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September 2019
by Gerard Atkinson

There is less than two weeks to go until the International Evaluation Conference #aes19SYD, taking place on 15 – 19 September here in Sydney. For those presenting at the conference, it’s time to polish off your presentation skills and get your materials ready. In the theme of “unboxing evaluation”, we’ve unboxed the art of developing effective and engaging presentations and put together an easy guide you can use not just in conferences but in any presentation.

Here are our top tips:

Prepare your thinking.

Preparing for a presentation is entirely different to rehearsal and takes place before you even start making your slides. Effective preparation is about identifying what you want to talk about, doing your research, and building a framework for delivering your presentation. Rehearsal, though important, comes much later.

Create an objective statement.

An objective statement is a single sentence that frames your rationale and scope. A good objective statement clearly articulates the given time period, what the presentation will achieve, and what you want your audience to do as a result. For example, when I teach my one-hour presentations seminar, my objective statement is: “Over the next 50 minutes, I want to cover the key elements of creating and delivering a compelling presentation to inspire you to go make your own.” It’s not setting out to change the world, but it sets out the scope of what to create.

Do your research.

This goes beyond just topic research (which is crucial, of course), and includes understanding such things as:

  • the level of knowledge of the audience
  • the number of people
  • the level of seniority
  • the venue size and layout
  • available technology
  • the time of day.

Develop a presentation framework.

Start building the structure of your presentation as a list or (my favourite) a storyboard. There are many different frameworks and formats out there, and you’ll see quite a few at AES 2019, including the rapid-fire Ignite presentations. My personal favourite framework adapts traditional storytelling techniques by following a format of “Open-Body-Close”. It’s a simple framework but can be adapted to presentations of nearly all formats and lengths. Here’s how it works:

  • The opening section is designed to engage an audience and preview the talk.
  • The body section, which can be repeated for each key point of your presentation, states the point, supports it, then links it logically with the next key point.
  • The closing section reinforces engagement, reviews the topics covered, and gives a call to action to the audience.

By using this framework you can tell many different kinds of stories, for example chronologically or starting broadly and delving deeper into a topic as you go along. You can adapt it to fit the narrative you want to tell.

Kill the deck (if you can).

This is always a controversial tip, but there’s a good reason for it. Slides distract the audience. If you can remove a slide from a presentation, do it. If you need to use slides, remember that they should always be used to underline the point you are trying to make. Photos and (well-designed) charts do this best, followed by diagrams. If you need to use bullet points or text, keep it short and avoid reading them out verbatim.

Use speaker notes.

Scripts can be useful in laying out in exact terms what you want to say in a presentation, but they make it hard to be engaging. Actors train for years to be able to take a script and make it look natural. Instead use speaker notes, which are a shorthand version of a script that outline in abbreviated form the content of each key point. They act as prompts for what you want to say, but allow you to deliver a more natural style of speaking.

Develop useful handouts.

Your slides will not convey the full content of your talk on their own (see above). This means that they shouldn’t be used as handouts. Instead, a handout should be a practical resource that turns the key points of your talk into tools that the audience can use afterwards. Most importantly, distribute handouts after the talk to avoid having distractions during the presentation. 

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Rehearsal is about replicating your presentation environment as closely as possible. Find a room, set it up as you will on the day, and rehearse the talk as if it were the real thing. It’ll help you get a feel for your timing and flow, and boost your confidence. If you can get some sympathetic co-workers to sit in and give feedback, even better. Repeat this process. The more times you can run through the presentation ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be with the material.

Present with credibility.

Credibility is a combination of confidence, character, and charisma. Confidence comes from research and rehearsal. Character and charisma come from the way you deliver your presentation. Some quick ways to build credibility are to use open body language to engage with the audience, and to vary the way you use your voice (tone, volume, tempo). Both go a long way in engaging the audience and carrying them along with you throughout your presentation.

Handle Q&As at the end.

Question and answer sessions are seen by some people as the trickiest parts of a presentation because they can be hard to predict. Prior research can help you anticipate and prepare for some of the questions you might be asked. It’s best to keep questions until the end of the presentation, as this helps keeps things on track. Let the audience know at the start of the presentation so that they can note down their questions for later. To handle Q&As, here’s a five-step process:

  • Ask: Take a step forward while asking the audience if they have any questions.
  • Select: Select questioners by gesturing to them with an open palm (rather than pointing) or their name, if you know it.
  • Listen: Give questioners total concentration, eye contact, and actively listen to their question.
  • Repeat: Pause, then repeat or rephrase the question to the whole group to show you understand what they’re asking. This also helps when there’s no roving microphone.
  • Answer: Make eye contact with members of the audience while answering.

An alternative (and compatible) approach to managing Q&As effectively comes from Eve Tuck.

  • Ask a neutral person to facilitate the Q&A.
  • At the end of the presentation, invite the audience to talk to each other for a few minutes and share the questions they are thinking of asking.
  • Have the facilitator encourage the audience to consider whether those questions are useful to the broader discussion and best asked during the session, or in another context (e.g. the coffee break).

See Eve’s Twitter feed for the full list of suggestions for Q&As.

I hope these tips can help you prepare, construct and deliver your own presentations with confidence. Looking forward to seeing a lot of great presentations #aes19SYD.

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Gerard is a Manager at ARTD Consultants.