Presentation Rules

It was supposed to be an eight-page paper, of course, I wrote nine-and-a-half and had to cut. The week after the paper was due, we had to deliver 5-minute presentations based on our topics. My topic was “Web-based Word Processing for Public Libraries.” After the presentation I entered a to-do list item into my phone: Reflect on Presentation. In thinking about my presentation, I came up with 6 rules for the future. These are not the rules for presentations – they are a subset of reflections on this presentation in the form of rules. Here they are:

1) Never spend more time preparing slides than words. (or simply: Words > Slides)

Sure, everyone is concerned with Powerpoint terrors, but how about, umm, uhh, bad speaking? For this presentation, I spent a lot of time finding graphics and designing the GoogleDocs presentation(I don’t have Powerpoint, and since I was talking about web-based apps, I figured I’d keep OpenOffice.org in the cabinet). The problem with spending so much time preparing slides is it bites into the time spent preparing the actual speech. If, when we present, we can just say “there you go” and point at pretty slides, this would be okay, but presenters usually have to talk. Therefore it makes sense to keep slides as a supplement. This refers to time spent, as well as graphical ingenuity. To put it another way: a brilliant slide show with a so-so speech will bore people, while a well-developed speech with a mediocre slide show keeps peeps perky.

2) Prepare a speech for the allocated time! (If 5, then 5)

Yes, I had loads of information I really wanted to share. Interesting information, useful information, vital information! Present a bulging eight-page paper in five minutes? Get outta here! But that was the task. Did I use my five minutes wisely? Well, the audience couldn’t quite hear me because I spoke so fast my voice broke the sound barrier. Seriously, I would have made auctioneers cry(had they been able to hear me). The lesson? Prepare the presentation correctly, even if it feels like you’re dumbing it down. It’s better to assume that the audience knows nothing than to alienate half of them with technical terms. Maintaining poise means never rushing – everyone knows there’s only five minutes and no one expects the depth of an hour-long talk. Mention only VERY IMPORTANT specifics. Consider that slides are a much better medium for statistics(numbers in general) than the voice. Another way to adjust to time constraints is to poll the audience – this way you can gauge their knowledge and know where to start. Aside from all of that, the best way to work with time constraints is to time the presentation at home. This is the only way to truly know what you can cover in what amount of time. Practice, time and edit.

3) Prepare readable and pertinent notes.

For this presentation, as well as my last few speeches in Toastmasters, I’ve been showing up with a typewritten version of the whole speech, usually double-spaced. This is not correct. Having the speech there makes it too tempting to read the whole thing, and when in the throes of presenting it is too easy to lose one’s place and have to search the sheet, all the while, the audience experiences an awkward pause. Instead, it is best to condense the speech into clear(large print, double spaced) and useful (only what will be used in the presentation) notes. With the time not spent preparing slides, it would be wise to practice the main points of the talk using the notes. This leaves room for a more conversational approach, and a less cluttered mind.

4) Write out (and memorize) introductions and, especially, conclusions.

Even if you don’t write out the whole speech, it is necessary to write out the introduction and conclusion. Why? This is the first(when you’re most nervous) and last(when you’re hustlin’ to stay within time) chance to make an impression on the audience. These are the points where it’s best to have the most control of the text. Furthermore, this is the best time to wax poetic about the topic – something that is hard to do on-the-spot for most people. It’s very easy to get tongue-tied before actually hitting the nitty-gritty of a subject because there isn’t a structure to rely on. And for conclusions, forgetting to mention something is a notorious bugaboo for me, in this too having a pre-written and memorized conclusion is helpful. In any case, why not make sure you (at least) start and end on positive notes.

5) Punch the point(s).

When talking fast, giving lots of information, and answering questions it is the politicians that can teach us a lesson. Notice how the term “talking points” has been tossed around a lot this political season. Indeed, good interviewers make it seem like they’re answering the questions when instead they are punching their points. Bad speakers are known for making it obvious that they are not listening to the questioner at all. In presenting, we must remember to give our information, but also to come back to the major points several times – even in a five-minute period. This ingrains the purpose of the speech into the minds of the audience, so even if they don’t remember the details(and most of the time they won’t), they will remember your main points and, if need be, be able to figure out the details through association. Punch the point! Punch the point! Punch the point! (like a boxer hitting a target)

6) Always put name and contact info on slides.

It was only after my presentation that I realized I didn’t say my name or give any way to contact me to the audience. I know this point is artificial under the circumstances – it was a class, and everyone would see me again – but it remains something to note. People need to have a way to reach the presenter, either to ask questions or offer comments that, for whatever reason, were not brought up during the course of the presentation or question period. Also, for those aspiring to be professional speakers, maybe an audience member would like to hire you to speak elsewhere. They can’t do that unless they know who you are and how to contact you.

If anyone reading this has any more rules for presentations, feel free to post in comments.

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