Reprinted from the April 2011 Business column in Metalforming magazine.
By: Michael Bleau
Recently I was reminded how quickly one can over think something seemingly as simple yet as important as a presentation. Since our industry is saturated with engineering-centric businesses it’s understandable that when asking an engineer to present a topic to peers they may try to cram 150 slides into a 20-minute time slot. Struggling against this urge myself, I find that many ‘detail oriented’ individuals assume everyone else is too, and if not, well they should be since details are ÜBER relevant. From this point of view we can fall into the trap of building endless slide decks that are heavy on narrative, packed with bullet points and unnecessary detail. Such overkill creates barriers to clear communication. Here are some tips that you can apply in rethinking how you approach presentations so they become direct, clear and well received.
Know your audience. Decide on the purpose of your presentation. Are you there to entertain, persuade, inform, sell, etc. Based on your topic and then make-up of your audience you can decide on your tone and approach. For example, should you be light-hearted, formal or somewhere in the middle. How technical is your audience, do they share a common frame of reference as you or are you presenting something that will be very new to them on many levels. What are their expectations and what do you think they expect to walk away with from the experience, which leads to our next point.
Provide takeaway value. Distill your complex ideas into specific, concise points that your audience can easily remember and take with them. If they don’t walk away with value, they’ll forget you, your presentation resulting in wasted time for both of you.
Show or tell. Now ask yourself, should you use a presentation deck at all? If you can engage the audience through an actual demonstrations of your subject, then do you need to distance the experience by inserting a slideshow into the mix? If you can show ‘it’ and the audience can experience ‘it’ in a sensory-rich way, then drop the slides altogether. However, if logistically such a demonstration is impractical, read on.
Understand the purpose of the tool. Presentation software is not intended to be a crutch by acting as a teleprompter for the speaker or be a substitute for a printed brochure. PowerPoint, Keynote and other slide show software is not the presentation, the speaker is, you are. You’re the ‘act’ and through your ability to convey information the audience gains value. The purpose of the slide deck is to enhance how you communicate or an anchor where multiple presenters can share and consistently deliver a common presentation deck, as in the case of a national sales team.
Resist the urge to splurge. Just because most presentation software has hundreds of typefaces, millions of colors, dozens of transitions and volumes of clip art doesn’t mean that you need to try to use all of it. Leave open space, keep backgrounds, use of color and text simple so that your slides look consistent and not distracting.
Tell your story. While getting the ‘messaging’ right is typically on the mind of many marketers, presenting a compelling story will win out over messaging every time. Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs is a master storyteller in his use of the ‘rule of three’. Check out some of his keynote presentations and you’ll see why his persuasive, easy-to-follow arguments follow carefully scripted storylines that include an antagonist and a hero. The antagonist is typically portrayed as the shortcomings of current technology and the hero being Apple’s product solution. And his talks are typically delivered in three acts…Google “the rule of three”. Not many speakers apply this principle, and those who do really stand out.
Connect with your audience. Dubbed the “great communicator” Ronald Reagan was arguably one of the best speaker public speaker since John F. Kennedy, when it comes to broadly connecting with people. Reagan’s thoughtful selection of words and use of ordinary language inspired listeners with phrases like "trust but verify”, “tear down this wall” and "evil empire.”
Choose visuals over copy. Infographics are a powerful, engaging ways to communicate information. Preparing slides that communicate with informative images or graphics instead of bullet points is the quickest way to transfer knowledge and attract the attention of you audience. While it may seem intimidating, it’s not hard to become good at preparing visual. For some help, Google “infographics”, check out TUFTE’s series on envisioning information and get a copy of Dan Roam’s books on problem solving with pictures. Together these resources provide invaluable guidance in transforming your ideas and concepts into visual information.
Technology matters. Technology can play a big role in polish and flexibility. For example, including a simple navigation bar in your presentation allows you to quickly branch to suit audience conditions and interests. Also, consider the delivery device you’re using. A tablet PC or iPad with solid-state data storage provides snappier screen loading and video playback without having to fumble with slower laptop operating systems and disk drives.
Even with all of the above in hand, you need to be well rehearsed. Nothing can substitute a personable, well-prepared speaker who has direct knowledge on the topic and the ability to adapt to the audience.
Served in various capacities within capital equipment engineering, robotics, project management, sales and marketing.
L&A collaborates with Industry Scope, Prior to L&A Nancy was Vice President of Public Relations for a full service B2B agency.