How to deliver great presentations?

Posted by Kevin Brady on Fri 31st October 2008 at 12:59 PM, Filed in Industry News

In my view great presentations are based around 8 ground rules:-

1. Know your audience
2. Tell them
3. What they’re going to see
4. What they’re seeing
5. What they saw (summary)
6. Maintain eye contact with key people in the audience
7. Do not read each viewgraph/slide; paraphrase the main ideas
8. Avoid slides that

    a. Are too cluttered b. Talk down to the audience c. Are too ostentatious d. Cannot be read by everyone in the room

9. Leave enough time for each slide’s message to sink in
10. Be careful about interruptions
11. Generally, hand out hard copies at the end, not at the beginning

A critical part of constructing any presentation is to know your audience in advance. If you are able to do this, you will also be on track in terms of targeting key areas of interest. Try not to make assumptions about the audience when a phone call is all that is needed to understand your audience’s interests. My presentations tend to go astray when it is realized that the primary focus of the presentation is off target or the audience forces a change up front or is clearly impatient with material they already know.

A well-known and accepted ground rule is that the audience needs constant reminding of where you are, where you’re going, and where you’ve been. This may sound like overkill, but keep in mind that the audience is often completely cold on the material being presented. These reminders give a sense of unity to the presentation and help the listener to integrate what is being said. The summary is especially important in pulling together the main thoughts, themes, and point that have been made.

Eye contact with particular people in the audience is extremely important. As a minimum, one should target the key players in the audience and make sure that eye contact is established. In general, the presenter should scan the audience and talk to everyone in it. One should try to avoid talking in the direction of the slides, looking at the ceiling, presenting to members of your own team if they are intermixed with a customer group and talking to only one person in the audience. The basic idea is to get your message across to every single person that has not previously heard the presentation.

A definite “no-no” is to read every word on every slide. Leave time for the audience to read the slides for themselves. Point to the key phrases (with a pointer, if possible) to direct the eye of the observer. Then paraphrase an important point or focus on only a few key words on which you can elaborate. Do not go through the slides at lightning speed because you will frustrate and lose your audience. Each slide has several messages and these need to be conveyed in an easy and flowing manner.

In terms of the slides themselves, there are lots of options. You can have a lot of information on each, but then need to go through the slides rather slowly. Slides should be readable, in general, unless you are trying to create a general impression without all the details in the slides. Avoid to much clutter that cannot be understood. Each slide should be “designed” so that the messages jump out rather than having to be dug out. Slides should not be two showy because that is likely to turn off at least some members of the audience. They also should be of a size that they can be read by everyone in the room. This means that you need to anticipate the size of the room and the number of people in the audience as if they are dummies if they do not instantly understand everything you are conveying.

The presenter has to leave enough time for the audience to read the slide as it is directed to do so. More time is better than not enough. Even short periods of silence are acceptable because people often cannot process what they are reading and what they are hearing at the same time. Depending on the slide design and the method of presentation, a target might be 2 to 3 minutes per slide, assuming no interruptions. At 3 minutes per slide, a ten slide presentation takes about half an hour. The idea is to have the messages sink in, not to meet a deadline. Dry runs with members of your team will help you to fine-tune a presentation. The PM should not have a novice presenter give an important briefing to a customer without a serious dry run.

Allowing interruptions is a matter that is somewhat controversial. In general, it is best to establish audience contact by allowing interruptions in the form of questions from the audience. However, these should not be allowed to turn the presentation into a free-for-all. Losing control over the briefing is extremely undesirable and will likely damage the credibility of the presenter. A good presenter normally allows a modest number of questions, but is able to draw people back to the presentation without losing control. It is definitely all right to terminate further questioning and bring the audience back to the main thrust of the presentation.

The matter of handing out hard copy also has advocates on both sides. I always favour the delivery of hardcopy of my slides at the end of every presentation. Often I provide the audience with three-by-five index cards to make notes on questions they might have during the presentation. The problem with the audience having hard copy in advance is that some people will stop listening to you and go on their own slide journey themselves. They may read ahead of you or backtrack to earlier slides. Either way, they’re not likely to be listening to you. Under group pressure from the audience, however, it is difficult not to hand out the slide package when requested to do so.

Giving presentations represents a special skill that has to be mastered by any Project Manager. It is worth the time to take this activity seriously, especially if the presentation is given to a customer or a large audience. Dry runs and supportive coaching will pay worthwhile dividends.

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