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Beyond Powerpoint

Becomining an effective presenter

By Joe Schall

Recently, I attended a talk where the speaker held everyone's attention for a crucial five minutes by pulling the Seinfeld trick-putting on "a show about nothing." An engineer at a small, struggling company, he was near the end of a slick PowerPoint presentation about whether or not the design for acritical machine should be modernized to speed up production. He presented three options:

  • Retool the machine in-house, which would sacrifice a month of production time but result in faster output in the long run;

  • Buy a new machine from a known distributor, which would involve a hefty up-front expense but save labor costs and time;

  • Do nothing.

That's right-do nothing. Continue with production and learn to live with the sacrifices. To dramatize this third point, the speaker filled the presentation screen-which up until then had held colorful PowerPoint slides utilizing slick transitions and graphics-with nothing. He simply left the screen blank, proposed the option of taking no action, and then shut off the projector.

For the next five minutes, he engaged the audience members-which included the company president and accountant-by switching to a lecture format. He moved around the room without so much as a pointer or a note card, and argued his case: that it was smarter for the company to maintain status quo, especially since it was struggling financially. Ultimately, he impressed his point on the audience not with the magic of presentation software, but with reasoning, creativity, common sense and the bottom line. As the speaker hoped, the company bought into option number three.

As this example demonstrates, effective oral presentation is more about creative thinking on your feet and basic skills than about wearing good shoes and knowing how to create a dazzling PowerPoint presentation. For years companies have sought graduates who can give dynamic talks as a key way to bring concerned parties to a common decision. But many recent graduates make the mistake of trying to let the computer, bells and whistles blaring, do all the work for them. They forget the fundamentals of oral presentation, and thus whatever polish they have quickly loses its luster.

To become a modern speaker worth listening to, whether you're serving as a company representative or presenting at a conference, you must take stock of how you come across as a speaker, come fully prepared to any presentation, engage your audience's attention and memory, and attend to some visual design basics.

Preparing a Talk

There's a rule-of-thumb in carpentry: measure twice, cut once. The tenets behind this principle should be obvious-once a mistake is made, it's difficult or impossible to undo. Though the carpenter can usually use spackle or glue to repair an error, as a speaker you simply cannot get back those three minutes you just wasted in a fifteen-minute presentation. The following preparation principles will keep you on the right track.

  • Practice your talk straight through, and jot quick notes to yourself about how to improve it. If you cannot manage to go through your talk, perhaps you are not yet ready to offer it.

  • Ideally, practice your talk under conditions similar to those in which you will give it. Consider factors such as acoustics, distance from the audience, lighting and room size. Lighting becomes especially important when computer equipment is involved. Be mentally prepared to adapt to the environmental conditions.

  • As a draft, present your talk to a few friends and have them critique it for you. If you're really gutsy and can tolerate the unforgiving lens ofthe camcorder, videotape your practice talk and afterwards critique it yourself.

  • View all of your visuals from your audience's perspective prior to your talk. Be sure that your audience can easily see all that you want them to see, especially materials that appears in the lower half of the screen.

  • When you give a talk professionally, always request presentation guidelines from any relevant organizations and conform to them explicitly. It would be embarrassing if you were expected to present units in metric, for example, and you did otherwise because you failed to follow the available guidelines.

  • As part of your preparation, choose an appropriately snappy and helpful title. You are expected to not come off as stodgy. Which talk would you rather attend: "Specific Geometrical Objects with Fractional Dimensions and Their Various Applications to Nature in General and the Universe at large" or "And on the Eighth Day, God Created Fractals"?

  • Become highly familiar with any technology you'll be using during your talk. Practice with the actual hardware or type of hardware you'll be working with. Making sure that compatibility or speed issues don't get in your way. I've seen students go to present at a conference with a Zip disk of their talk confidently in hand, only to find that the computer they were using didn't have a zip drive. To facilitate faster computer speed, load your presentation onto the desktop rather than run it from a disk or CD. If Web sites are needed as part of your presentation, check connection speeds and make sure all URLs are up and running.

Helping Your Audience Remember Key Points

Andy Warhol is known for the comment that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. If your 15 minutes of fame is during your oral presentation, you want to be sure not to blow your allotment of time. I'm amazed at how frequently I've sat through a talk and come away with only a vague sense of what it was about. There are many reasons for this-some speakers view their talk as simply a format for reading a paper, while others fill the air with many words but little substance. The most common reason, however, is the simplest one: The speaker didn't even know what the talk was about.

If you don't clearly spell out your premise, highlight your key points, and make it easy for your audience to remember the thrust of your presentation, you can't expect your listeners to come away with a clear understanding.

The subsequent pointers will help you develop a talk that your audience will remember.

  • Use a formal introduction at the beginning of your talk and a summary afterwards to highlight your major points. Make sure your audience can remember your key points by keeping them simple and straightforward-even enumerated.

  • Give your talk "parts"-usually no more than three major parts for practical purposes-and let the audience know when you're transitioning from one part to the next. This will help your audience remain interested and focused.

  • Give the talk's objective-and even a hint of the conclusion-right up front. Articulate the objective on its own slide so we can't miss it. Revisit the objective at the end to underscore how it was realized

Mastering the Basics of Slide Design

PowerPoint helps users to think of each projected page as a "slide" in a slideshow. But just as someone else's home movies can be thoroughly uninteresting if they're grainy, poor in quality or irrelevant, PowerPoint slides that are too flashy, cluttered, meaningless or poorly designed can quickly turn a darkened room full of smart people into a mere gathering of snoozers.

PowerPoint will help you design your slides, but don't assume that a standard PowerPoint template will always match your needs. Take charge of slide design by considering first the most efficient way to transmit the necessary information.

  • Keep slides as simple and uncluttered as possible. If the information must be complex, prioritize it for your audience as you present it (e.g., if presenting a ten-column table, direct your audience to the most significant columns).

  • Apply the "rule of eights": include no more than eight words per line and eight lines per slide.

  • Design slides so that their longest dimension is horizontal rather than vertical. Use both uppercase and lowercase letters and orient pictures left to right. Avoid the overuse of animations and transitions, especially audio-based transitions, which can be distracting and downright silly. by keeping it consistent and subtle.

  • When possible, replace words with images. Use images in particular when presenting data, demonstrating trends, simplifying complex issues and visualizing abstractions.

  • Spelling does count, and you can't rely on PowerPoint to be an effective proof reader. Be sure your slides are free of grammatical and spelling errors. As Will Rogers quipped, "Nothing you can't spell will ever work."

Presenting Your Slides Effectively

Even the best-designed slides can be ineffective in the hands of a bungler. The author Douglas Adams once commented that the problem with "foolproof designs" is that they "underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." I have been to talks where literally one-fourth of the presentation took place on the speaker's chest because he kept standing in the way of the projector. Basic presentation skills still matter, and the master presenter wins over the crowd by taking charge of the entire room.

  • Though PowerPoint is usually the presentation method of choice these days, don't forget the value of a good old-fashioned easel or chalkboard. Not only do they offer variety, they are especially good for writing down basic information that you want your audience to muse over or write down. Easels or chalkboards are also appropriate for presenting a pictures, flow charts, or schematics.

  • Take care not to stand in the way of your own slides-many speakers do this without even realizing it. Especially when using an overhead projector, point to the projected image of your slide (ideally, use a stick pointer or laser pointer) rather than the original source. This helps you avoid covering up more of the image than you intended. It also keeps the audience's focus on the projected image rather than your accidental hand shadow puppet.

  • Offer only one major point per illustration. If you need to focus on more than one point, re-present the illustration in another form on a separate slide with the different point emphasized.

  • Ideally, use the mouse pointer, stick pointer or laser pointer to draw the audience's attention to a particular item on the screen. One simple circle drawn briefly around the selected information is enough to draw attention. Beware of slapping a stick pointer loudly against a screen, or leaving a laser pointer on for so long that its bright dot shakes all over the screen as a blazing red reminder of your nervousness.

  • When you are not using a slide, keep it out of sight or out of your audience's line of attention. Turn off the projector or create a dark screen when no visuals are relevant. Invite your audience to turn its attention away from one thing to another.

  • When working with computer projection, do not trust that hardware will always perform as you anticipate. Sometimes equipment fails midstream or what worked fine for one speaker in a group doesn't work for the next. Be certain that an overhead projector is available beforehand as a fallback, and take backup transparencies of your slides.

Maintaining the Look and Sound of a Professional Speaker

As Christopher Lasch once noted, "Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success." Good speakers attend to their wardrobe, dressing as well as their "highest ranking" audience member is likely to dress.

Part of looking and sounding like a professional speaker is how you handle your body language and your voice. You must exude confidence if you want to be taken seriously. Remember that a high percentage of your audience's perception is not about what you say but about how you look when you say it.

  • Maintain eye contact with at least a few people-especially those who are being the most responsive--in various parts of the room. Conversely, if you're especially nervous about one or two audience members or you note some audience members looking sour or uninterested, avoid eye contact with them.

  • Refer to time as an organizational tool: "For the next two minutes, I will summarize the city's housing problem, then I will move on to . . . " This keeps both you and your audience anchored.

  • Use the "point, turn, talk" technique. Pause when you have to turn or point to something and then turn back towards the audience before you begin to speak. This gives emphasis to the material and keeps you connected with audience members. Strictly avoid talking sideways or backwards at your audience.

  • Use physical gestures sparingly and with intention. For instance, raise three fingers and say "thirdly" as you make your third point; pull your hands toward your chest slightly as you advocate the acceptance of an idea. Beware, though, of overusing your body, especially to the point of distraction. Some speakers habitually flip their hair, fiddle with their keys, or talk with their hands. I've heard some people recommend that speakers keep one hand in a pocket to avoid overusing physical gestures.

  • Minimize the amount of walking necessary during your talk, but do stand rather than sit because it commands more authority. As you speak, keep your feet firmly rooted and avoid continual shifting your weight. Intentionally leaning slightly on one leg can keep you comfortable and relaxed.

  • Take care to pronounce all words correctly, especially those words that are key to the discipline. Check pronunciation of ambiguous words beforehand to be certain. It would be embarrassing to mispronounce "Euclidian" or "Mbius strip" in front of a group of people that you want to impress. I once mispronounced the word "banal" during a speech and one of the audience members actually interrupted to correct me. Most of that speech was-as you might guess-banal.

  • Dead air is much better than air filled with repeated "ums," "likes," and "you knows." Get to know your personal dead air fillers and eliminate them. Out of utter boredom during a rotten speech a few years ago, I counted the number of times the speaker (a professor) used the word "basically" as an empty transition--44 times in just five minutes. Don't be afraid to pause occasionally to give your listeners time to digest your information and give yourself a moment for reorientation. To quote Martin Fraquhar, "Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."

  • If you know that you have a mannerism that you can't easily avoid-such as stuttering or a heavy accent-and it distracts you from making a good speech, consider pointing it out to the audience right away and moving on. I've been to several talks where the speaker opened by saying "Please accept the fact, as I have, that I'm a stutterer, and I'm likely to stutter a bit throughout my speech." One such speaker even injected humor by noting that James Earl Jones, one of his heroes, was also once a stutterer, so he felt in good company. As you might guess, the following speeches were confidently and effectively delivered, and when the mannerism arose it was easy to overlook.

  • Avoid cliches, slang and colloquialisms, but don't be so formal that you're afraid to speak in contractions or straightforward, simple terms. Use visual language, concrete nouns, and active single-word verbs. When using specialized or broad terms that might be new or controversial to some audience members, be sure to define them clearly, and be prepared to defend your definition.

  • Be animated and enthusiastic, but carefully so-many notches above the "just-the facts" Joe Friday, but many notches below the over-the-top Martin Lawrence.

Using the Web to Improve Your Presentation Skills

Public speaking is often cited by people as their number one fear (with death, ironically, as number two). Clearly, no one overcomes such fear overnight, and no one set of tips can transmogrify you into a polished speaker. In addition to applying the "practice makes perfect" principle as you work on your speaking skills, be willing to do some formal study.

Many Web sites are available to help you get up on your feet, so to speak. These sites offer advice on everything from integrating humor and quotations to specialized strategies for using PowerPoint and downloadable sample presentations. As you advance your study and skills, here are a few recommended sites:

Joe Schall is the Giles Writer-in-Residence for Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and a free-lance writer.


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