offer a sense of occasion if properly used
· The talk could be divided into numbered main points or sections to aid clarity and flow
· The use of dramatic examples as the vehicle for the discussion can offer a method of organisation
· The use of the question format may retain attention more effectively than simply making statements
The important points made in a presentation need emphasis. This is most effectively achieved by the organisation of the material presented towards the main points, but it is often unwise to assume the audience is astute enough to pick up the nuance of the discussion. It is therefore necessary to highlight key points using one of a few techniques.
The simplest (and most obvious) way of highlighting an important point is to say that it is important. Many lecturers will use the phase “... and this is the key point of my discussion/the derivation/the application”. The use of visual aids to underpin and emphasise material is another popular technique.
The improvement of picture and sound quality are achieved not only by boosting the actual video/audio signal but by reducing the level of background noise. The speaker can ensure the audience is aware that parts of the presentation are not important, by explaining that parts of the material are background information.
7. Drawing the Strands Together
After a sound introduction, the part of a presentation likely to be retained best by the audience is the summary or conclusion. It is extremely important not to introduce new material in the summary section. The objective is to give a concise recapitulation of the main points of the talk, and to leave the audience with a clear understanding of the one key point in the presentation. (This is no less true of written presentation than of spoken material).
The audience should be made aware of the summary as a separate entity. Little reawakens interest and attention quite as well as the sure knowledge that the speaker is about to finish. Having obtained renewed attention, the speaker has an open opportunity to ensure the main point of the material is made, and made well.
8. Audience Questions
In a wide variety of situations from technical papers to sales presentations, it is impossible to avoid taking questions after the presentation. This can be particularly unnerving for the inexperienced presenter, if only because the questions may drift away from the prepared material of the talk. In general terms it is advisable to be courteous and direct. If the speaker doesn’t know the answer, it is better to say so and offer to enter into discussion or research “off-line” than to attempt to prevaricate. The golden rule is to know your material and subject area. In the unlikely case of being faced with a (usually single) hostile questioner, maintain control and civility. Any other approach will simply lose the remainder of the audience.
The questions session enables the presenter to ascertain the level of understanding of the subject audience has obtained, both from the questions asked and from any supplemental answers given. It is often the case that, having given what he/she feels to be an effective and clear presentation, the speaker becomes painfully aware during the question session of the misconceptions and lack of understanding of the audience. It is not possible to reiterate an entire presentation during the question session: simply accept that you have not succeeded, put it down to experience, and try to learn the lesson of any errors made for future use.
Whilst it is presumptuous to expect gratitude from any audience, you may expect a certain respect if introducing a new and useful technique. Well-structured and understandable presentation methods simply serve to ease the communication of information.
9. The Use of Audio-Visual Aids
Many presenters make extensive use of support materials to enhance the quality of their work. Properly prepared, appropriate visual aids enable the presentation of sophisticated visual data, and can be used to structure the talk for maximum effect.
This section of work will consider the use of overhead transparencies, slides, videos, presentation managers, and demonstrations. The features and problems of each will be discussed, drawing out basic rules for the use of the various techniques. The aim of this section is to enable the student both to make effective use of modern presentation support materials and to understand their limitations in practice.
Traditional “chalk and talk” technique is used for the presentation of text and mathematical data, supported by limited (usually hand drawn) diagrams. Dynamic alteration is limited to the addition of material to a static diagram. The process often requires the student to make his/her own notes from a combination of verbal and written material. Such techniques are effective: the entire course of education and training over the last six centuries has relied primarily on these methods. Increasing complexity and the need to present visualisations of systems and solutions have led to the need for further developments in graphical presentation.
Circuit diagrams, exploded diagrams, flow diagrams, and layouts are examples of candidates for graphical presentation which are not easily shown by conventional means. Extreme care must be taken in the presentation of this sort of material. All too often an over-complex and illegible diagram is used as a vehicle for detailed description of the operation of the system or circuit, with the sure result of losing both the attention of the audience and the credibility of the speaker.
Care, then, is required in the use of presentation materials. The objective is to provide enhancement to an effective communication, not to provide a crutch for a poorly conceived, poorly designed mish-mash of facts.
9.1 Overhead Transparencies (also known as view foils, skins, OHPs, VU-Graphs)
The overhead transparency (OHP) is probably the most common form of projected support medium used today, and is a tool well-beloved of academics everywhere. The idea is simple: a bright illumination is shone through a clear film sheet of A4 size onto which the information has been written/printed. This resulting image is then focused using a simple lens system onto the projection screen. OHPs are easy to use, and can be produced by hand writing by photocopying, or by printing onto the film sheet. The use of colour laser printers for printing of OHPs offers a high quality of produced picture, approaching 35mm slides in terms of clarity and colour.
The OHP is a sound tool for emphasising points of interest and reinforcing major ideas. It is best used as a backdrop to a discussion, and not as the medium for presenting the discussion itself.
The golden rule with any visual medium is to avoid putting excessive information on one image. This is particularly important with written text: it is not uncommon for students to speak of “death by overhead” when attempting to take notes from saturated slides rapidly replaced by a hurried (and technically incompetent) lecturer or presenter. As a basic guideline, a maximum of six lines of not more than seven words per line should be used. Obviously the text should be legible and large enough to be read. In printing terms, a minimum character size of 18 point (about 3/16”) should be used for text. Headings need to stand out, and a size of 24 point (1/4”) or larger is therefore appropriate. These points are highlighted in the overheads for the course.
The use of colour can make a text presentation easier to follow, but great care is needed in the selection of colours. Bad contrast and garish combinations make the foil difficult to read and therefore cause the audience to lose interest.
The same ideas apply to graphs and diagrams. It is vital to avoid putting too much information into transparency. The information content can usually be broken down into a series of OHPs, or simplified into a block diagram form. Such an approach ensures the legibility of the information for the audience, and has the added advantage of requiring the presenter to think properly through the purpose and the content of the pictures used.
Many presenters habitually use OHPs to structure their presentations. This can be effective, but all too often they come to read the material off the foils. Rather than forming a useful support to highlight major points of interest, the OHPs become simply a set of reading cards or notes. This should be avoided as a matter of good technique. If a need exists to give the audience a set of notes, printed materials can be distributed at the end of the presentation.
One of the worst errors with OHPs is made with good intentions. Many presenters try and hide the second part of a transparency by covering it with a sheet of paper whilst talking through the first part. In principle this technique of information hiding is a good one. It prevents the audience from reading the rest of the OHP rather than listening to the presentation. Problems invariably arise with controlling the sheet of paper, leading to tiresome and unprofessional attempts to balance it and cover up already exposed material. The second major problem with this technique is the propensity of the human psyche towards frustration when faced with deliberate covering of material. The great majority of the audience find themselves irritated by this technique, and it is probably best left unused. If absolutely necessary, physically mounting strips of covering material on the OHP, to be removed as required, offers the most successful “hiding” this technique with this medium.
9.2 35mm Slides
35mm slides are one of the best presentation support materials. The intensity of illumination available over a small area with the slide projector gives a quality of luminosity to the screen image. Most slides are still prepared by photographic means, usually by taking a still photograph of a piece of equipment, a VDU screen image or a printed page. The celluloid film is developed and then mounted in a card or plastic support. This was the first medium to support colour, through the use of colour film.
Facilities for direct creation of slides from PC screen images has become available over the last few years. It is a quick and effective way of creating very professional presentation support with a minimum of effort. Kodak, and other major suppliers of photographic equipment, supply direct transfer methods from screen shot to 35mm slide.
Slides are physically compact, easy to carry, and robust while in an appropriate container. They are simple to produce, and relatively inexpensive to develop (rapid 4 hour production of a 36 shot 35mm colour slide film costs around £5). Slide projectors are small and portable, and have the great advantage of producing reasonable images when projected onto a white (or light coloured) wall. This can be important when the presenter is uncertain of the rooms to be used and the facilities available.
The same caveats about readability apply as with OHPs. Any text must be readable, and again the 6 lines of 7 words rule is a sensible one. As a guideline, the type point sizes for OHPs remains appropriate. In a more ad hoc approach, view the material to be made into a slide from a distance of more than 8 times its vertical height. If the material is readable then it will probably make a reasonable slide. If the slide text heading is readable at arms length, and the main text from a distance of half a meter, it is likely to be of an adequate size when projected.
Slides can be used to show scene, layout and system pictures. The grain size in photographic production is extremely small compared to printing systems, and, as a result, fine lines and detail are faithfully reproduced. The use of this added clarity should be made with caution. It is imperative that the audience is able to see the detail discussed clearly and without effort.
The main problem of using slides is caused by their very ease of use. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of using too many for the length of presentation, resulting in too rapid changing of the screen image and the audience being unable to follow the progress of the information. This might be referred to as the “holiday snap” effect. The presenter is misled into going too rapidly through the material.
If a particular slide is to be used, it should contain useful and important information. It is therefore essential to ensure it remains on the projection screen for an adequate amount of time for the audience to absorb the material. Every word or number on a slide should be mentioned. Facts, figures and detail not worthy of discussion are to be avoided.
A great part of the information derived visually from the world around us is gained from motion and change in what we see. OHPs and slides are effective for presenting static images and data, but cannot use the facility of motion in presenting ideas. Video offers this extra dimension, but at the cost of more sophisticated development techniques and equipment. It is possible to show the actual interaction of systems, experiments and data, and thereby offers the audience the clearest understanding of the issues developed. It should be used in short bursts to illustrate dynamic data.
The current availability of hand-held camcorders and inexpensive editing facilities are increasing the use of video data, but it is a technique that requires extensive effort to produce high quality results.
The room used for the talk must have a large screen projection facility. Whilst this is by no means uncommon, unless the environment is known and controlled, it is risky to rely on video material for “off-site” work.
The presenter must keep control of the presentation. The use of five minute bursts of video material clearly mitigates against this objective. Research has shown that television audiences spend a large part of their viewing time doing anything except looking at the television screen, and it would be unwise to expect a presentation audience to behave differently. In practice, aim to use a thirty-second burst of material, stop the video player, and then discuss the information shown. Five seconds of plain blue screen is usually edited in between relevant sections to allow time for the video to stop and start, and to give the presenter a clear location to end the section.
There are problems with the use of the video. The tendency to use overlong sections and thus disrupt the talk is a common flaw. The use of inappropriate sections of material, and practical difficulties in driving the video player also arise. The biggest problem is the sheer effort involved in creating appropriate, high quality material for use.
9.4 Presentation Managers
Probably the two best-known examples of presentation managers today are Harvard Graphics and Microsoft’s PowerPoint. Both can run on a PC, and offer a quick and easy means of producing professional quality presentation text and graphics. Aside from the obvious text and graphical material, animation and motion can be developed to enhance the appearance of the presentation. It is a moot point as to whether such methods actually enhance the information transfer to the audience. The same basic rules of text size, information density and diagram complexity apply for screen presentations as for the use of the overhead transparency and the 35mm slide.
The support examples provided with tools such as PowerPoint are worthy of consideration when first designing a presentation. Whilst not necessarily ideal for the purpose of the particular talk, such examples give useful guides as to colour combinations and text sizes for the inexperienced user.
The proper use of demonstration material is highlighted by the annual televised Royal Society lectures. It is important to clearly identify the reason for the use of a particular demonstration, and to ensure adequate and achievable objectives are set for it. Demonstrations provide maximum benefit when used to show some particular point, or to illustrate a feature of a piece of equipment.
Any demonstration or exhibit must be big enough to be seen. It should be set up well before the talk commences. There is nothing more irritating than watching a presenter trying to jury rig a dubious (and possibly pointless) demonstration where the equipment has not been adequately set up and tested in advance of the talk. As a ground rule, never pass around an exhibit. It will simply lose audience attention for the five or ten minutes the piece takes to traverse the auditorium.
Always ensure demonstrations are pre-prepared and carefully set up to prevent failure. The content, style and objectives of showing the exhibit must be fully thought through, and meticulously designed to provide the support needed for the talk.
A demonstration can be a dangerous tool, in that it may encourage the audience to think about particular features or problems not foreseen by the presenter. It may give best advantage when used at the start of the talk to get the audience involved and reintroduced as appropriate later in the discussion. It is a good idea to encourage audience participation, if possible. If the audience has a part to play, say by counting, voting, or active participation, the feeling of having contributed to the show will carry positive feeling through the remainder of the talk.
The major problems with demonstrations, as with video material, is their tendency to dominate the presentation, often to a disproportionate degree. The keys to successful demonstration are the definition of clear objectives and careful preparation to meet them.
The various support technologies discussed in this section are neither mutually exclusive nor incompatible. It is for the speaker to pick the best mix of methods for the presentation. The basic requirement is the transfer of information; the appropriate technique is the one that best meets this objective. It is, however, wise to remember to relate the effort deployed on making a presentation to its likely benefits and importance.
10. Personal Presentation Technique
Having discussed the format of a presentation, and the materials available to support it, we must now turn to the problem of the speaker in person. Each person will have their own particular qualities as a speaker, and, provided some basic rules are followed, these qualities are the factors that enhance the quality of the listening experience and add interest to the material.
The main problem affecting most speakers is nervousness. This is unavoidable, and, whilst it may or may not ever fully disappear, with increasing presentation experience the effects will become familiar and controllable.
Any talk represents a communication between the speaker and the audience. The basic points of body language (posture, general manner, movement) form part of the interaction, and it is important that they should be consonant with the spoken material.
Consider the following brief discussion of the main points affecting the relationship between speaker and audience. It is not exhaustive, but is intended only as a brief outline. Formal training for speakers and presenters is a small but lucrative area of work, and it does provide substantial improvements. The difference in quality as a public speaker of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher between her rather dismal efforts as an education minister in 1976 and her superior work in the 1980s is directly attributable to an investment of money and time in formal presentation training.
Awareness of its existence is the key to altering any undesirable behaviour as a presenter. It is a good idea to video yourself presenting a talk, and to review the video with the points related to style in mind. The camcorder is probably the most effective aid in developing a good technique.
10.1 Factors Related to Speech
If the audience need to struggle to hear the speaker, they generally find the effort of listening precludes the assimilation of the information. Inaudible presentation usually results from nervousness. If in doubt, it is useful to ask a reliable person at the back of audience to indicate if the speech volume is adequate before beginning the talk.
Many camcorders have an automatic gain control on the sound track, and are quite capable of hiding this fault.
Usually the problem is talking too quickly. This may, again, be due to nervousness, but may also be related to poor structure, inadequate or inappropriate visual aids, or to poor pacing of the material. Note that proper preparation and adequate rehearsal will help. It is useful to have a clear plan and carefully selected but limited number of points to be discussed.
The problem of too slow progress is usually caused by an over dependence on notes or support materials.
A varied tone and volume with the speaker can improve the appearance of the talk. Good examples of this include slowing down to highlight important points, and pausing after posing a question before giving the answer. Try to avoid an unvarying monologue or a staccato procession of facts.
Accent and Vocabulary
Few people are aware of the natural quality and accentuation of their own voices. In general we do not all sound like television newsreaders. Provided the accent is not so strong and the vocabulary not so idiosyncratic as to lose the listener, the regional accents and local variations in speech form a part of the character of the presenter. They are likely to enhance the presentation rather than detract from it.
Profanity and strong language are to be avoided unless necessary to the material of the talk or to the mentality of the audience.
10.2 Factors Related to the Body
An effort made to make the audience feel part of the talk usually pays dividends. An impression of the speaker having an agreeable manner may be simply due to the fact that he or she gives the impression of caring about the concerns and interests of the audience. It may also be due to the personality of the presenter coming across during the talk.
If the presenter gives the appearance of arrogance, surliness or some other unpleasant disposition, this is likely to reduce the willingness of the audience to listen attentively. Obvious self-absorption is another easy way to reduce the effectiveness of the communication. All too often such problems are caused purely by nervousness, and care should be taken to avoid creating this kind of impression. Viewing recorded material of a presentation will show any personal presentation problems of this type, and practice will prevent them from occurring in the public talk.
If the speaker feels awkward or tense, this may make itself apparent in general posture. It can be difficult to relax in front of an audience. As a corollary, a sloppy and chaotic appearance can cause offence. Disciplined, organised appearance is the ideal, and, again, viewing the presentation is the best way to realise problems of this kind are occurring.
Under pressure, the human animal tends to make unconscious efforts to move the attention of the audience from his / her face. Such unconscious efforts may include the classics of facing the board, arm waving, nose scratching, ear searching, and ‘pocket billiards’. Many lecturers hide behind a lectern or prowl the width of the stage like a caged animal. All of these problems cause irritation to the audience and detract from the quality of the presentation. A good speaker will have enough self-possession under pressure to be aware of the problems that may arise.
A related problem is that of eye contact. When talking, two people frequently make eye contact with each other. It is part of the linkage that occurs in effective communication.
When nervous, there is a tendency to avoid eye contact. This is best exemplified by the lecturer facing the blackboard and writing up notes or equations, never standing facing the audience and talking towards the board. This does tend to lose audience attention, and causes much of the conversation that occurs during a presentation due to the listener’s dissociation from the speaker. It is therefore important to make regular eye contact with the individuals in the audience, but not to an excessive degree. Many an attractive listener, to their discomfort, will have found themselves fixed with a continuous stare from an unaware and nervous presenter attempting to follow the basic rules of good presentation.
The other cause of poor eye contact is, of course, overreliance on badly prepared notes. Hunting through piles of notes to find a ‘lost’ section is unprofessional and distracting. If there is a need to use notes to keep track of the material presented, they should be concise, easy to follow and with text large enough to read easily.
It is a rare presenter who can do without notes at all. The art is to make them simple enough to use to allow the speaker to retain the disciplines of good communication.
A reasonable and natural degree of movement should occur in a talk. The speaker should not appear to be nailed to the floor and lectern. Rigid, robotic performance is unnatural and painful to watch. Often more use of visual aids and demonstration material will offer a solution to the problem.
Too much movement is often caused by nervousness, hopping from foot to foot or prowling the stage. (It is harder to hit a moving target). Again this should be avoided.
Pointing and gesturing to enhance important points is natural and appropriate. However, there can be a tendency to aggressive pointing under pressure and ‘laying down the law’. This will certainly cause offence to the audience. People invariably respond aggressively to aggression. The other problems that commonly occur are usually examples of displacement activity, such as excessive hand waving, and serve only to distract the audience from the content of the talk. The television work of Dr Magnus Pyke is a good example of this problem.
Gestures occur naturally in any conversation, the degree of motion normally associated with a discussion being partly an ideolect of the country and region of the speaker’s birth, and partly characteristic of the speaker. Avoiding any movement results in a stilted, wooden appearance.
10.3 The Problem of Nervousness
Nervousness is a natural and normal response to being placed in an unfamiliar situation and under pressure. It results from the body dumping ‘fight or flight’ chemicals into the blood stream. It invariably heightens awareness and improves physical reaction times, and produces other physiological changes (more rapid breathing, increased perspiration). It is the response to this occurring that varies between individuals. In some, it causes poor audibility or overly rapid presentation; in others, it provides the heightened edge required for superior performance.
The basic problems are due to fear of the unknown, fear of the audience, and fear of the material being presented. This last problem is often due to unfamiliarity with the material, general ignorance of the subject area and (obviously) poor preparation.
Once the presentation starts, the physical reactions usually disappear immediately. Practise will indicate that this does occur, and make the pre-talk nerves less bothersome. Awareness of personal response to the presentation situation, and practise, will make the experience less intimidating.
Having considered the factors affecting the various aspects of the presentation as an entity, the unfulfilled requirement is for the reader to obtain experience. This can only be obtained by making presentations. The key points from the material, beyond the simple mechanistic methodologies of preparation, relate to the development of the skills in their proper context.
If you need to prepare a presentation, do plan it. Get the timing correct by rehearsal. Check the volume of material you intend to present. Improve the content by asking a colleague or friend to listen to it, or get someone to video you and review it yourself. Even after this, the fact remains that you will have to stand in front of an audience of people looking at you and give your talk. There is no remedy for the physical effect of nervousness. Experience yields familiarity with the symptoms, and familiarity simply allows you to operate in spite of them.
Your ability to present in public will play a significant part in your career success - what is an interview but a poorly structured presentation? Start early, do it often, and retain some measure of self-awareness whilst presenting. Reflect on the successful aspects of any presentation you do; if, additionally, you can eliminate the problems areas, you have developed a genuine life skill.
©Archway Consultants Ltd., Oct 1995, amendments Feb 2000.
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