This is a guest post from Sibéal Murphy of TWI, and it reflects Sibéal’s personal experiences and opinions.
Technical communicators tend to be very competent with written forms of communication, but verbal and visual forms of communication may take us beyond our comfort zones. This article offers practical tips for producing effective presentations, when you have valuable content to convey and a precious opportunity to share it. It provides examples of how I applied these presentation tips when designing training courses on technical writing and effective writing skills.
Importance of Resonating
Resonating with your audience is important when it comes to high-stake presentations. Whatever the subject or context of your presentation – whether you’re explaining a new concept, detailing data, or rolling out a new strategy – there is an implied element of persuasion. At the end of your presentation, you want your audience to understand, to be convinced, or even determined to get involved.
When done well, presentations are a powerful communication tool. However, too few presenters invest the time required to think about how best to convey their message through a combination of what they say and what they display.
During a presentation, the audience has to cope with competing senses: looking at the presenter, listening to the presenter, and looking at the slides. The visual always beats the audio. Therefore, if a slide contains lots of text, the audience is reading and no one is listening.
If you can achieve your goal by having your audience read your slides, then you shouldn’t be gathering people together and giving a presentation. Send them your bullet lists – you’ll save everyone a lot of time. However, if you want to persuade people or bring about any kind of change, it’s worth investing time in developing more effective presentations.
Presentation Best Practice
I came across Nancy Duarte while researching presentation best practice for designing our writing skills training courses (I say ‘our’ because I worked on this collaboratively with colleagues at my company TWi). Duarte’s book, Resonate, reveals the power of incorporating story into presentations and describes a new approach to making them persuasive.
Like all good stories, Duarte’s presentations have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, but with two important turning points:
- Call to adventure
- Call to action
I’ll elaborate a little on Duarte’s approach and how it influenced the design of our training courses.
Call to Adventure
By repeatedly moving between a description of what is (making it as unappealing as possible) and what could be (making it as enticing as possible), we hold the audience’s attention and persuade them that what we are describing is desirable.
For example, at the beginning of a module on audience analysis, we talk about content that is written from our perspective as writers, instead of that of the audience. We compare it to meeting a self-centred person at a party. The kind of person who, no matter where the conversation goes, always finds a way of bringing it back to themselves. It can be hard to stay interested in what they are saying. We then describe content that addresses the needs of the audience and how much more effective it is at holding their attention.
Call to Action
Following on from the vivid description of the potential outcome, by clearly and specifically stating the actions that the audience must take to achieve it, we persuade them to apply these strategies.
By the end of the module on audience analysis, we have called on the trainees to always try to resonate with their audience and given them the tools to do so.
Tips for Content Development
For anyone who regularly makes presentations, I thoroughly recommend reading Resonate. In the meantime, I’ve pulled out a few pearls of wisdom gleaned from Duarte and other gurus into the following set of presentation tips for structuring and scripting your content:
- Think about your audience and what you want them to do with your information.
- Break your information up into ideas or individual points.
- Find a logical structure to connect your ideas.
- Write a script for what you want to say about each idea. Write in a natural, conversational tone that reflects your own voice.
- Develop links and hooks between your ideas so your presentation flows.
- Create a slide for each idea or individual point. Think of the slides as a backdrop to enhance the listener experience. See our slide design tips below.
- Practice the script, the tone, and the pace. The better you know your script, the less you’ll rely on it during the presentation. Instead of reading, you can then make eye contact with your audience, connect with them, and engage them in a more real and effective way.
Tips for Slide Design
To deliver your content more effectively, use these presentation tips to design slides that avoid distracting your audience’s attention away from what you are saying:
- Keep text to an absolute minimum.
- If you find yourself creating a bullet list, stop! If it’s important enough to put on a slide, it’s important enough to have a slide of its own. Separate those bullet items and create an impactful slide for each point.
- Find a simple, powerful image that supports your script. Linking content to an interesting image intrigues the audience enough that they tune in to find out what you’re saying and helps the audience remember the content for longer.
- Display a memorable quotation that underlines the key point you’re making. Resist the temptation to read out the quote: the audience reads it at a glance and it has more impact as a backdrop to what you are saying.
- When displaying facts and figures, include metaphor or real life examples in your script. Facts are vital, but they can be flat. Make them persuasive and memorable by using stories to engage your audience and illustrate the point you want the facts to make.
The next time you make a presentation, resist the urge to fall back on PowerPoint bullet lists. Instead, integrate a call to adventure, try our tips for effective slides, and finish with a call to action. By investing a little extra time and effort, you can produce a very effective presentation that interests, engages, and persuades you audience.