Imagine that recent presentations from you or your team have fallen flat. You were not able to get your point across. Your audience was bored and disengaged. How would you improve?
You might believe that your PowerPoint slides are the root cause. In this case, your solution might involve buying expensive templates, adopting a design tool like Canva, or switching to Prezi (“Look at those fancy animations! The audience would love it!”)
Alternatively, you might blame your delivery for your flat presentations. In this case, you might look for tricks to appear more confident (“Fake it until you make it!”) or do more pep talks before a mirror.
What if the problem runs deeper than your slides or delivery, yet the solution is more straightforward?
Let’s think about your latest presentation that did not go well and answer a few simple questions:
- What was the objective of your presentation?
- What was the one thing you wanted your audience to remember from your presentation?
- What were your arguments for achieving your objective?
If you are puzzled by these questions, then the root cause of your tribulation is not your PowerPoint or your voice. It is the lack of consideration for what to say in a presentation.
In this blog post, I will share some practical techniques to help you find and refine the message of your future presentations. I’ve learned these techniques from multiple sources and have used them on and off for many years.
If you want more details and references, I recommend Sell your Research by Alexia Youknovsky and James Bowers. A colleague passed me this book recently, and I was impressed by how the authors organise diverse lessons into a coherent framework to prepare preparations.
What’s the point?
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. — Winston Churchill, “We shall fight on the beaches”, June 4, 1940
There was no doubt about the point in Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on June 4, 1940. As the man once said, don’t try to be subtle or clever if you have an important point to make. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again.
_To hit the point, you need to have it first.
_Does your presentation has one?
If it doesn’t, then, in my humble opinion, finding one is your single best investment to improve your next presentation. You can find your point by answering the four following questions:
Question 1 — Objective: What do YOU want to get out of this talk? Perhaps you want your audience to think about something you are deeply passionate about. Maybe you want your audience to fund your research or enterprise. Or perhaps you want to convince your audience to come and collaborate with you. Knowing your goal is the first step toward effective communication.
Question 2 — Audience’s Expectations: Who is your audience, and what do they expect to get from your presentation? You could use the following formula to identify your audience expectations: “As a (role), what I am expecting from this talk is …” Answering this question puts you in your Audience’s shoes and helps you tailor your message. For example, suppose you try to convince human-centric researchers to collaborate with you. In that case, it is pointless to present them your cryptography research.
Question 3 — Arguments: what arguments are you offering to support your objectives? For example, if you aim to convince the audience to collaborate with you, what kind of arguments and evidence can you provide to persuade them to come and work with you?
Question 4 — Key Message (The point): In one sentence, can you explain the one thing you want your audience to remember from your talk? That one thing is your point. Your key message is usually the combination of the strongest arguments best adapted to your current audience.
These four questions apply to any form of communication, not just presentation. Even this blog post began its life as the answers to those questions (original handwritten notes below).
Answers to the four questions for this article
I have transcribed the key points below to save your eyes from straining.
- Objective: Introduce you, my readers, to a technique to improve your science communication.
- Audience: As a knowledge worker, I expect concrete and concise instructions to do better presentations from this blog post.
- Argument 1: Start with a key message
- Argument 2: Plan your message delivery with a mind map
- Argument 3: Open strong with a hook
- Key message: If you want to improve your presentation, focus on your message.
Have a plan
Plan are useless, but planning is indispensable — Anonymous
By taking time to contemplate and answer the four questions, you have already created a better foundation than ever for your next presentation. The next step is to plan how you will deliver your message.
No, put down your PowerPoint. Our work in the realm of thinking is not done yet.
By planning, I mean organising the components of your message to maximise the coherency and impact of your delivery. You can use any medium and technique to plan. However, I agree with the recommendation of the Sell your Research authors: use a mind map. The steps are as follows:
- Put your key message in the meter.
- Expand your mind map in a clockwise direction.
- You don’t need to expand your mind map linearly.
The key benefit of planning is that you can tweak and refine your plan before committing to making your slides. The figures below present two alternative plans to deliver the same message from Sell your Research.
By changing the plan, the presenter can improve the impact by putting the key message (improve profit) upfront, preventing the Audience from getting bored before reaching the critical point.
Of course, you can use the mind map technique for anything beyond presentation. For instance, this blog post was crafted in a mind map.
The mind map underlying this article
In my experience, the most useful mind maps are the ones written by hand on a small piece of paper. Because everything is on one page, you can see your entire plan without scrolling or flipping pages. Pen-and-paper also helps you to slow down and think.
Nail your opening
A good presentation opening is simple. It serves two purposes: hooking your audience and hammering them with your key message.
Unfortunately, in my experience advising PhD students, most introductions are too long and reliant on ineffective hooks. The remedy for a long introduction is a concise understanding of your message. Effective hooks require a bit more discussion.
If you have ever looked at any training material for presentation, then you have already known the techniques to attract your audience, commonly known as the hook. The following are some of the most common kinds of hooks:
- Current affairs, historical facts, or events
The key point when using the hooks is that they are not there to surprise or amuse your audience. Hooks are there to help you deliver your key message with the most impact.
You can use any hook as long as you are comfortable with it. For example, don’t try to make a joke if you’re not comfortable with joking.
It would help to consider your audience when choosing a hook. For instance, showing the number of recent cyber attacks to cyber security experts is not helpful because they already know that there are many cyber attacks. That’s why they are cyber security experts.
I would also advise against being exploitative when it comes to your hook. For example, it can be insensitive to present costly or fatally cyber attacks with enthusiasm in your voice just because those attacks make your research relevant. Leveraging pandemics such as COVID19 to further your agenda even though your research has nothing to do with the pandemics is also quite tasteless, in my opinion.
The world of modern knowledge workers is surprisingly entrepreneurial. A good communication skill is beneficial, if not essential. Even if your goal is more altruistic, you still need to convince people to support you and collaborate to do big things for the planet.
Investing your time in knowing what you want to say and how you want to say it is one of the most techniques I know to improve your presentation.
You can find out what you want to say by answering for questions:
- Objective: What do you want to get out of the talk?
- Audience: As a …, what am I expect from this talk is …
- What are your arguments to support your objective?
- What is the one thing you want the audience to remember from your talk?
Mind maps are an excellent way to plan your delivery. It is helpful to try different plans to identify the most impactful ones for your message.
Using a good hook is an effective way to deliver your message. The most important thing to remember is that the hook is there to help you deliver your message, not to amuse or surprise your Audience.
What are your tips and tricks to present better? Let me know in the comments. See you next time.