Top 10 tips for presentations

Dr Allan Gaw explains how to impress and engage your audience

 

GIVING a ‘talk’ is a key skill for most professionals. Whatever stage you’re at, being able to give a clear, effective and informative presentation is something that needs to be worked at. Few of us are naturals – even those we think of as born speakers have had to hone and develop their skills through a lot of practice. Here are the top 10 things you should consider.

1. Keep it simple

Some speakers think simplicity will betray them, leading an audience to conclude that their work itself is simple and therefore lightweight. In fact, simplicity is appreciated by audiences the world over. Clear, concise messages unadorned by the complexity that’s possible through modern technologies and delivered in a simple unassuming style will win the day.

2. Prepare well

Presentations should not be boring, perfunctory or delivered as an afterthought. Audiences shouldn’t have to struggle to understand what is being said or strain to see what is being shown. Presenters should do the necessary preparation to ensure the quality of their talk.

3. Be an expert

To give an effective presentation on any topic you must first have command of that topic. Occasionally, you may find yourself in charge of a lectern in front of an unfamiliar group with someone else’s slides and a very dry throat. In most instances, however, you will know your subject, but again, because your audience deserves your best, you should ensure your knowledge is up to scratch.

4. Begin well

Follow the advice of Mary Poppins – ‘Best begun is half done.’ At the start of any presentation, you have the chance to introduce yourself and your topic, engage positively with your audience and show the roadmap you plan to follow. Don’t squander these opportunities because of your nerves or by being ill-prepared.

5. Show your enthusiasm

If you’re not enthusiastic about your talk how can you expect anyone in the audience to be? Put a spring in your step and a smile on your face, and let the audience see that you think your subject is not just interesting, but fascinating. Any topic, even if it is superficially dry, can be moisturised by an enthusiastic approach.

6. Explain

The contents of your presentation can’t simply be factual. Your job is more complex and subtle than that – you also have to explain. This will involve mixing your factual discourse with pauses and asides to clarify and, if necessary, to elaborate. The form of your explanations will vary, but will often consist of alternative rephrasing of new ideas. “In other words…” you may begin, thus signposting that an explanation is coming.

7. Make it concrete

Many of the things in your presentation will be new and abstract and may not be obvious to anyone coming to the subject for the first time. In order to bring the theoretical and the abstract back to reality, use concrete examples, like specific case studies, to illustrate your points.

8. Add emphasis

There will always be key points you’ll need to convey. You’re the expert and know what’s most important in your subject, but your audience may not. When preparing your presentation, be conscious of the take-home messages – indeed they should be the first on your plan. But remember, whatever the length of your talk you’ll be able to cover less ground than you might think. In a 10-minute talk have one to two key points, in a 30 minute talk three to four, and in a 50 minute presentation around five. You’ll be tempted to put in more, but your presentation will be clearer, less cluttered and much more effective if you don’t.

9. Make it entertaining

Education without an element of entertainment is a dry exercise. You don’t have to don a clown suit or hone a stand-up comedy routine, but you should think up ways to make your presentations enjoyable. It might be humour, but not everyone can tell a joke and of course some topics are far from funny. It might be engaging stories and anecdotes that tease an audience to the edges of their seats. It might even be carefully chosen visuals that delight, soften or rouse an audience. However, if, as a presenter, you adopt these strategies purely for dramatic effect, they may fall flat. Of course, if you choose them carefully and use them only to carry along your narrative or to emphasise points and exemplify your arguments, they can work well.

10. Think about the audience

Ask yourself: “Who are the audience? What do they already know and understand? What do they need?” So many clearly fail to do this and the consequences are poorly constructed, inappropriately complex or over-simplified, and sometimes even patronising presentations. Imagine what it’s like to be one of your audience sitting in the back row and this will help you design and deliver a more effective presentation.

Dr Allan Gaw is a writer and educator in Glasgow