The Purpose of a Presentation

Unlike a meeting where all in attendance are expected to contribute and participate, a presentation involves a speaker who is trying to communicate with an audience. There are two common reasons why a person might want to address an audience:

  1. To inform or educate them. This is the purpose of business presentations, training classes, technical reports, and so on. The speaker discusses, explains, describes events or ideas or teaches the audience how to do something. This type of presentation often involves audio-visual aids such as charts, graphs, recordings, video presentations or computer presentations. Success is defined by an audience leaving with more knowledge than they had when they arrived.
  2. To convince or persuade them. The audience may have an understanding of a particular topic but lack the desire to change. The speaker’s goal is to get the audience to take a certain type of action. In these presentations the speaker may seek to generate an emotional response rather than communicating factual data. Success is accomplished when the action is taken.

An old saw on speaking states that there are three steps involved in a presentation, 1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them, 3) tell them what you told them. The effective speaker understands that he or she must provide the audience with a compelling reason for attending the presentation. Thus, the focus of preparation should be the audience, not the speaker. The beginning of the presentation should summarize the content of the presentation and explain why the audience should be interested. The body of the presentation should present the information in a way that is clear, entertaining, and concise. The ending should review the major points of the presentation and solicit the desired audience response (e.g., ask the audience to provide resources for a project).

Preparing the Presentation

Many speakers find it difficult to organize their presentations. Here are a few guidelines that the author has found helpful.

  1. Prepare a list of every topic you want to cover. Don’t be selective or critical at this point, write down everything that comes to mind. When you have finished, take some time off, then do it again.
  2. Cull the list to those select few ideas that are most important. You should try to keep the list of major ideas down to three or less. Where possible, group the remaining points as subtopics under the key ideas. Eliminate the rest.
  3. Number your points. The numbers help the listener understand and remember the points. Numbers set the point apart and help with retention. For example, “there are three reasons why we should proceed: first, lower cost; second, higher quality; and third, improved customer satisfaction.” However, keep the number of items small; a speaker who announces “I have fifteen items to discuss” will frighten the audience.
  4. Organize the presentation’s ideas. Some speech experts recommend the “buildup” approach: good ideas first, better ideas next, best points last.
  5. Analyze each major point. Tell the audience why the point is important to them. Make the presentation relevant and entertaining.

Visual Aids

A visual aid in a speech is a pictorial used by a speaker to convey an idea. Well designed visual aids add power to a presentation by showing the idea more clearly and easily than words alone. Whereas only 10% of presented material is retained from a verbal presentation after 3 days, 65% is retained when the verbal presentation is accompanied by a visual aid. ASQ reports that poor quality visuals generate more negative comment from conference attendees than any other item. The visual aid must be easy for everyone to see. Small type which cannot be read from the back row of the room defeats the purpose of the visual aid. There should be good contrast between the text and the background color. Visuals should have text that is large enough to see easily from the worst seat in the house. The speaker must also reevaluate the visuals when the room size changes. A presentation that is perfectly acceptable to a group of 30 may be completely inadequate for a group of 300.

Color plays an important role in the design of effective visuals, if used properly. However, the improper use of color can make visuals ugly. Most computer software for preparing presentations comes with preset color schemes. Unless you have some skill and training in designing visuals, it is recommended that you use one of the schemes or contact a graphic artist.

Here are a few rules recommended by ASQ for effective visual aids:

  • Never read the slide!
  • Each visual should address only one idea.
  • Only the most important points should be the subject of a visual.
  • The visual should be in landscape format.
  • The maximum viewing distance should be less than 8 times the height of the projected image.
  • The original artwork should be readable from a distance 8 times the height of the original; e.g., a 8” x 10” visual should be readable from 64” away.
  • Use no more than 5 lines on a single visual with 7 or fewer words per line. Ideally, 20 words maximum per visual.
  • Bar charts should have no more than 5 vertical columns.
  • Tables should have no more than 4-6 columns.
  • Graphs should have only 2-3 curves.
  • Lines on charts or in tables should be heavy.
  • Avoid sub-bullet points whenever possible. Use “build slides” instead.
  • Show each slide for 1.5 minutes maximum, e.g., 10 slides for a 15 minute presentation.
  • Put a black slide on the screen when you want to divert attention back to yourself. (Hint: Pressing the “B” key while showing a Power Point slide will toggle between the slide and a black screen.)
  • Spacing between words should be approximately the width of the letter “n.”
  • Spacing between lines should be 75% of the height of the letters, or double-spaced.
  • Use sans-serif fonts (e.g., H) instead of serif-fonts (e.g., H).
  • Use both upper case and lower case letters.
  • Avoid italics. Use bold lettering for emphasis.
  • Maintain consistency in type size and fonts. The minimum letter height should be at least 1/25 the height of artwork (approximately 24 point type). Labels on graphics should be at least 1/50 the size of the artwork.
  • Never use hand-written or typed slides.
  • Maintain at least a 1” margin on all sides.
  • Recommended background colors (white lettering): deep blue, deep green, deep maroon or black. Use yellow lettering for highlighting text.

Position and Movement

When using visual aids it is sometimes necessary to darken the room. However, the speaker should never be in the dark. The visual presentation supports the speaker, it should not be allowed to replace him. The speaker must always be the most important object in the room. If the lights must be lowered, arrange to have a small light on yourself, such as a podium light.

When using visual aids a right-handed speaker usually stands to the left of the visual and directs the attention of the audience to the material. If using a pointer the speaker may stand to either side. Never stand in front of the material you are presenting to the audience. Direct the eye of the viewer to the particular portion of the visual that you are emphasizing, don’t just wave at the visual in a random manner. Layout the visual so that the viewer’s eye moves in a natural flow from topic to topic.

Speak to the audience, not to the screen. Always face the audience. A microphone may make your speech audible when you face away from the audience, but it is still bad form to turn your back on the audience.

Charts, Graphs and Data Presentation

Line and bar graphs are an effective way to convey numerical data at a glance. People understand things they see more quickly than things they hear. The eye is more effective in gathering and storing information than the ear. Auditory stimuli is presented and processed sequentially, one word at a time. Visual information is presented simultaneously. This is part of the reason why visuals are so effective at displaying patterns.

Business and industry are number-driven entities. Much of the information presented in meetings is numerical. Many, perhaps most decisions rely on numbers. The effective use of graphs makes numbers easier to assimilate and understand. In most cases, one of three types of graph can be used: line graph, bar graph, and scatter plot. There are endless refinements on these basic three, e.g., multiple lines, grouped or stacked bars, stratified scatter plots. Line graphs are most often used to display time-series data (care must be taken to standardize time-series data, e.g., using constant dollars to correct for inflation). Bar charts are used most often to compare different items or classifications to one another. Scatter plots examine the association between two variables.

Regardless of the type of graph being used, it is important that the graphic have integrity, i.e., it must accurately portray the data. In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Tufte lists six principles that enhance graphical integrity:

  1. The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.
  2. Clear, detailed and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.
  3. Show data variation, not design variation.
  4. In time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units are nearly always better than nominal money units.
  5. The number of information carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data.
  6. Graphics must not quote data out of context.

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